The Schools of Journalism

Two articles came across my feed the other day and gave me a rare delight.

The first was from Cory Haik, who I’ve met on several occasions and greatly respect. It was titled “We’re in the early stages of a visual revolution in journalism.” It is a response to the criticism over the “pivot to video” that the industry is experiencing. Cory argues for a more long-term view of the historical changes afoot. Changes are hard, but they’ll make us better if we adapt.

The other was by Franklin Foer for The Atlantic “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism” and is about his time as editor of The New Republic when Chris Hughes took over and used Silicon Valley principles to steer the publication into murky water.

These two articles each do a great job of representing different schools of thought within our industry.

School of Athens — by Raphael 1509

One of my favorite paintings is The School of Athens by Raphael. This Khan Academy article breaks down its meaning pretty well but the tl;dr version is this: in the center of the painting are Plato and Aristotle. Plato is pointing up, arguing for his philosophical idealism and transcendentalism. Everyone to the left of him is some kind of idealist. Aristotle holds his hand straight ahead, palm down, as if to argue for the empirical world that we can touch, taste and study. Aristotle was an empiricist. Everyone to the right of him stands somewhere on this spectrum. The figures in this painting represent real thinkers and philosophers in the history of Western civilization — Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy, Zoroaster, etc.

Raphael was paying tribute to great thinkers and the intellectual debate that they were having through history, which was slowly shaping our world.

It is in this spirit that I appreciate these two articles and their contrast. I do have my biases, but by recognizing them I am able to argue the devil’s advocate. In fact, if you catch me on certain days I can be the most curmudgeonly of curmudgeons. I can do this only because I have an understanding and appreciation for the different schools of thought that guide different corners of our industry.

I would argue that blind allegiance to a school of thought, without having grappled with and argued for its opposite is weak. If you want to argue for a digital future, you better understand the argument for why it’s been a disaster so far and why journalism might intrinsically be doomed as a sharecropper profession from hence forth. And once you’ve accepted that, you can build out the argument for why this is the greatest time to be in our industry and opportunities abound everywhere.

Whenever I give talks to students or at conferences, I’ll often divulge my professional bias’. I come from a specific school of thought. I am influenced by thinkers like Dan GillmorJay RosenJeff JarvisGeneva Overholsersusanmernit and others. I was shaped by my experiences at Wired, Digg, Circa, AJ+, etc. It’s important that one understand the environmental and philosophical underpinnings of how they approach the media world.

When people talk about the “journalism industry” I’ll often point out that actually, we have many fractured communities. Differences can be based on philosophical approaches and principles or spring about between pragmatists and idealists, revenue realists/opportunists and revenue traditionalists, etc. That’s not even to touch on the various mediums — each constructing their own kind of classes and language. We are a variable Game of Thrones sometimes. One of the most popular posts I ever did on my personal blog was a cheeky joke about how different kinds of journalists view each other.

And all this is by way of introduction. We haven’t even gotten into the tits and tats of each article!!!!!

(Update: This is already long, so I’ll just give a nod to the highlights of each article. You should really read each, one after the other, and imagine how the two might respond back and forth to each other. That conversation in my mind is very exciting.)

Let’s start with Cory’s piece. The big take-away from Cory is not to scoff at the emerging form of visual storytelling.

“But I also believe that the new mixed-media formats in social video (primarily short- and mid-form) offer a rich opportunity to deliver complicated news in compelling ways.”

Cory is a realist when it comes to what users want. We know they don’t REALLY want the long-form stuff. Cory ends on this note which is both pragmatic, but hopeful.

“We’re in the very early stages of an evolution — of the visual revolution. Business models notwithstanding, this is already allowing our stories to travel faster and further than we ever imagined.”

Taking it further: Often, when I talk about the new “text on screen” videos I’ll point to this video from Business Insider.

Usually, I hear chuckles when this video plays. And when it’s done, I look to the crowd and point that out.

The chuckles are because the text is doing a kind of editorial lift. I would even argue it’s doing an editorializing that would be hard to achieve with just plain text. I could write a very poignant paragraph describing Trump’s staccato like verbiage or elaborate on a metaphor about an untied balloon flying around the room, etc. The video captures this in an instant and does it better than text ever could.

And I consider this video to be light on visual cues.

This Huffington Post video imho has too many visual cues, but I often show it to make the point — we are developing a kind of visual language.

Between gifs, emojis, memes and more — we are communicating more and more like comic books. And if that makes you shudder, it only means you’ve never read a graphic novel that made you cry! It is an art form (I recommend starting with “Understanding Comics”).

It’s an evolving form, but it’s not going anywhere and will continue to get richer.

And yet….. the ambition that this might bring to a young journalist, eager to find ways to tell stories and touch the human soul, doesn’t address the fact that while technology giveth…. technology also taketh away.

At the heart of Franklin Foer’s article in The Atlantic is the changing relationship journalism has with its audience — when a reader’s experience is mediated by technology companies. What happens when journalists are focusing too much on Chartbeat. How will this change editorial? Clicks means revenue, but that means creating content that is fodder for somebody’s Facebook feed, not for a news publication. More background in my post on the Dharma of Facebook.

Everything is in service of third party tech companies, not reporting.

“As Silicon Valley has infiltrated the profession, journalism has come to unhealthily depend on the big tech companies, which now supply journalism with an enormous percentage of its audience — and, therefore, a big chunk of its revenue.”

And sadly what Foer describes in detail is an ongoing downward spiral.

“Dependence generates desperation — a mad, shameless chase to gain clicks through Facebook, a relentless effort to game Google’s algorithms. It leads media outlets to sign terrible deals that look like self-preserving necessities: granting Facebook the right to sell their advertising, or giving Google permission to publish articles directly on its fast-loading server. In the end, such arrangements simply allow Facebook and Google to hold these companies ever tighter.”

To be clear, this isn’t the death of journalism. It’s just a change in who decides what is and isn’t valuable content. And the entire industry responds in lock-step. That’s how we end up with Joshua Topolsky’s observation

“Everything looks the same, reads the same, and seems to be competing for the same eyeballs.”

— I wrote about this in my post “The Pull of Speed and The Push of Eventual Sameness” and “How Defensible is Viral Content.”

If getting traffic can be a science, then it can be replicated. And if it’s just about repeating the practices that are successful, everyone will learn and repeat those practices. But this will flood the market with similar content and audiences will get turned off. Platforms (out of journalism’s control) will adjust as needed to save the diversity of their own eco-system and the game begins again.

“Data have turned journalism into a commodity, something to be marketed, tested, calibrated. Perhaps people in the media have always thought this way. But if that impulse existed, it was at least buffered. Journalism’s leaders were vigilant about separating the church of editorial from the secular concerns of business. We can now see the cause for fanaticism about building such a thick wall between the two.”

This leads to Foer’s un-inspiring sign-off: “The audience for journalism may be larger than it was before, but the mind-set is smaller.”

To be fair, writing for the Atlantic, Foer’s piece is longer and has more room to bring up more points and tells a great narrative everyone in media probably wanted the inside track on (Schadenfreude much!!). So when I quote Foer more extensively here — it isn’t because I think he out-argued Haik. Indeed, it’s not fair to say the two were debating each other at all.

In fact, I would say that these two points of view don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Yes, one is bullish and the other bearish — but humans are complicated, industry is confounding and the times we live in are…..“interesting.”

Politics is getting tribal — and it is all the worse for it. Let’s not let the fourth estate devolve into tribal bickering as well.