The new year dawns, and the mainstream media still find themselves in the tank.
Advertisers prove increasingly unwilling to board the Titanic, as evidenced by Pepsi pulling its ads from the Super Bowl in favor of spending $20 million on social media instead.
Local newspapers and TV stations watch their subscribers and viewers jump ship, and not enough young people are being lured into taking their place to keep the enterprises from sinking. The mass exodus of advertisers and customers leaves reporters and editors playing polar bear, clinging to a rapidly melting iceberg with no climate treaty rescue in sight.
What to do? How do we tempt young people away from texting, tweeting and Facebooking? How can we make them eat their spinach – or do we just give in and shovel up a few local headlines, some celebrity news and a Sudoku puzzle?
A multimedia quick fix?
The prevailing hope among many professionals and academics seems to be that online news will eventually disgorge a business model that will restore the glory days of yore. Until then, just keep training young journalists (and re-training the old ones) as multimedia storytellers. Yes, that’s the ticket.
And don’t get me wrong. No one is more excited about the potential for online multimedia than I. (I have uploaded more than 350 videos on YouTube and will achieve one million views sometime this year.)
It gladdens my flinty heart to see Adam Westerbrook offer a list of 10 things reporters can do in the new year to make themselves better multimedia journalists. I am also heartened to see journalism schools including my own getting serious about revamping their core courses to include digital storytelling.
But if the mainstream media merely transfer the same tired formulas and outmoded ethos of objectivity to the online world, online journalism risks becoming irrelevant on even more platforms.
A hunger for authenticity
The online revolution requires more than teaching print reporters to shoot video. Attracting young people raised on Jon Stewart’s "Daily Show" requires fresh thinking about stale standards. Isn’t it time to move beyond teaching the same tired formulas – the trend story, the meeting story, the obit? Doesn’t each story deserve its own treatment or why bother running it?
Even more soul-deadening is the reflexive insistence that objectivity is the holy grail of American journalism. Reporters are reduced to playing tennis referee, balancing spin from one side with spin from the other, all the while pretending that what they are offering up matters.
Meanwhile, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and cable TV’s Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow grow in popularity by embracing elements of Jon Stewart’a shtick. There’s money in funny (and in clever, insightful and snarky, too)
Everything old is new again
The good news is that we’ve been here before, so the lessons are clear.
The cultural shift that included the invention of the teenager after World War II ushered in a new world, and traditional media found it difficult to speak to that new educated, sophisticated and somewhat jaded generation. The first rumblings of a New Journalism began in the 50s, when the best and brightest fiction writers began to look at journalism as fertile ground for their talents.
Author Norman Mailer was considered a frontrunner in the race to produce the Great American Novel. But he and his friends instead launched the weekly alternative newspaper The Village Voice in 1955, to showcase a new kind of journalism that borrowed the techniques of fiction and applied them to telling true stories. The L.A. Free Press added a west coast variant to the growing number of alternative newspapers in 1964. Unique voices, strong views, political engagement and advocacy.
Harold Hayes became editor of Esquire in 1961, shaking up that stodgy men’s magazine by commissioning pieces from Mailer, Joan Didion, Tim O’Brien, Gay Talese, Terry Southern and Dotson Rader. Under Editor Warren Hinckle,Ramparts published Eldridge Cleaver’s "Soul on Ice."(Ramparts remains famous locally for revealing Michigan State University’s ties to the CIA during the Viet Nam era.) In 1967, Jann Wenner began publishing Rolling Stone, and Clay Felker left Esquire a year later to found New York magazine, expanding the universe of places young people could go for news written in a way that spoke to them.
In the summer of 1969, Mailer and columnist Jimmy Breslin blurred the lines even further by running for office in New York, with Mailer a mayoral candidate and Breslin running for city council. Underscoring their concerns if not contempt for traditional news media, they issued an open letter to the New York Times that included the following:
Can it be that the apparent desire of this city to destroy itself can be found in the newspapers themselves? God, they do not even honor their own. They seem to assume that used-up politicians, implicated politicians, and politicians with tongues waxed in old dead liberal wax are going to know more about running this city than two writers who have spent their last twenty years separately brooding, working, and writing about the problems of man and society, and the streets and people of this city.
Not your father’s objective journalism, that’s for sure.
This new tribe rapidly dominated popular culture. Truman Capote invented the "non-fiction (crime) novel" with "In Cold Blood." Tom Wolfe chronicled Ken Kesey and his friends’ journey into the psychedelicized brain of the new drug culture with the "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Joan Didion captured the ennui attendant upon the death of the West as the embodiment of the American Dream in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem." And Hunter S. Thompson invented gonzo journalism when he literally puts his life on the line to produce "Hell’s Angels."
New York Times columnist Frank Rich reminds us that, by 1968, Esquire magazine’s Hayes dispatched William ("Naked Lunch") Burroughs and homosexual playwright Jean Genet as its "reporters" to cover the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Harper’s magazine sent Mailer, whose essays were published as "Miami and the Siege of Chicago," the companion to his Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History." Though he writes in the third person, Mailer injected himself into every aspect of the story with writing that is deeply political without being stridently partisan. (I remember being stunned at Mailer’s line about how the women who supported McGovern would find vinegar as their preferred aphrodisiac.)
This tribe of exuberant outsiders scared the bejesus out of the mainstream media of the time. I am old enough to remember the ferocity of the backlash, as traditionalists argued that literary techniques trivialized serious reporting and that eschewing objectivity would lead to the destruction of American journalism (and maybe the end of Western Civilization as well).
A few years later, however, news organizations and journalism schools were jumping on board the literary bandwagon, eager to teach reporters who to employ literary devices to tell stories. (The objectivity issue remained a deal-breaker, of course.) By the mid-70s, even the farm magazine that I wrote for was urging its reporters to employ imagery, foreshadowing, alliteration. A company-wide writing contest was judged by the then-dean of the Medill School of Journalism who advised us that "it is better to leave your readers throwing up than falling asleep."
Back to the future
I long for Mailer’s nuanced assessments and startling insights almost as much as I miss Hunter Thompson’s screeds. (HST: "America…just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.")
There’s a reason that many of my students still know Hunter’s name and find his articles as relevant today as they were then.
Which is why many of us will forgive Matt Taibbi his occasional errors and excesses in order to enjoy his role as Rolling Stone’s resident gonzo. His "Inside the Great Bubble Machine" summed up the feelings many people have about Wall Street when he wrote, "The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."
In traditional journalistic fashion, Tim Fernholz of The American Prospect relentlessly takes Taibbi to task for inaccuracies. All too often, mainstreamers don’t seem to care if you get the big things wrong as long as you spell all the names right. The New York Times has pretty much been silent or wrong on all of the major stories of the past decade (the threat of Al Qaeda, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the financial collapse), yet they are still considered the gold standard.
My argument is not that every story must take a stand. In an online world, hyperlocal breaking news is the low-hanging fruit best harvested by citizens who just need to tell the story straight. But important and complex stories cry out for clever and clear analysis and the logical conclusions that follow. When reporters fail to share what they have learned, I would argue that they reduce rather than enhance the likelihood that the public will trust them.
Am I really supposed to believe that reporters who spend their lives covering politics don’t care enough to take a position on the issues? Even more worrisome is that news organizations would want to hire people who are not passionate about politics to report on issues that affect real people’s lives.
I would argue that public confidence in the mainsteam media has eroded because of the preposterous proposition that objectivity is both attainable and desirable. The popularity of opinionated bloggers suggests that people don’t want objectivity as much as they long for authenticity leavened with heavy doses of transparency.
News consumers know that reporters have opinions. An honest relationship depends on having journalists disclose their biases while laying out their analysis and their conclusions. To do otherwise in an era when birthers, deathers and other uninformed conspiracists upload hate and misinformation every moment risks ceding the online world to the fringe.
If we remember our roots, our country enshrined free speech in its Constitution because pamphleteers such as Tom Paine wanted to carve out space for engaged citizens to share not only facts but opinions. These are indeed times that try men’s souls, and we need more Matt Taibbi’s who tell the truth so forcefully, clearly and cleverly that we must pay attention.