May 20, 2010

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Go bravely into the new world

I got into the journalism field at about the worst possible time.

The signs were there during my last year at Temple University’s graduate program in Journalism. I was taking a media management class with the program’s chair, Ed Trayes, and working on a project in which we kept fake stock portfolios with our investments made in media companies.

This was sort of like Fantasy Trading, predicated on the thinking that we would research the companies and learns something about the business of media. It was a sound theory.

But it was 2000, and the stock market was doing poorly. Media companies were being hammered. Layoffs and cutbacks were commonplace. Trayes remarked during one class that he couldn’t remember so grim a climate for media stocks. No one’s fantasy portfolios made money that year.

Ten years later, not much has changed. In 2000, the threat of online publications was little more than a distant, futuristic notion. Today, only the delusional cling to the notion that the whole business won’t be online within the next 10 years, with the exception being niche publications and community journals like this one, where a  less-than-daily pace still makes economic sense.

Under these circumstances, it’s always odd to take on and work with interns. Right now, I have three high school interns and one college intern. All are talented, bright kids with ambitions to write and/or report someday.

Ten years ago, it was a lot easier to be encouraging. Today it’s hard to encourage anyone to enter the field. Again I’m reminded of my time at Temple and the words of the late, great Inquirer reporter Ralph Vigoda who would tell my reporting class that he expected to find us washing windows under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge after graduation.

Wallowing in the despair of catastrophic change is no way to spend your week, though. There are opportunities to do journalism. As old ways to do it fade, new ways are developing. In a cover story in the current Atlantic, James Fallows documents the efforts of Google to redesign the news model, particularly how to fund good, professional journalism when display ads in print no longer pay the freight. 

The Huffington Post, which started as little more than a collection of celebrity blogs, now employs more than 70 journalists. There is hope.

To that end, my high school students have developed a web publication geared towards high school students written and maintained by high school students, with help from the Local of course. The site is a simple, blog-based site that will give area high school students an opportunity to write, shoot video and dabble in web development.

As I write this, my interns are finishing the last few details. The site,, will be ready later this week. Look for an official launch notice in next week’s Local. Several interns will spend the summer developing the site further so that it can become a hub for area high school kids to read work by their peers – from interviews to move reviews.

It’s hard to see where journalism will end up after this period of churn is over. But the exciting thing is that it allows us the opportunity to experiment and develop new online publications that might not have been possible the traditional way.

It’s been a rough decade for journalism, but perhaps we’re close to figuring out not only how to do it the new way, but to thrive doing it the new way.

Pete Mazzaccaro


Trying to get a novel published: Hooking an agent

With mixed feelings I report there is no shortage of aspiring writers in this country. I used to think I was a solitary soul dutifully plying an ancient and neglected craft. I was wrong. Hordes of people worldwide are bent on competing with me to impress the few literary agents who represent wannabe writers to the publishing world.

Being a scarce resource, the agent industry has adopted, what seems to outsiders like myself, to be a quite frosty, even nasty attitude toward anonymous newcomers. To those of us on the sidewalk with our noses pressed to the window, they look like the mall employees on Black Friday, ready to run when the doors open to the unwashed masses.

I have nothing to suggest to ameliorate the situation, other than (1) Do away with television (2) movies (3) the Internet (4) sports (5) cooking (6) eating (7) oceans/lakes/rivers, boats/swimming/ canoeing. In short: stop feeding the ducks at Valley Green and start reading more books. Then more agents can cater to more writers. But that is not likely to happen soon.

If you’re wondering why I’m foaming like a punctured Reddi-wip can today, I’ll back up a bit and tell you the “backstory,” as I’ve learned to say. Two-and-a-half-years ago I decided to try my hand at writing a spiffy little mystery novel. 

The basic story spilled out quickly: 90 days yielded 300 pages. I then rewrote for two years and am now the proud owner of a very rare manuscript. The next step, ideally, would be to put the book into the hands of everyone in the world. I don’t think I can afford to self-publish that many copies, so I need a publishing house.

In my dream world, my doorbell rings and my Miss Moneypenny says, “Mr. Scribner is here to see you now.”

“Give him some tea or schnapps,” I’ll say, “Mr. Random House is still here, he even likes my high school poetry.”

But, in the real world, the publishers are all sitting on wet cushions on a sinking ship way out at sea, and only literary agents are allowed to row out. They alone can tell publishers about all the wonderful, hopeful folks back on land –  those who have written stories they hope will be printed on pieces of paper and bound into (and this is a beautiful, old-fashioned word – I do so hope it comes back in vogue) “books.”

Literary agents are all either (a) discerning geniuses (b) crazed crap shooters (c) desperate augurs of animal bones pulled from the fire and read for news of the future. In person, each of them, I remind myself, is probably a fellow human being, just trying to make a living.

From the outside, however, the brief glimpses we get of agents make them seem like they’re at a bacchanal, swinging from the curtains and chanting, “We’re on student council and you’re not.” You could judge for yourself by going to the key Internet sites, such as, Publisher’, and

Since there is no choice other than to win over one of these literary agents, the logical step would be to learn what they want. Unfortunately, there is no generic solution. Nearly every guide tells you to take all the time you need to write a beautiful “hook,” or “elevator pitch” for your book. Take the two-to-five years of your work and condense it into a one-sentence, TV-Guide-type summary.

E.g.: “HAMLET: When a depressed Danish student-prince is recalled from school to attend his father’s funeral, a ghost tells him his uncle murdered his father in order to marry his mother and usurp the throne, and that Hamlet should avenge these crimes – but is the ghost telling the truth?”

Just write a hook like that for your book, and a brief bio and a longer synopsis. You’ve got to get it into a single page, but they say you can use single-space type. But who do you send it to? Some people handle only vampire books. Others, just YA (young adult). Some do only Women’s Fiction, others want only Thrillers.

It took me four hours yesterday to do the research required to send out three query letters seeking representation by agents interested in Literary Fiction/Mystery/Bibliomy- stery. On Friday I spent an entire day getting 10 queries sent, and on Thursday, seven. As of today, then, I have 20 letters sent out to the universe.

Correction: 19. One woman wrote back within a half hour, saying, “Thanks, but it’s not for me.” I forgot to mention that you can query by e-mail. In fact, some agents accept no other form of communication. Others absolutely forbid e-mail. Most of them post warnings saying they’ll try to get back with 4-6 weeks, and if you haven’t heard by then, silence means No.

I take long walks lately, going in circles where I mumble aloud my loathing of the working title of the book (“When the Movie Let Out”), deciding to go with a more adventurous title (“Angels and Pinheads,” “Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda” “AmericanaRama,” and many more.)

But tomorrow morning I’ll open up the agent-seeking websites again, amend my hook, bio and synopsis, attach page one, or the first ten pages, or whatever the individual agents asks to see. When I get ten done I can go out and play in the yard. They say spring is here.


BMI: Deciphering the body mass index code

Memorial Day – and the official kickoff for shorts and bathing suits – is bearing down upon us. Whether you’re dieting toward a certain weight goal, or just trying to eat healthier, remember that good health is about more than looking good poolside, or hitting a magic number on the scale.

Your ideal weight is actually not a single number, but a ratio – known as your body mass index (BMI). BMI is just one of several measurements that help determine the range you should strive to stay within for optimal health.

BMI is a measurement of your weight in relation to your height that indicates your total body fat. BMI does not directly measure body fat, but research has shown that your BMI score is a reliable indicator of body fat. Another important measure is your waist circumference. These scores, combined with information about any other risk factors you may have, indicate your likelihood of developing weight-related diseases.

Being overweight increases your risk of developing a host of chronic conditions and diseases that can not only impact your quality of life, but shorten your lifespan. People who are overweight are at increased risk for diabetes, coronary heart disease, high cholesterol, stroke, hypertension, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and other breathing problems, and some forms of cancer, including breast, colorectal, endometrial, and kidney cancer.

BMI is interpreted using weight categories that are the same for all ages and for both men and women, over age 20. For children and teens, however, the interpretation of BMI is both age- and sex-specific, in recognition of the fact that children and teens’ BMI changes rapidly with age, and the amount of body fat during these years differs significantly between boys and girls.

BMI has become a widely accepted measurement tool for body fat and for determining a person’s weight-related health status – for both clinicians and patients. It is a reliable indicator of a person’s risk for becoming overweight or obese – and it’s inexpensive and easy to calculate.

 A person can calculate his or her own BMI at home, using the simple formula. Other tests can assess body fat and the risk of obesity, but they must be administered and interpreted by a physician or other trained medical provider, and they aren’t always readily available. These methods range from measuring skin fold thickness to underwater weighing.

Remember, though, your BMI measurement is only one factor related to your risk for obesity and chronic disease. While it provides an accurate indication of body fat, a BMI reading may not provide the full picture of a person’s health or risk level in specific instances.

BMI can differ according to a person’s race, sex or age. For example, the BMI of a heavily-muscled person or a highly trained athlete may be higher than the general population, and an athletic person may fall into the ‘overweight’ category due to their greater-than-average muscle mass.

This doesn’t mean that this person is overweight or needs to lose weight. Also, certain ethnic groups have a greater risk of being overweight or obese, including Latino and African-American adults, African-American adolescents, low-income populations, pregnant women, and women undergoing menopause.

Older people, on average, tend to have more body fat at the same BMI than younger adults. In these instances, it is important for you – and your physician – to examine other health indicators to get a true picture of your health.

So, how does your BMI stack up to the general population? And what can you do if yours is higher than you’d like? Most importantly, talk with your primary care provider. Together you should develop a plan of action which can range from an exercise program, supervised diet and in some cases weight loss surgery. The goal is to reduce your risk of developing weight-related conditions – Type 2 Diabetes, Obesity, Heart Disease, Coronary Artery Disease, Osteoporosis, Colorectal Cancer, or Breast Cancer – by maintaining a healthy weight.

The Metabolic and Weight Loss Surgery Program at Chestnut Hill Hospital can also help. Metabolic expert Claresa Levetan, M.D., can assess your weight loss needs and help you determine your next steps. For those who want to know about weight loss surgery, join me at our next free information session on Wednesday, June 9, at 6 p.m. in the Main Level Conference Room at Chestnut Hill Hospital.

Aley Tohamy, M.D., is general surgeon with expertise in advanced laparoscopic procedures at Chestnut Hill Surgical Associates located in Wyndmoor. Dr. Tohamy is a clinical assistant professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.




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