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Home > Publications > Quill > Ten - with Fake AP Stylebook Founders


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Monday, April 4, 2011
Ten - with Fake AP Stylebook Founders

Questions for Ken Lowery and Mark Hale (aka The Bureau Chiefs)

By Scott Leadingham

If you’re a journalist using Twitter, sources like The AP Stylebook (@APStylebook and hashtag #APStyle) are an indispensible resource in a fast-paced environment. And if you need a good laugh, a related, albeit satirical, source — @FakeAPStylebook — is almost as necessary.

More Online

- Blog and Book: TheBureauChiefs.com

- New Satire Site: TheContentFarm.net

- On Twitter: @FakeAPStylebook, @TheContentFarm, @KenLowery, @ChaosMonkey

Founders Ken Lowery and Mark Hale didn’t intend to start a hugely popular style rules feed. They admit that the Twitter account, FAPS in their words, was created mostly to amuse themselves and their friends. As of April 2011, FAPS had over 200,000 Twitter followers. Lowery and Hale have journalistic experience, but they’re not necessarily ink-stained wretches fed up with 30 years on the night cops beat. Lowery is a longtime freelance writer, mostly in movie criticism, and produces a Web comedy series. Hale did study journalism, but by his word after finding it next to “Japanese” in the course catalogue. He was an editor at his student newspaper, too. And the pair, along with a team of other comedy writers, is preparing to release “Write More Good,” a phony yet astoundingly funny writing guide, under the collective name “The Bureau Chiefs.” For additional laughs, see the Chiefs’ new site, TheContentFarm.net.

I think a lot of people, myself included, first followed @FakeAPStylebook and thought ‘These people must be journalists or have newsroom experience.’ Is that the case?

That is largely the case. There’s a whole group of us — 17 at our biggest point, now down to 15 people on the long haul — and almost all of us either took journalism classes, went to j-school, or spent time as a copy editor or journalist proper. (Only one of us is still an active journalist, though. Sign of the times.) Much of the humor of the feed comes from the absurdity of the working conditions for any journalist, which is every journalist’s cross to bear, not to mention a badge of pride.

Be honest: Do you have copies of the real AP Stylebook on your desks or do you check it online or follow the AP Stylebook on Twitter?

Oh yes. In fact, until the time our identities were revealed, the ONLY account that Fake AP Stylebook followed was the real AP Stylebook — though the fake one has taken great pains to never directly acknowledge its ancestor. The second tweet we sent out was based on a real AP rule: that “Dr Pepper” takes no period. And thus began our long and sometimes rocky relationship with menstruation jokes.

There’s a perception of the long-serving, jaded journalist who’s nothing but cynical. Are you trying to channel that at all?

That’s inevitable — as we say, the long-suffering journalist archetype is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it’s equal parts burden and honor. There was no deliberate attempt to tap any voice other than the AP’s vaguely monolithic “we,” though; the cynicism naturally creeps out. Journalists are perfectionists about everyone and everything but themselves — or at least we are — so most of the time we’re simply channeling our frustration and belief that we could do better if we tried.

Why do you think news and journalism is such a popular thing to satirize? Is it an easy target?

The media loves to talk about the media, which isn’t a unique sin. Every trade has a lot of gossiping and backstabbing and self-reflection, it’s just that most trades don’t have the world’s ear while they’re doing it. There’s a lot of things we hit on (mostly by accident) that twine together under “the media”: the navel-gazing of news media, the deadline-driven necessity to discard nuanced study for shallow sound bites, and the sheer absurdity of trying to codify a language that evolves every second of every day. Stylebooks are absolutely necessary, but by their nature they are obsolete the second they are printed. There’s worlds of potential in there, or at least 18 months of Twitter updates and a book’s worth.

We’ve started this part-humorous, part-serious habit of collecting journalism pet peeves (#jpeeve) through Twitter and Facebook. It’s billed as “What irks you about the news?” Do you have one (or several) journalism pet peeves?

We’ve catalogued a few. Probably one of the favorites is the FAPS rule that goes something like “If you begin the second paragraph of your feature story with some form of ‘He’s not the only one,’ clear out your desk.” Oh my God, feature writers, cut that crap out.

To what extent do satirists like you look to others for inspiration or check on each other to make sure you’re not overlapping? (e.g. The Onion, “The Daily Show,” etc.)

We’re actually pretty self-contained. Most of us have been reading The Onion for 10 years or more, so it’s a given that they’re a huge influence. Same with “The Daily Show” and other programs in its ilk — from SNL’s “Weekend Update” to older shows like “Not Necessarily The News.”

But do we watch them to check for overlap? No, not really. If we hit on the same ideas — and we don’t think we have so far — it’ll be coincidence. We mostly stay away from current events and pop culture phenomenon, which lessens the chance of unintentionally mimicking another faux-news presence.

How has Twitter and the ease of sharing information changed the game for humorists? Would a book like “Write More Good” or shows like CBS’ “$#*! My Dad Says” even be possible without first gaining popularity online?

Twitter is a lot like a cross between weblogs and email forwards. Time was, if you liked a batch of jokes, you’d forward it to as many people as you could remember email addresses for. Twitter has served to automate this, for good or ill. Unlike email forwards, and much to the benefit of humorists, it’s a lot easier to track where a joke came from and give credit, blame and/or money accordingly.

Anything, of course, is possible, though our stupid joke Twitter feed afforded us more attention than most of us got toiling in relative obscurity on perfectly viable, perhaps even marketable, weblogs. It’s really just another way to get eyes on your work.

Your stuff is funny, but it’s also very poignant. For example this tweet on March 9 (when Charlie Sheen coverage was in full force): “Mentally ill people should be treated with sensitivity and respect, unless they’re hilarious celebrities. Then: Game on!” With stuff like that, are you just trying to be funny or are you trying to make a point, like “Hey, news outlets, enough already!”?

We do try to keep current events posts to a minimum, but the Sheen coverage was such an utter cultural disaster that you can’t not say something about it. But if we breach that rule — “don’t rely on topical” — we want to make it count, so we went with a broader angle. If people laughed, great. If just ONE journalist said “OK, you got me,” then mission accomplished.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there about “the death of news” (whatever that means). What’s your take on such sentiments?

The mistake is to think news was ever in a solid state, that for decades or centuries the news was gathered, disseminated and consumed in one unchangeable fashion. This was never the case. So long as someone’s willing to put down money for the news, be they readers or advertisers, there will be news. Same goes for books.

For the people, even journalists, out there who want to get into comedy writing, and perhaps do it through social media, too, what advice do you have?

Write all the time, and share what you write with like-minded friends. All of us had more “serious” projects we were working on when FAPS blew up; again, FAPS was a complete accident that started out as a joke among friends. Because we were all comfortable with each other and shared a similar sensibility, we were able to build this thing as a group, keep everyone on board and negotiate a book deal with no hard feelings.

But this whole thing would’ve sunk a year ago if we weren’t already writing all the time in a variety of disciplines. We count among our number comic book writers, comic strip artists, a Web series writer and a hip-hop artist. We worked and worked in humble obscurity for a long time, which can be discouraging. But all that work — treating writing like WORK, not like a visitation from The Muse — prepared us for when we finally stepped on that landmine.

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