Thursday, September 30, 2010

Change is good, as long as we keep pace.

One speech, and I'm already a Josh Awtry fan. Not only could he potentially get me a job when I'm done with school here—he's a managing editor at the Salt Lake Tribune—but he's the first person I've heard speak on journalism, who, after the speech, I left feeling more hopeful about my future career.
Journalism isn't going away. But it is going to change radically. And we want to stay on top of that change.
The news of tomorrow will come to the consumers, not the other way around, as it has in the past. If we want to be paid to write, we're going to have to get our names out there and promote our work. We need to develop a following.
Funny, but this is what I've been told for years in the fiction world. Perhaps the two aren't so different as they appear. Perhaps the two occupations will become increasingly similar over the years to come.
Awtry spoke of becoming more personable, of allowing ourselves to be human and adding our own flavor--not to be confused with bias--into our work. Although I'm not the best person at being human, I know about adding tone and flavor and making a work yours. Again, this is what the world of fiction is all about.
The hard part is going to be getting used to this social media stuff, and learning to put myself in the spotlight. That’s the part that doesn’t come easily for me.
But if it means being more able to write what I love, then I’m always willing to try.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

To bias or not to bias? Is that the question?

I found a fascinating little site while browsing the web in a homework-avoidance exercise today. The site, dubbed, strives to collect news stories from media all across the globe and place them side by side their own news analysis, which they claim are produced via the joint effort of a diverse team of reporters to better eliminate bias. They even analyze the content of popular blogs, and offer their translation of those, too.
Is this the future of news? Their founder seems to think so. Their blog is exceedingly positive about the future of their fledging company.
It’s an interesting approach. Rather than reporting news, Newsy reports on what other news sources are reporting. Confusing? Maybe. But Newsy’s blog claims they are making the news of the future, which they claim will become increasingly biased, less inscrutable.
There is a faction—one in which I tentatively place myself, though I strongly dislike predicting the future—that believes the news media will continue to grow more “biased,” as Newsy put it. As technology has made information more globally accessible, we are beginning to access and learn from media from other cultures. A textbook from another of my classes suggests this has allowed American media to dominate and dismantle other cultures, but I think we may be inheriting some foreign tricks as well.
The American press subscribes to the Liberal Model media system—the usual suspicious of everyone and loyal to no one system we uphold like a sacred emblem. The success of this model has been in decline for some time. On the other hand, a model from northern and central European countries, known as the Democratic Corporatist system, has maintained their profits. Journalists from these systems openly adhere to a certain faction, and throw out ideas of balance and objectivity.
For all this talk of American media taking over the world, I can see an argument for the Corporatist system. People like to feel they are part of a larger whole, and subscribing to a certain strain of media can help reinforce those beliefs. I would argue that some media producers, like Fox, are leaning this direction. And I don’t blame them. The Corporatist model makes money. Though there are aspects of such a system that I like less than fingernails on chalk boards, I also like food. And so do many other humans.
So is there a place in society for services like Newsy? It will be interesting to watch this site, and possible others like it, develop over the next few years.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Casual Press?

Among the other usual tidbits, in last Friday’s issue of the New York Times I found a particularly interesting article. The headline read, “Ballerinas, Famed for Silence, Take New Approach: Talking.” See

The New York City Ballet’s reasoning behind the new approach, which was met by some internal opposition—it would seem many world-class ballerinas are rather shy—was that spoken introductions by the performers would break down barriers and humanize the performers. Evidently, with audiences waning, the ballet company hoped to boost ticket sales by making the ballet a less formal experience.

It seems much of the world is leaning toward the informal side of life, and I can’t really blame it. Shorts and flip-flops are especially comfy, and dressing up requires effort. But is it right for the arts, journalism included, to follow the crowd?

Today, to be seen as high-brow is to not make a profit. The younger generation regards things like newspapers and evening news broadcasts as something their stuffy, out-dated parents did, while Facebook and Twitter are regarded as the way information circulates now. If it’s not online and accessible within a casual five-minute search, it’s not worth the fuss.

As I personally like to eat, I can see an argument for humanizing the news. Rapping weathermen and comedian-journalists make money. And we are taught to write the news with a more casual tone. Yet at the same time, as a journalist, I also see the need for the media to uphold society’s standards. If all that’s left of our culture is crude humor, what happens to artistic progress? We lose whole spectrums of thought.

We’ve spent a lot of time in many of my communications classes attempting to predict where the press will end up over the next several decades. This is normal, I suspect. Somehow speculating about our potentially dim future makes us feel better. But if I’ve learned anything in my somewhat limited experience as a writer of science-fiction and other speculative genres, I’ve learned attempting to predict the future is largely a waste of breath. We humans just aren’t very good at it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

More attempts to define journalism

My Comms classes are going the way of today's most popular communication media—the students teach. Is this a case of the foolish trying to indoctrinate the wise, or will all grow together and come to a common wealth of knowledge and experience?

What to call this? Communal learning? Socialist-style education, perhaps? If nothing else, I like the way that sounds on paper. But the lingering teenager in me naturally fights against any and all attempts to make me, a stalwartly independent individual, a part of a larger anything. So whether or not this interesting class model works and or pleases me has yet to be seen.

Not that anyone really cares about my opinion. I’m not a scholar. But such is the wonder of today’s technology. I can throw all sorts of nothingness at the world.

Am I rambling, or coming to a point? Probably a little bit of both, with an emphasis on the former. In class last week, a group of students endeavored to teach us, also students, what journalism is. I imagine this is somewhat like trying to explain water to a fish. We live in it, so it might as well not exist. I do not envy their topic.

As a member of the audience for this session—and I use the term audience loosely here—I received a handout rehashing some of our previous attempts to hold water in a sieve. Some thoughts from the handout:

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
Its first loyalty is to citizens.
Its essence is a discipline of verification.
Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
It must keep the news comprehensive and in proportion.
Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
Citizens have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

They also brought up some interesting philosophical talking points, including the human need for information, or “awareness instinct,” as the more scholarly mind on the topic have deemed it. It would seem few willingly cut themselves off from the world around them. This may explain why today’s teens may need their cell phones surgically removed at some future point. In today’s world of technology, our individual realities are both expanding and shrinking. If I am interested in computer games, I can connect instantly with others of like interests from around the world. Yet at the same time I may be entirely ignorant of other topics I am choosing to filter out of the media I consume.

In an essay published in last year’s issue of “The Best American Science and Nature Writing,” an author interviewed Google executives to discover they hope to one day not only provide information, but semi-prophetic answers to individual questions. The questions are answered using computer algorithms that inflict headaches on any who attempt to fathom them. As an experiment, I asked Google, “Where are the modern media headed.” The first entry to come up was the Wikipedia definition for “cross-media.” So even Google’s supercomputers suspect the journalists of the future will need deep knowledge of a few topics, and a broad knowledge of methods for relaying their message.

Modern human civilization is becoming specialized beyond what we once imagined possible. Most materials I have read thus far seem to frame this as a tragedy, as though we are forgetting specialization was the event that ultimately led us down the path to what we now consider “civilized” human society. Are modern media consumption habits a product of too much of a good thing, or are we clinging hopelessly to an outdated ideal?

Personally, so long as global extinction holds off for a few more years, I’m okay with it.

And for the time being, I’m okay with this new class format, too. Off to the side of my notes, I annotated the lecture title, “What is Journalism,” with my own answer—the art of observation. As we proceeded with the presentation, one of the presenters—to whom I must apologize for forgetting her name—offered a possible definition I could agree with.

“Journalism is something we each have inside us. Journalism is about people.”

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What is Journalism for? Who is a Journalist?

I don’t blog. I do not tweet, nor do I text. Until a few months ago, I was the oldest person I knew who had never before owned a cell phone. The cell phone I have now is worth a single-digit sum—it's a dinosaur with terrible service, but it's generally useful for calling home when my fridge malfunctions and I can’t afford to restock it.

In that sense, I am not a journalist.

By completing this assignment, I also forced outside of my usual writing style. I write to entertain—either through escapist creativity and epic plot, or through my alleged talent for making mundane, everyday situations hilarious. Over the past two years, I’ve made a living by poking fun at myself, not waxing philosophical about my life purpose.

And so in that sense, I am not a journalist.

In fact, I’m really not a great candidate for journalism at all. I’m socially awkward, have no real desire to interact with other people, and don’t particularly like being in the limelight. I feel no need to record history, meet important people, or participate in important events.

So why, then, am I of all people attracted to as difficult a career as journalism? Because I am, above anything else, a writer. And as a writer, my first allegiance is to story—capturing the big picture as well as the smallest details and containing them on a page. I strive to offer curious readers the sights and smells, the sensations and feelings, the emotions, even the very essence of every scene I set out to write. Is this journalism? Maybe. Maybe not.

Central to all writing, everything from hard news to surrealist fantasy, is truth. The greatest writers of all genres strive for accuracy, whether in describing the lord of an underwater castle or the local guy who collects French stamps in his basement. In either case, if my account is not accurate, it is of no importance or use to anyone. It becomes meaningless. Ink on paper. Nothing.

The first rule of fantasy is that there are no rules—anything goes. But the greatest challenge of writing fantasy is creating from scratch a fantastic world capable of entirely absorbing the reader. This is where the genres differ. The world of journalism is a world of rules. Rules banning certain words, rules about word counts, rules about the way the sentence should look when it comes off the press. I’m sure there is, somewhere out there, a rule for exactly how one’s heart should beat while typing out the last sentence of a story with seconds left before the deadline. We’ve reduced writing to a math equation. Subject plus verb plus object minus adjective equals quality sentence.

It seems to me that buried somewhere under all the rules and theories is journalism’s soul. We have forgotten why people read. The very act of picking up a book, newspaper or magazine suggests we are looking to experience something beyond the small sphere of reality we experienced while at work or school. Humans naturally long for a sense of community. We are driven toward unity.

That is the purpose of my journalism—to unite and bind together communities. And when we feel a similar sense of grief at a victim’s loss, or outrage at government wrongdoing, or even amusement when a local professor claims to know how to say “may the force be with you” in a half-dozen foreign languages, we connect emotionally. Such accounts make the world seem a little smaller.

In this sense, anyone with eyes, ears, a heart and a pen can be a journalist. Yet at the same time, there is something to be said for having in a society individuals who are willing to skip lunch, dinner, and maybe a few priceless moments of shut-eye to bring to the community dinner table an account of what a flash flood was like. Without collective knowledge and experience to bring us together, we exist only in isolated, fragmented spheres of reality surrounded by a huge and uncaring world where no one seems to think or feel like us.

When I set out to share with others a story of what an event felt like, I am a journalist.