Notes and observations from a comfortable seat at the end of the world.
In the middle of what sure looks like a full-blown collapse into chaos, I was reassured by Rich Gordon’s (Medill) intermittent “Media in America” history lessons during the “Chicago Media Future Conference” on Saturday. During the "Whither News?" panel, Rich reminded us all that the last few decades of stability, consolidation, “objectivity” and MBA-culture in the media are historical flukes. That for most of the last 200-plus years, journalism in America has been a roiling, partisan, street-fight (my words, not his), and that what looks like collapse is more than likely journalism returning to its natural state.
Like banking and health care, journalism has been the indentured servant of corporate interests for far too long, so who but stockholders gives a shit if the days of Imperial Media are coming to an end anyway?
And in this revolution, we are privileged to be present at the creation, so we've got that going for us.
The day was interspersed with plenty of those kinds of hopeful, uplifting glimpses of the future, which balanced out some of my other, somewhat darker observations.
A lot of the discussion centered on the work of amateur or citizen journalists. As I recently told a group of Russian journalists with whom several local bloggers were invited to meet, the rise of blogging was a reaction to the catastrophic failure of traditional media, reminiscent of the cause/effect relationship between the epic Social Compact Fail between American citizens and their institutions in the 1960s and 1970s.
During the Age of Bush, a somnolent middle class found -- yet again and in rapid, concussive succession -- that their elected government routinely lied to them, sided with corporations which fed them poison, shoveled their children into a military meatgrinder on false pretenses, tortured other people’s children in their name and generally wiped their asses with the United States Constitution while wrapping themselves in the flag.
And they found out, yet again, that their Fourth Estate (with several, notable exceptions) were either too incompetent to understand the truth, too cowardly to tell them the truth, or simply complicit in gaslighting them on behalf of powerful, moneyed interests.
Out of that lethal vacuum, blogging as we know it today was born; a social movement with a journalistic-aspect.
Facing a future that seemed destined to be dominated forever by the dark, barbaric energy of the Rove Republicans, the weak, placating pussies of the Democratic Leadership Council, and a truckling, servile media The Left had to save itself. And they did it just as the nation’s founders envisioned: an movement built on the spare time and spare change of people who were doing something else until they had to put down their plows, leave the farm and take up the cause because the status quo had become unbearable, and because no one was coming to save them.
But therein lies the problem. Because social movements ebb and flow, and as The Revolution gets a better suit of clothes and becomes The Institution, technocrats charged with implementing what the rebels envisioned become the movements new foot soldiers.
All fine and good for, say, labor and education policy or clean energy initiatives where we have institution that are capable of can absorb new ideas and but that evolutionary model seems doomed to fall spectacularly apart when it comes to the media.
In the last two years I have seen a startlingly large number of organizational models from both the public and private sectors proposing that they turn to some form of “crowdsourcing” to get around the old “ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag” problem of too much work chasing too few people.
And each time I read about it, I smile.
Thirty years ago, “personal computers” were the Philosopher's Stone that organizations were blindly promising their shareholders would let them do vastly more with less.
Twenty years ago it was “re-engineering”, which, as it turned out, usually meant nothing more than promising the shareholders to double their profits by firing a third of the staff and then threatening the survivors with economic extinction of they didn’t work 14 hours a day.
Ten years ago, every sycophant who wanted a promotion was vying with every other sycophant to be the first to yell, “Build some kinda database!” at every problem, and then bitch that the “tech guys” were to blame when it failed.
Then it was the internet and corporate websites for all! Cellphones, which almost instantly became corporate collars attached to leashes that could reach into your car, your shower, your bedroom. Then palmtops. And blogs. Blacberries, WiFi, and little blue eyes blinking from everyone’s ears.
I’m sure you have your own list and, arguably, almost all of these changes come bearing real gifts, but taken collectively they amount to a massive failure to set priorities (and make difficult decisions based on those priorities) on the part of leaders everywhere. Because rather that risking career or status by telling stakeholders “No, you cannot have everything you want. You have to pick one or the other and live with the consequences”, waaay too many leaders have instead used “technology” as a massive hocus-pocus to pretend they can deliver it all, on time and under budget.
Which, in the end, always seems to translate into dumping the responsibility for delivering on their promises into someone else’s lap.
But there are only so many hours in the day. And only so many people know how to fit a sentence together in way that makes you want to read the next one, and the next, day after day. And while anybody can take a picture of a mayor or a plane’s forced landing, only a very few people in the “crowd” can tell you the back-story of the guy standing next to the mayor, and why its important. Or what kind of piloting is involved in putting an aircraft safely down in a river.
So what happens to the New Journalism when that journalism turns out to have been built on the “cheap oil” of the increasingly scarce “spare time” of knowledgeable volunteers? What happens once the cheap oil runs out and we reach our “Peak Prose” moment when those volunteers who were brought to The Cause during the crises, return to their farms, or have to get a second job to feed their family, or just get tired of the burden of reading everything every day, and writing before dawn?
The tyranny of experts during a time of change:
This from Athenae at First Draft sums it up nicely:Nobody Knows What To Do
That's primarily what I took away from Chicago Media Future this afternoon, that and a dislike of Patrick Spain of Newser.com, who spent his entire time on the afternoon panel making the following assertions:
1. Nobody with fewer than 5 million hits daily is making any money online.
2. Politico has replaced the Washington Post as a source of good political information.
3. HuffPo will replace the New York Times.
4. The New York Times will not exist one year from today.
That being said – or, rather, declaratively intoned by Mr. Spain – no one was able to successfully answer the question of who Huffington Post would steal from once it drove working reporters like those on the New York Times out of business.
Rich Gordon was on the previous panel and could match Patrick Spain white-hair-for-white-hair, but in Rich’s case, his genuine love for his profession and his ability to provide a broader social and (dare I say it) “moral” context for the subject at hand made him a pleasure to listen to.
Active listening vs. the illusion of knowledge:
For fun, I checked out the row where I was sitting. Based on my unscientific survey, in that row at any given time during the 3.5 hour conference, seven out of nine people were busy texting/surfing/twittering. Not briefly or glancingly, but fairly steadily. Look down the row and you’d have seen 78% of the faces bathed in a tiny, phosphorescent glow while 78% of the eyes focused intently on itty-bitty screens.
In the row in front of me, the ratio was four out of five.
Perfectly nice people, every one of them, I’m sure – and sincerely interested in the subject at hand -- but there was something half-ominous/ half -funny about being in an auditorium with people who had given up the better part of a beautiful Saturday to discuss the Very Important subject of the future of the fourth estate…an amazingly high percentage of whom were clearly unable to pay patient attention to what was happening right in front of them for more than a few minutes at a stretch.
From entertainification, to the price of paper, to the collapse of ad revenue, to an unsustainable, debt-based business model, there are certainly a lot of knife wounds in journalism’s gut, but one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is this: the radical narrowing, shortening and dumbing-down of the apertures through which knowledge itself passes.
It an admittedly unfair example, consider the Twitter-max of 140 characters, you get cut off before the end first sentence of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (a speech in which he assures his audience that he’s going to keep it short):
"AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the fi"
and after about 1/6 of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution:
"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except"
This is the face of the convergent media landscape as it is now; people trawling their immediate surroundings with loose, peripheral drift nets, trusting that their reflexes will pop them back into attentiveness when their personal mental keyword search scores a hit.
Or when the driver in front of them stomps on their brakes :-)
But whatever else it is, it isn’t listening, and in that just-in-time, bullet-point, “gimme the elevator version”-saturated world, the first casualty of narrative is context.
And of shorn context, “news” ceases to “the voice of the voiceless”, “the information you need as a citizen in a democracy” or even “what happened” and becomes mere noise.
That's it for now. More goodness from fellow travelers can be found here:
“Lou Grant” at Chi-Town Daily News
Athenae at First Draft
Mike Doyle at Chicago Carless
Matt Wood at The Negotiation Limerick File
Whet Moser at Chicagoland
Windy Citizen comment thread