10 April 2009

A Future for a New Journalism?

This morning, “out of the blue,” I received a long missive from one Michael Rozek. He contacted me because of my connection between Marshall McLuhan’s work and contemporary business. Essentially, he sought my opinion on some of his ideas for the future of journalism, one among many (un)holy grails of the UCaPP world. There are far better brains than mine contemplating this particular grail – Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis come immediately to mind. And it’s certainly not something I’ve thought seriously about in a bunch of years. But his suggestions caused me to muse a bit, perhaps along the lines of WWMMD (What Would Marshall McLuhan Do?)

McLuhan often described the experience of the daily newspaper as that of stepping into a bath – being immersed in the total surround of daily events from everywhere, all at once. The juxtaposition of serious happenings and mundane advertisements was the type of figure/ground satire in which McLuhan revelled. But that was from his ground: that of a highly literate (I might describe him as chronically literate) man, for whom interconnected computer automation was an extension of radio, and television was cool and engaging. He found the newspaper a form of vaudeville – I can’t remember the direct quote off the top of my head, but he said that a person could get the greatest laughs by reading directly from the pages of the daily press.

We are, of course, in a very different time. Internet has become the total surround, what I describe as creating ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity. The global village has become the global theatre (or, as a friend of mine describes, a global theatre of the absurd). Television has long ago heated up and is now a hot agent of mass hypnosis. The Internet is remaking each and every one of us as (among other things) news, and newsworthy – at least to someone, somewhere, at some time. The question of who decides what is sufficiently important to pay attention – let alone pay cash – is increasingly being answered as “I do myself, based on my relationships of trust, and what feels relevant to me at any particular time, in any particular place.” Editors, editorial boards, and brands such as New York Times, Wall Street Journal (among hundreds of others), and more contemporarily, Huffington Post or TechMeme (among thousands of others) attempt to create and maintain those relationships of trust. But there is nothing particularly compelling about one relative to another except for the sense that I, and those with whom I am in social relation, collectively make. And most journalism, it seems, irrespective of the particular conveyance via newsprint or electrons, increasingly reflects McLuhan’s observation that, “today’s press agent regards the newspaper as a ventriloquist does his dummy.” It matters not whether what is being sold to us are personal hygiene products or public policy: the press has already become quite comfortable with a hand up its backside controlling what comes out of its mouth.

And therein is the rub: the last thing we need today is yet another hand-up-the-backside talking head yelling at us to look in his or her direction. The contemporary lack is not individual perspectives, even those that might be well-informed. Perspective – that particular view which appears from standing in a very particular place – is the (second-)last thing we need. I would suggest that today, the challenge is how to achieve collective sense-making in every aspect of our experience. Whether it is one’s politics, identity, lifework, education, or reportage itself, we individually and collectively attempt make sense of them all based on the complexity of thousands of interactions – feedforward and feedback – from which emerge those realizations, connections and insights that are plurally new: literally, the news. We each do the best we can, and that, in my experience, tends to be relatively poor, since precious few of us have had either the training or experience to accomplish such a challenging task.

Journalism, I think, is no longer about telling a society – or even a part of society – where to look or how to interpret what has been seen, as it once was (I never did subscribe to the myth of journalistic objectivity). I think the future of journalism has to do with enabling our collective understandings of the complexity of our world. It is dealing with a hundred, hundred factors simultaneously to create an instantaneous gestalt in the perception of the “reader” so that his/her world suddenly appears different than it did a moment ago: a little clearer, a little more sensible, with a little more tactility than existed before. Merely gathering together facts and information, and then broadcasting them as processed, populist pablum was the game of the last cultural epoch – McLuhan’s so-called Gutenberg Galaxy. Professionally trained journalists are of little use for the enterprise that will replace newspapers, and their hot cousin, television news à la CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, CTV Newsnet and the rest. Their professional training has equipped them to be the hunter-gatherers and farmers of the age just passed: hunt down the story, gather the facts, then disseminate (“cast broadly”) like tossing seeds into the fertile field that was the collective mind of an increasingly credulous public. (And I do apologize for the fruit salad of mixed metaphors here).

Those who would make a new journalistic enterprise useful to society are those who can draw from a dozen disciplines at once, and see the emergent patterns that inform a society of where it is, what it’s doing, and where it’s heading. Turn that into a business, and I think you’ve got something worthwhile.

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1 comment:

mrG said...

comparing this to what you wrote earlier in Why Johnny Can't Read about the emerging style of gathering learned opinions from those-who'd-know in one's network instead of collecting learned papers from the 'accredited', could we say the future of journalism is in the Art of the Judicious Re-Tweet?

we looked at a similar problem at OpenCola, in the context of "Find music I like that I have never heard before" we set to create networks of "recommenders", trusted sources who we personally accept as authorities on new music, collecting and collating playlists of our recommenders and scoring items within the aggregate collection to present a custom most-likely list of 'interesting' new material, culled from our unique perspective over all the other member lists.

Unfortunately the whole concept failed terribly because "Music you like" is only a static concept for a very narrow group of people; most folks like different stuff at different times and one inadvertent repeat of the wrong song would taint the robot for months (you'll see that happen in the LastFM recommender).

Which is not to say the process wouldn't work when managed by people, only that when we tried to model the process in software (facillitating 'resource discovery' is the biggest business opportunity online) we realized there was far more to the game than simply scoring frequencies in the aggregate recommender list ;)