Schwa Fire founder Michael Erard on language journalism

Michael Erard and Schwa logoLanguage lovers now have a new place to get their linguistic fix. Schwa Fire is a new, digital-only magazine devoted to language journalism. Its founder, Michael Erard, is aiming for the publication to be “This American Life, but for language” and has already put out a strong first issue. Both paid and free content are being offered, with six-month subscriptions available. Erard explains the name, throwing in a little linguistic history: “Why Schwa? Because everybody likes to say schwa. Which, by the way, is the name of a mid-central vowel that’s usually not stressed in English, like the final vowel of sofa. Why Fire? If you’re reading Schwa Fire, it’s because you love all aspects of speech, language, and communication. Fire points to passion and enthusiasm.”

What is Schwa Fire and what do you hope to bring to readers?

Schwa Fire is the first digital publication devoted to creating long-form journalism about language for a broad audience of language fans. Because Schwa Fire is digital, we can publish stories in text, audio, or multimedia, and because of that, we can tell a broader range of stories. Because our audience knows and loves language in some way, we can dig into that world more deeply. We want to create and publish highly engaging, accurate stories that tell people about the world of language but also use a linguistic lens to unpack aspects of life that otherwise go under-examined in the media. The people I’m working with all know the tools of storytelling and know language as well, so the level of engagement and accuracy will both be high, and I’m giving them a lot of guidance, too.

You open your first issue with the statement, “The golden age of language journalism begins now.” How would you define language journalism? What do you hope to see in this new era?

As I wrote in the editorial, “Language journalism is writing and reporting, using the tools and conventions of journalism, about language, languages, and the people who use and study and work with them.” Having this codified opens up a whole world of practice and creates the possibility of introducing a range of other linguistic topics to a broader audience.

What are the phenomena that don’t get reported on? I saw an interesting report from Egypt about the political impact of political leaders’ accented English—that’s very cool. There are lots of language maps going around—what about mapping linguistic discrimination, or inaccessibility of multilingual resources in policing, courts, and other social and human services? No one does that. What are the phenomena that are covered too much?

What are the clichés and tropes of reporting about language that ought to evolve, or should be taken to task as clichés? Most of the mainstream writing about endangered languages falls into this category, but those same media outlets resist publishing criticism of those tropes (e.g., the noble heroic linguist, the last speaker, the handy digital device that will “save” the language) because that’s considered too specialized.

Overall, my goal isn’t to make everyone a linguist, and you shouldn’t have to be a linguist to read popular writing about language. But I do want to change the public discourse about language and linguistic issues in the United States and abroad (about 20% of the subscribers are out of the United States). I also want to raise the bar for reporting about language topics.

Are any other outlets producing language journalism?

There are definitely people whose work I admire. Arika Okrent writes great stuff for Mental Floss; Lane Greene writes the language column for the Economist; Patrick Cox at the BBC show The World has pioneered this for radio; Ben Zimmer has done good work at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I’d love to know which editor at the New Yorker has a taste for language reporting, because they’ve done some cool stuff in the last couple of years.

Could you talk a little about your work flow? What does it take to coordinate, edit, and produce a digital magazine?

Having produced only a first issue, I can’t say what the usual work flow is, because I was spending so much time getting the kinks out of the website. The actual publishing is the easiest part. What’s taken a lot of time is finding contributors with the right approach or explaining to people what they should be looking for.

Schwa Fire seems to take a collaborative, crowd-sourced approach: You raised your initial funding through a Kickstarter campaign; you have online panels that shape editorial content; and your stories come from a diverse group of writers instead of a lengthy masthead. What led you to choose this style? How do you think it will enhance the magazine?

Schwa Fire is born on the web, which enables participation by its very nature, so I wanted to take advantage of that. I know that the people who are coming to this have their own expertise that is definitely worth engaging. It’s a great way to get story ideas and find out what people want to know more about. Obviously, it takes time to really engage the full capacity of this crowd-sourced model, and an equilibrium is going to emerge, but I decided to make the information and decision-making flow both ways from the outset. We’ve all seen how traditional media outlets that work in a top-down manner have had difficulty adapting to the web.

Can you give us a peek at what some future articles will cover?

I’m so excited about what’s coming. The second issue is going to have a reported piece from Beijing about what a good Chinese name for a foreigner is, and the first ever audio piece about the phonetics of the command voice (that way that cops, dog trainers, parents, and teachers manipulate the pitch of their voice). In the future: we’re going to have a noun-versus-verb smackdown; there will be a piece about how research monkeys get named; we’ll do something on verbal tells in poker.

I’m sure our readers may have some ideas they’d want to share. What are you looking for in a story pitch and how can they get in contact with you or the Schwa Fire team?

I’d love to hear suggestions of things we should commission stories about. What’s going on in your neck of the woods that you’re seeing and would like to know more about? (A guide to pitching to Schwa Fire can be found here.)

Michael Erard is the founder and editor of Schwa Fire. He has been writing about language and languages for over a decade for publications like the New York Times, Science, Nautilus, Wired, New Scientist, and Slate.
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