Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Through a Glass

Off to the American Copy Editors' Society's national conference in Minneapolis, on the wake of the usual depressing circulation figures. (Well, what did you expect during the greatest economic downturn since the Depression, vast upticks? If people aren't buying cars, houses, furniture, etc., gee, stands to reason they aren't buying newspapers, too. The point is whether, when things stabilize and start to turn upward, there is any way in which things will improve.)

Any readers this blog has left know my views on Jeff Jarvis. Saying "it's not about content" when newspapers have spent the last decade saying "It's all about content, not distribution" is in essence saying, "You have nowhere to go," though Jeff does offer them his way out. Jeff, I think, is to news media what perhaps community organizing set out to be in the 1970s, although my memory of a conference I went to in Detroit on the topic back then has become hazy -- that the power is in the community, and in Jeff's mind, the newspaper's role is to serve as an agora to allow the community to connect with itself. While there would still be a role for some professional reporting, the main focus is to let people work with other people to define, investigate, report on and solve the community's problems. The newspaper's main problem is not its format, it is that it sees itself as a discrete group of people whose job is to define, investigate, and report on the community's problems, and then say, well, it's up to you if you want to solve them, or whatever.

I find Jarvis utopian for the same reason I found community organizing utopian, the current president's background notwithstanding -- the sincere people either get worn down or aren't prepared for hardball, and of those who are, some either just want power or ultimately say, well, he's got power, maybe I should have some too, and then, it's meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But the problem with Jeff's vision is not that such formats, agoras, community meeting places, can't be created. It is that newspapers are not run by people who set out in life to create them, for the most part.

Whether it was a politicized editor in the 1700s, a Hearst in the 1890s, or a country-club publisher in the 1950s, newspapers are published by people who want to tell people what to think or be big wheels in the community; and are staffed by journalists who want in part to 1) tell people what to think, 2) tell people what right-thinking other people think, or 3) at least tell people what they should possibly get upset about.

Jeff writes: "Their job is to bring communities elegant organization. In a sense, they always have done that; they helped communities organize their knowledge so they could organize themselves; that’s the essence of an informed democracy. But now there are so many more ways to organize ourselves and we naturally use those tools to do it. Should newspapers create such tools? No. They’re not good at it. But they should use the tools that exist to help communities organize themselves. They need to figure out how they add value to that."

Other than that no one has yet come up with an answer to his last sentence, that's really not what newspaper people want to do. They don't exist to let communities organize themselves. They have existed traditionally because the people who work for them want to point out to those communities what their problems are -- racism, corruption, no weapons of mass destruction, poor quarterbacks, street-level parking -- and to use the institutional power of the newspaper to spur the community to deal with those problems.

On the "elegant organization" link above Jeff wrote:

"I sat next to a veteran magazine editor at a dinner one night as he lamented the loss of institutional power and feared the rise of anarchy. Ah, but that’s what you might conclude in the face of the internet if you think it’s all about individualism, about each of us going our own way. If you realize that the internet is, instead, about connections and collective actions, you come to see that institutions will reform, that they will become fluid and ad hoc, like the parliamentary system of multiple parties joining in coalitions to rule. Now we can form our own coalitions to reach the critical mass still needed to be heard and to act. "

Students of Israeli politics are not the only ones who would find Jeff's comment on parliamentary democracy perhaps too sanguine. But Jeff is firmly right that the Internet has forever changed the basis of cultural power. And here again, newspapers -- or at least newspapers that we all know, forged in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, and still run with the mindset of "We shall show the truth, and the truth shall set you free" -- are just unlikely to get to where he feels media should be.

In an era in which anything may be said and offered for public scrutiny, the journalist gets on his horse, picks up his lance, and rides off toward the battlement to show the truth -- only to find that much of the world has said, "If we say this has no power over us, it does not."

For exhibits, my newspaper's story this week on two women who are being ordained in what they consider a valid ordination as Catholic priests and bishops, and a column in the paper downstairs about product placement. The work my colleagues Dave O'Reilly and Kathy Hacker did in making the priest story as absolutely fair as it could be -- reflecting constantly the view of the women that what they are doing is completely valid, and of the Catholic Church that what they are doing is completely invalid, while not taking sides -- is first-rate. And the story itself is quite interesting.

But the story comes from an era that set up the current newspaper prism, one in which the Catholic Church was not only a powerful institution with millions of believers -- but one in which it, and other powerful institutions, had the ability to control major parts of the dialogue. Thus a newspaper's simple running of a story about women's ordination had the ability to singlehandedly alter the conversation, because Catholics would not find out about it any other way. Today, those who care for or against female Catholic priests have already split into subgroups, and the larger world does not feel that the journalist has spotlighted a hidden subtext, because nothing any longer is hidden, it is simply not paid attention to. But 40 years ago, this would have been a major blow for freedom -- if nothing else, freedom of the knowledge that there were people who did things like this.

Similarly, my compatriot Ellen Gray in her TV column notes that in general, product placement on TV shows has become endemic -- to the point where it is becoming an ally in trying to save programs such as "Chuck" -- and that no one seems to care. Well, what is product placement except, in a way, nonlinkable links -- a problem that technology will solve. So what if when Jack Bauer looks at an image on his phone, the word "Verizon" or "T-Mobile" is prominent. For those of us who grew up when advertisers such as Procter & Gamble and the tobacco firms controlled much of went on television -- and who remember the Smothers Brothers as martyrs to free expression -- why aren't you getting upset! You're being manipulated! The script was probably rewritten to have him hold the cell phone just to show the ad! This gives the advertiser too much power.

But we grew up where the only real opposing voices were things such as Mad magazine. In a world where anyone could post a YouTube satire of Jack Bauer talking on a phone that has "Verizon" and "T-Mobile" and "AT&T" crossed out (replaced by, oh, "Bin Laden Phone Company" or something), does it matter? Verizon is not trying to get you to act like Jack Bauer or pressure the scriptwriters to have Jack not kill Tony. Verizon just wants an ad.

Well, that was all Chesterfield wanted, too; but if everyone on the three networks smoked, that meant, realistically, that everyone in the world smoked, and ergo smoking was normal. There was no effective way to say, "Wait," except for the newspaper, or something like it, shining the light on deceptive advertising practices -- something with the same heft as the networks and the ad agencies.

So the brave new world Jeff points to may indeed be better, but many of us baby boomer journalists still want our old roles back. That's why we got into this. Yes, I love print newspapers; but I loved even more when I used to walk out of the 15th Street door and someone would drive by and I would imagine him or her saying, "Wow, there's someone who works for The Newspaper. They must be important." That feeling is gone, because the culture can simply ignore what we do.

Still open, though, is the question of anarchy -- not 1800s anarchism, but the question of: If anyone can do anything, can anything actually be done? Or do millions of disparate or interconnected actions with no common purposes lead to anything other than stasis? Jeff thinks a better era will result. I think that the goo-goos and idealists will tire and the powerful will have their way until a new institution with equal power arises. Frodo destroyed Mordor; but Theoden, Faramir, Gandalf and Elrond had to act in concert for him to succeed.

Well, hope to see you in Minneapolis, where blessedly we will not be discussing such matters.

1 comment:

rknil said...

The comments at the link about Geocities are interesting.

The people who "get it" are the ones who liked the ease of developing a site. The ones who "don't get it" are the ones who keep rambling about the appearance of the sites.

I see these camps frequently. The people who don't get it are the ones who show no critical thinking ability. They focus solely on design, number of posts, and responses. They make no effort to try to understand the role of a specific site.

I call these people "design dolts," and the industry finally seems to be shedding these people like the useless baggage they are. Pity it took this long.