Note to Readers: Announcing New Features
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First of all, apologies for being absent. As you’ll see, I’ve been busy, designing some new things.
When I first switched over to Substack, I had a vague thought of expanding. Ideas included hiring younger reporters to contribute investigative features, adding a video or multimedia component, and finally, using Substack to create a magazine-like structure in which the longer articles would be buttressed by weekly or monthly columns, cartoons, Q&A sections, and other (hopefully) funny or interesting items.
Beginning this week, I’ll be introducing most of these elements through a new newsletter called TK Weekly (which will probably be more like a bi-weekly, but call that part of the joke). Subscribers will receive this regular editor’s note in addition to the essays and reported pieces already being published on this site.
I’m not at the stage of hiring full-time reporters yet, but I’ve begun bringing in outside help on a few projects here and there, with the aim of eventually making this a space for writers, researchers, cartoonists, etc., to contribute material that might not have a home in mainstream outlets.
TK is typesetting and journalistic slang for “to come.” Yes, I know the last word is spelled with a “c.” There are several weird legends, all of which I hope are true, as to why “TK” came into use, the most plausible being that it’s a rare letter combo no one would mistake for intentional text. TK is what reporters insert when we expect to have something cool or necessary in the text, or have told editors to expect it, but don’t have the goods yet. For instance: “Exclusive quote from Senator TK” or “Goldman confession TK.”
At Rolling Stone, editors called memorably written passages filled with trenchant observations “wisdoms.” As a result, liner notes to a draft sent back to me might read something like, “You need a wisdom here,” or “Wisdom TK.”
When I started to think about a more magazine-like format on Substack, in both my mind and in notes I started to refer to “TK Magazine” or “News TK” or “TK by Matt Taibbi.” Meaning, I planned to come up with a cool name like Private Eye or Black Mask or Matt Taibbi’s Daily Atrocity, or whatever. Instead, over time I just got used to TK, finding it both amusing and annoying. As it happens, these are two of the more important qualities in a logo.
As TK is a little like a child who was never wanted, I reserve the right (one all publishers claim) to abuse and humiliate my logo as needed for marketing purposes. That might mean sticking Santa hats on it at Christmas, surrounding it with black cats, fog, and pumpkins at Halloween, wedging a hideous sombrero on it on Cinco de Mayo, etc. A turkey with a T and a K in place of drumsticks is already being designed for the coming weeks.
As for the newsletter contents, here’s a list, with links to the first entries:
“Pandemic Villains.” A column highlighting the worst examples of companies and/or politicians taking advantage of the Covid-19 disaster to enrich themselves at the expense of others. The first installment looks at Allianz, the German financial giant that earlier this year reprised the role played by AIG in 2008, reportedly decimating the retirement funds of teachers, subway workers, Teamsters, bricklayers, health professionals, and a slew of other ordinary Americans through a complex longshot bet that would embarrass the worst horse-racing addict. See here for “Pandemic Villains: Allianz Global Investors.”
“Workplace Lingo.” Every field has its own language. The key to understanding how any organization works is usually to ignore what bosses say about how their offices or workplaces operate, and learn the on-site jargon. With military accounting, for instance, one could teach a college course just on the meaning of terms like “plug” or “unsupported adjustment” — it took me months to fight through the first layer of that language when I tried a few years back. At Substack, long-term plans involve dives into the language of private equity trades and congressional appropriations, as well as column-length glimpses into the jargon used by mental health workers, commercial pilots, land surveyors, and other workers. The first installment, “Workplace Lingo: One-Three-Five,” fits the latter category and takes a look at life inside the Social Security Administration. This is an idea that I’m going to develop more when the pandemic subsides and I’m able to spend more time physically visiting workplaces.
“Meet the Censored.” The campaign to clamp down on speech has been cleverly marketed. The headline “victims” of big-tech content moderation have mostly been figures unsympathetic to upper-class readers, like Alex Jones, the followers of QAnon, the writers of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop, and Donald Trump himself. As a result, mainstream audiences mostly don’t care about even dramatic developments in this direction, which in fact impact people across the political spectrum. The most vulnerable are from the world of independent/alternative media, where the financial implications of such actions can be devastating. Examples range from the World Socialist Web Site to Reverb Press to Cop Watch. This site will regularly interview people in that latter category, with the first entry, “Meet The Censored: Ford Fischer” featuring a well-known shooter of protest footage, whose career raises the question: how can an AI-driven speech-regulation machine tell the difference between someone who’s covering extremist movements, and someone promoting them?
“Vox Pop.” The “man on the street” interview is a journalistic cliché with a long tradition. Typically, when a small town or an obscure city neighborhood makes national news, reporters will rush there, find the nearest warm body, coax out a hot take involving the Big National Angle they care about, then disappear without asking anything else.
We’ll ask people temporarily stuck in the geographical middle of national news phenomena what they do for fun, what’s the best way to cook a grouper, what they think of the DH rule, etc. — anything at all, before we get to the national issue at hand. In other words, we’ll try to at least sit through dinner before attempting to tear the interviewee’s clothes off. The first entry, “Vox Pop: Starr County,” interviews Oscar Gonzalez, from the county with the highest percentage of Latino voters in the country. Starr made news on Election Night thanks to some surprising results compared to 2016.
Some more news items on the way:
“The Mashup” will involve collaborations with various videographers. The first installment, a mini-doc produced as a companion to a longer written piece, should be out in the next week or so.
“S—t Public Defenders See” will rely on friends in the most overworked, underappreciated wing of the legal profession to tell us stories about commonplace lunacies of the criminal justice system. PDs, amusingly, chose the title of this rubric. Examples will include things like getting acquitted of a crime and still owing the state over tens of thousands in fees for pretrial monitoring and incarceration, paying for the DNA test used to convict you, etc.
“Fun with FOIA.” Out of respect to the taxpayer, I’ll try to confine FOIA searches to actually newsworthy matters, like, say, official correspondence between contract-awarding agencies and certain lobbyists. I can’t however promise my juvenile side won’t kick in occasionally and do something like ask the U.S. Navy to send all records of “collisions or encounters” with “whales, dolphins, or other cetaceans” (ok, I just did that). Incidentally, if any subscriber has done a FOIA search on anything at all, and wishes to share the results, I’m willing to publish anything in the public interest. I will also make requests on your behalf, if you’ve got a good query.
The last items on this week’s list fall generally under the category of what magazine people call “Front of the Book” material, i.e. the shortish pieces that fill the gap between the table of contents and the “feature well,” i.e. the main articles.
I grew up addicted to the records of comics like Richard Pryor and to humor/satire mags like Mad, National Lampoon, and especially Spy. They left me with a worldview I still have, i.e. that comedians and journalists are both vaguely in the truth-telling business, except comedians are better at it. When I went into the media myself, I saw the relationship was more profound than I’d guessed. A comic gets laughs by telling obvious truths that everyone is afraid to say out loud. Sadly, this includes people in the news business, who supposedly are paid to do that exact work, but mostly don’t.
If reporters had the guts to laugh at military propaganda, Bill Hicks couldn’t have collected paychecks doing bits about Iraq’s “Elite Republican Guard,” whom generals, anchormen, and news editors alike couldn’t stop hyping in the runup to the first Iraq War. We were repeatedly told America was taking on the vaunted “fourth largest army in the world,” against soldiers who, as Hicks put it, were “ten feet tall” and “shit bullets.”
Only, after a week of carpet bombing, the enemy being described on TV went from being, as Hicks put it, “the ‘Elite Republican Guard,’ to just the ‘Republican Guard,’ to ‘the Republicans made this shit up about there being guards out there.’”
The innovation of Spy, a creation of writers escaped from the tar-pits of weekly news magazine work, was that doing a good job gathering facts about something stupid or inane was better for the world, and for the collective psyche of readers, than doing a bad job writing about the “elite Republican guard” or whatever other absurd legends were being foisted upon the public.
So they put tons of effort into things like surveying the percentage of New Yorkers on the street who correctly knew the fastest way to Carnegie Hall (“Practice, practice, practice”). Or, they’d spend a month checking which consumer complaint was answered more quickly, the one to the Campbell’s Soup Company (soup “too gelatinous; couldn’t separate the little O’s”) or to Ralston Purina (“extreme flatulence after eating product; resulting embarrassment”). Getting serious people to answer unserious questions is a useful genre of journalism, by comparison. It can be satisfying for audiences used to being inundated with the opposite, i.e. unserious topics and transparent myths presented as serious news.
In that spirit, TK offers a few items.
“Know Your Biden” is a quiz — hopefully pretty hard — testing whether you can distinguish the memoirs of your new president from those of another world leader.
“TK Books” will sometimes be an earnest review of whatever I’m reading, but more often it’s going to be another reader-participation deal ripped off from the old Dictionary game, in which you have to guess if the passages presented are from a newly-released book, or whether I made it up. The first entry, “McConaughey or Not?” is a test to see if you can spot what’s a real passage from the Texan actor’s new book, Greenlights, and which passage is actually me killing time before the Patriots game.
“Comics Rate Journo-Humor” asks comedian Tim Dillon and Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman to give thumbs up or down on pun headlines, joke ledes and other press efforts at comedy.
We’ll also be dusting off Substack’s discussion tool for “TK Math,” a blunt ripoff of the old Celebrity Math series.
In “Ask the Experts,” a chemistry professor calculates how many cancers might be treated with a Trump-sized piece of Cesium-137.
I know a lot of you who subscribed did not sign up for pranks or charts or joke book reviews. So I won’t fill your email inboxes with this material. In the newsletter format, it’s voluntary — you can take it or leave it.
I’ll still be writing columns, commentary, and reported features, and you’ll get those by email. If and when we start including the bylined investigative work of other writers, which is coming soon, you’ll get that by mail as well.
The rest of it, however, from the more serious and reported (like the Public Defenders’ tales) to the silly (TK Math), I’ll just send as an annotated list. Each item will be linked and accessible to subscribers. The newsletter will also include extras that aren’t part of an editorial plan, but might be of interest, like for instance the text of a speech I gave to the Park Center for Independent Media, during its Izzy Awards ceremony. Just like a magazine, you can read it or not, it’s up to you.
Those of you who know my history know that I’ve always toggled back and forth between being an editor and a feature reporter. From the eXile to the Buffalo Beast to the ill-fated Racket, my preference is to write and edit different types of things, mostly serious but sometimes not. With non-traditional media at places like Substack becoming more popular, I want to use this space to experiment a little. If any of these features don’t work, I’m sure you’ll let me know, and we can tweak or yank them.
On the other hand, if you have an idea for a feature, or would like to contribute your own experience to something like the “Workplace Lingo” column, you can write to me or to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, thanks for your indulgence, and we’ll have more for you soon.