‘If you have been paying attention, you may have noticed that newspapers are closing down everywhere’
While print journalism will never entirely disappear, it’s clear beyond any doubt that how news is created, managed and delivered has been altered permanently by the dominant presence of the Internet in our lives. In keeping with the relentless electronic pulsing of data bits, news comes and goes faster, is briefer, and is often less considered before it gets published.
Often it seems to be a pace driven not so much by competition as by the physical mandate of the electricity that makes up the body of the message. A long time ago now, Marshall McLuhan uttered the then-cryptic remark, “the medium is the message,” and in our hurtling electronic age we sometimes seem like the apes in Stanley Kubrick’s signature film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, touching the mysterious, paradigm-shifting monolith for the first time.
But one thing seems clear about the new paradigm: it is deeply interactive, and there seems to be a feedback mechanism built into the deep structures of the Internet that feed the neurons and synapses of our brains, and require us to return the electro-magnetic impulses we receive, modified and processed by our thoughts, back to whence the stimulus came. More than one person has referred to the Internet as a kind of brain of brains, or, as some researchers have put it, “the brain works like the Internet,” and so “we” are naturally complementary and synergetic.
What this speed and info mania will mean for the future of our species is anyone’s guess. But for now there are natural brakes applied to that speed in the form of old fogeys like me – baby boomers and older who, for another decade or so, maybe less, control the ‘administrative aspects’ of this speed of light.
Or put differently, the older generation, though for the most part now hip to the many benefits and possibilities of electronic media, are like the slowpokes in a mountain climb team – the ethics of climbing require that the team go no faster than the slowest member. Not that we live in an ethical age, mind you.
So, yes, probably there will come that time of Singularity, when humans and machine merge, and, like the current move to the Cloud, we will shed our mortal coils of hardware and software and experience the circuitry of existence in a whole new light, so to speak. A time when we, our minds and bodies are the hardware and software, components in a macro-brain. In the meantime, the 5Ws of basic news journalism– who, what, when, where and why – will continue to be the principle filter through which we form a base impression of the data that floweth and runneth over.
If you have been paying attention, you may have noticed that newspapers are closing down everywhere, or are being merged with larger conglomerates, or are putting up subscription walls forcing you to pay for access to content, or are at the very least offering publishing, paper and digitalia. By some strange quirk (see ‘old fogeys’ above), ads in print editions continue to generate more revenue than ads online, but when that is no longer true, it’ll be ‘darkness at the break of noon,’ as a young Dylan used to warn us. This has provided a reprieve of sorts to establishment journalists who, again, if you’ve been paying attention, are jumping their Good Ship Lollipops everywhere to join cooperatives, supergroups (think Glenn Greenwald and his band of Diggers), and, for the more intrepid, new lives as independent freelancers. You could argue that when Amazon’s Jeff Bezos came along and purchased the Washington Post just after Christmas last year, the writing was on the wall for establishment journalism.
Naturally, many professional journalists who have invested heavily in the hierarchical apparatus of mainstream journalism are resistant to change.
Many have taken years of university courses in how to do it right, polished their skills at the student newspaper and literary magazine, taken their degrees and discovered the dubious joys of starting out low on the totem pole of some small city daily, fought and clawed their way upward through the newsroom compost piles of dead wood, fetid ideas, alcoholic colleagues, non-nurturing editors, and a perfectly good apple on top of the heap that you no sooner bite into when you see its sticky label says it’s from the orchard down the road in Eden.
So, with that much investment in the craft and the cruel, there is plenty of fear and loathing on the journo trail.
The biggest accusation that one old journo makes to another over a few beers at Kelsey’s Bar is that the new journalism is slack and shallow and reactive (apparently in ways it hasn’t been before) and that amateur journalists are ruining the craft by play-acting what takes years to learn.
More importantly, they slur, the new journalists will make a shambles of their Fourth Estate watchdog role of sussing out abuses of power and forcing easily-compromised politicians to change their corrupt ways.
While there is some truth to the first point, many people argue that the good, the bad, and the ugly sort themselves out pretty quickly on the Internet. Although, as the recent revelations that sites like Facebook were running online experiments (in collusion with the government) to manipulate user behavior, obviously teases out the dangers of the electronic media, as the stimulus/response cycle which in print publishing might take a whole day to produce a desired effect now takes only hours, in some cases even just minutes. Still, the carping over the qualitative aspects is misplaced, according to Anne Friedman, who notes in a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “to accuse anyone trying to find new ways to make great journalism in a very tough climate of actively working against the profession doesn’t strike me as much of a solution… If all of the old models are failing, and all of the people trying new things can’t be trusted, what’s left? Little more, it seems, than frustrated thinkpieces about the death of journalism.”
So, as Dylan might say to the old schoolers, ‘Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.’
As far as the second point goes, i.e., the Fourth Estate being the sole watchdog of democratic power processes, given the constitutional crisis we seem to find ourselves in right now – what with the unchecked, largely unchallenged (by the MSM) rise of global surveillance state – that claim to exclusivity now seems preposterous, and even a little pathetic.
For instance, most people would probably concur now that the War on Terror could have been used more deliberation prior to its initiation, and that maybe we didn’t need to rely so much on a full-scale torture regime, or black sites, or private armies run amok in foreign lands, or sovereignty-disdaining drone strikes, or extra-constitutional assassinations of American citizens, but the so-called Fourth Estate, instead of confronting the Executive office over these matters, merely mimed the memes of the masters of war.
Indeed, when the New York Times, the heart and soul of establishment journalism, decided to quash a report just before the 2004 presidential election that revealed Bush had been using the NSA to illegally wiretap Americans –well, when the Times did that, the decision brought with it contempt for any future appeal to watchdog authority.
No, what’s right and exciting about the New Journalism, aside from the technical dazzle of light-speed chatter, is the realignment it brings for global democracy – and all the promises of inclusivity never fully realized (or, some would say, honestly pursued) in off-line society.
Again, the New Journalism, is above all else, interactive. You can be any race, any gender, any religion or political affiliation, and, it seems, any age, if the Facebook culture is any indication, and express your views online, either in the comments sections, or with personal blogs, or minimalistic tweets, or by, ta-da! starting up your own online media outlet – perhaps a hybrid, a site that is part blog, part highly-structured news content, of which there are now hundreds. Social media is changing the landscape.
In fact, the decentralization and decommissioning of establishment journalism means people everywhere are in a position to become more active and participating citizens in what’s left of whatever form of democracy they live currently in. The ‘Net’s a scary thing to old school power brokers of every sort, which is why considerable effort is being put into controlling its use, militarizing it, making it a battlefield requiring commands from some barking authority, ultimately, the Commander-in-Chief.
Establishment journalists may not have enough collective hot air to lift a panic picture of the old school Daily Hindenburg on fire (oh, the humanity, if we should lose our authority), but while that’s largely cocky pop, they are right about a few things, especially the nuts and bolts. The practice of solid journalism requires significant training, considerable hands-on experience, and constant adjusting to-and-fro the frame of reference.
It’s a skill with a rigid structure (at least with news-telling), which is designed to make reporting non-subjective, impartial, balanced and informative. Not many people are naturals at this craft. And that’s what the old schoolers grouse about most: You have to learn to be a journalist. Just ask old schooler Ray Milland.
But being a journalist is not the same thing as being an expert at what you write about. I once saw a video of a keen young university student chasing after blogger and constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald down a dark street and, finally catching up to the still-striding truth-to-power speaker, asked him, breathless and all Ingrid Bergman eyes, what she had to do to become a journalist.
Aside from procuring training, he advised her to “become an expert in one area,” by which he meant a would-be journalist should also know a lot about one area—be it environmental issues, scrimshanking, judiciary processes, consumer affairs, Just War theory, etc., that it wasn’t enough to merely have solid structural training about the biz, but also subject expertise, rather like teachers, who are all related by their generic pedagogical training but who then go off in different vectors to teach specific subjects at specific levels.
The Great Light Hope of the Internet has always been its potential for delivering vast quantities of useful information that could be accessed by anyone with a desire to do so at any time, rather than waiting around to receive the packaged wisdom of providers in politics, education, medicine, science and journalism. And to a large extent, that potentiality has come true.
You can log on and go on any journey you like on any given subject, accessing not secondary or hearsay documentation but the primary source, sometimes as far back as the original notebook scrawls of thinkers thinking their thoughts with ink on paper. Thus, the place where you may eventually end up a journalist is also the place where you can find the free training you need to master the craft, while also providing a vast trove of deeply specialized material that can get you up to snuff in any subject of your choosing, often achieving the same results you would receive as a diligent university student majoring in that area.
Thus, for instance, if you wanted to learn how to master the lingo and structures of journalism, you could start out by visiting the website of Columbia Journalism Review, where aside from the highly instructive articles on craft and reviews of practitioners of the craft in action, there are assorted tools to engage the fundamentals. One area of CJR that I found extremely useful was their Study Guides section, which offers reader prompts in review of specific areas they have discussed in past issues, and the archives go back a number of years.
This section, though explicitly designed for journalism students, is also extremely useful as a mechanism for the self-review of how one reads and interprets information. Briefly, for example, in an article called “Sticking with the Truth,” CJR examines the “myth that modern vaccines cause autism was keptalive by news outlets’ obsession with “balance” overscience.” And this complex gambit is followed by questions directed at the reader, such as, “How should journalists go about determining when scientific consensus is wrong?” And further, the much more probing question: “If Dan Burton’s congressional hearings helped spark the wave of vaccine-scare coverage, does this indicate anything about the media’s propensity to cover what elected officials are saying above what scientists or other experts think?”
These are not only useful questions for journalists to think about, but open up a whole range of considerations regarding the dialectics of public information and the role of authority in determining what we are meant to believe. So, in other words, it’s a good place to not only become a better journalist (online or off), but a better activist-citizen, too.
There are other good nuts-and-bolts places to take a look at as well. The BBC Academy site has an excellent general overview of “core skills, safety, specialist areas, legal and ethical issues, and the News style guide.”
Obviously it doesn’t provide the deep or extensive study that makes a university education in journalism so valuable, but it’s one good place to start, or, for those already with degrees looking for change, a good place to pick up the essentials. Another good place to visit is the International Journalists’ Network, which not only provides media self-review pieces but also has blogs, forums, and listed opportunities for study and work in the field. The IJnet site has pieces not likely to found elsewhere, like the intriguing and timely, “How journalists in Ukraine preserved a trove of Yanukovych’s documents,” which details how competing journalists worked together to rescue key historical documents before they could sink to the bottom of a reservoir.
For more specialized journalism sites, I found the Global Investigative Journalism Network site quite valuable. It has great pieces, including the recent book review of Global Muckraking by Anya Schiffrin, which celebrates the centenary of investigative journalism, which she begins with E.D. Morel’s reports on the atrocities of Belgium’s King Leopold II in the Congo.
Another speciality site, for those perhaps intent on writing science journalism is the World Federation Science Journalists website. The site provides a free course, with 10 useful lessons that can be accessed immediately. And what’s more, the course comes in multiple languages. It also has information on conferences, competitions and books for further self-study.
As for subject specialization, it has never been easier to obtain a university-level education online than now, what with the advent of sites like Coursera and MIT’s OpenCourseWare, where a motivated and independent student can take the same units as enrolled students — same syllabus, same reading materials — but without direct access to the professor, or other students (although students are setting up forums to get around this), and grades.
The obvious drawback to pursuing an education this way is the lack of a sheepskin at the end of studies. You’ll not be able to prove to a potential employer that you are formally trained and educated. But that issue aside, you can follow a major in area you like these days, using a syllabus and reading list from some of ‘the most prestigious’ universities in the world — for free.
Of course, now that we are getting deliberately normalized to the surveillance state condition, there are other facets new to the practice of journalism that will have to be accounted for, depending on how sensitive the reporting intends to be, such as defending your privacy and encrypting data so that it can’t pried from you unawares. But that’s a different story for a different time.
This piece first appeared in the Prague Post onAugust 20, 2014.