Generations in the Desert – Thoughts from Aspen

Much like FooCamp, the Knight Focus event in Aspen was very invigorating. FooCamp had a “FrieNDA” policy about blogging (I went ahead and assumed things were off the record). This event was the opposite and while I could never fully capture every brain spark on this plane ride home, I do want to try a brain dump. (Some of it was written on the plane ride to Aspen and much of it is personal ramblings).


One personal thread to the last three weeks of my life is a continuing fascination of generational theory. I’ve never blogged about this here (I put these thoughts on my side/lazy blog) but the story goes like this.

I am on the cusp of generations. I am either the youngest of Generation X or the very oldest of the Millennials. I prefer to think of myself as the later, a leader of a new generation. But the fact is, I am older than the heart of the Millennial generation (who are still in high school or entering college).

To put this in concrete terms: I am old enough to remember watching re-runs of Gilligan’s Island and young enough to remember seeing Power Rangers after school. But I was never in the age demographic that these shows were aiming for. I was either too young to understand (Giligan’s Island) or too old to care (the appeal of Power Rangers dropped off after 13). Another example would be Kurt Cobain – a cultural signifier for Gen X. When he died I was 12. Too young to really understand the cultural significance. At the same time – it impacted my early teen years. Younger Millennials only know of Kurt Cobain in a historical context. In contrast, while I was in high school Britney Spears blew up. I was young enough to live the historical significance, but too old to enjoy it. Her appeal was to teeny-boppers ie: younger (true) Millennials, not old-fart Millennials like me that had been tainted by Pearl Jam.

The point of this generational ramble – every generation has its own signifiers. Some of them small, some of them big (see “On Television” section)

At the Aspen Institute event there were only two people under 30 years old at the table. I am not a big believer in the old vs. new media debate. I think it is lazy thinking and it’s even lazier to pit this in terms of age.

But I did feel a potent disconnect between the way I envisioned some of the issues and how they were being discussed. This could be simply because I run a small nonprofit whereas the other attendees ran organizations you may of heard about called “NPR” “PBS” “The Washington Post” “The FCC,” etc. Another reason could be because there is a gap between the older empowered generation and the younger upcoming generation. The signifiers of media for me have been different than the signifiers for this group in power. A perfect case in point would be Napster and Friendster (My thoughts in audio at Poytner).

Generations In The Desert – Journalism

One interesting person I met began talking to me about the Torah. At first I was internally rolling my eyes. Yes, my last name is Cohn – but I’m more of a cultural Jew (think Woody Allen, Jon Stewart). I am not religious. But I can appreciate a humanist interpretation of the story this individual told. So here we go: From Torah to Media in three paragraphs. Note: I don’t really know the details of the religious story so if this interpretation has no merit – call me out.

When God led the Jews out of Egypt it was originally going to be a two week trip. Instead God led the Jews through the desert for 40 years. An odd thing if you think about it. Earlier in the story God caused the plagues and parted the Red Sea and now this God wouldn’t perform some miracle to swoop up the Jews to someplace with air conditioning? No, he left them in the desert with flat bread.

The humanistic interpretation is that an entire generation who had only known life as slaves had to live and die before the Jews could truly move on. This generation had a slave mentality and the memories of their time in Egypt needed to live and die in the desert before the Jewish people could move to the holy land as a new people.

And that’s when it became relevant.

I’ve said before that professional journalists, in one interpretation, can be thought of as a diaspora. Their “home land” in newspapers has been compromised. If there is a promised-land for media, considering generational theory, it might be that this transition we are in will last much longer. I joked that unless I live to be as old as Moses (120) I won’t live to see the dawning of this new digital age. I am doomed to be part of that cusp generation that must wander in the desert with the elders who remember something long passed and can’t settle into something new. Meanwhile acting as a steward and trying to head north to a new land with a younger generation to take over for me.

To be fair and a side note: I am not suggesting that newspapers or reporters from newspapers have a “slave mentality.” The role newspapers played historically was important, noble and meaningful. But it is gone and dated.

It still leaves us with the question, however, of what is that “something new”?

I don’t propose to know – but I am increasingly convinced that journalists need to remain open even if that means the “profession” of journalism never returns and the loaded word “journalism” is replaced with something else. This could be the case but it wouldn’t stop this “new land” to have people who take upon the responsibility of informing their communities.

In other words – In the future we may not even call it journalism – but if it serves the same functions then I will be satisfied. Furthermore, I’d feel as though my generational role, to act as a steward of something during a tough time in the desert, would be a well fought battle.


An example of a quick thought: Bill Kling from American Public Media mentioned some statistic that predicts by 2014 over 70% of people will view television content online.

The catch, of course, is that once it becomes more than 50 percent they aren’t watching television content online – they are watching video online. There is a BIG difference.

This figure may be high – but it is a growing trend. I personally haven’t had a working television in years. Neither do many of my friends. For me television is similar to a telephone land line (which again many people under 30 don’t own). If you have a cell, it makes no sense. With Netflix, Hulu and more coming online – a working TV becomes a burden. A giant box in the corner collecting dust.

This would be a continuation of our move from an industrial age to an information age. If newspapers think they got hit by the digital transition – just wait till the shift to online television happens. Broadcasting journalism has a higher overhead and, from my view, is even less open to participation.

Relevance: See media signifiers.

Re-cognizing your life and taking stock

In a time of momentous life changes one cannot help but turn their head and peer back at where they’ve been.

In the last few months I’ve gotten engaged (hooray!) and I’ve made plans to move to Missouri for an academic fellowship at the Reynolds Institute of Journalism that will let me continue my work with Spot.Us.

The first of these events is permanent. The second will be for an academic year, but is certainly a life experience. I’ve never lived outside of the coasts or a major metropolitan city.

Recently upon a trip to Los Angeles (born and raised) I watched home videos of my childhood. Then, for technical purposes, I browsed every single blog post I’ve written since 2005. From my moving to NY, my freelancing, getting into Columbia j-school and graduating, the passing of my grandparents, the start of Spot.Us and more.

All of these things lead to where I am today and yet sometimes I still can’t believe it. I recently uploaded a video of me at 23 year’s old living in San Francisco. I was a year out of U.C. Berkeley and still very much an urban beatnik/hippie. From the age of 19 to 25 I could seldom be seen without a brown beanie, brown jacket and wearing the one pair of brown shoes that I owned. I am still very much that person. I care not for style – I go with practicality and utility.

And yet there are parts of that young person which have faded. At one point in my life I was a  talented musician (that video doesn’t really show it). I would play guitar at least an hour or two a day. I recorded roughly two albums. I played the drums in various bands. All that slowly disappeared the day I moved to NY. I am not sad about the fading of my musical life. I still play from time to time. But the spark in me that needed to play daily is gone.

I’m on my way now to the Aspen Institute for the Knight conference on news and information for communities where last year Madeline Albright was a speaker among others. Now I’m rubbing my head thinking – what can I offer. And yet when I publicly confess feeling out of my league I’m assured by friends and colleagues that I indeed have something to offer.

Life is a gas.

My intellectual fascination with the distribution of information in a digital age does create a bit of a narrative. Still, I never would have predicted any of this when I first got turned on to journalism (story behind that here). If I’m honest, I wrote a majority of my rhetoric honors thesis while stoned living in a studio apartment in Berkeley (edited it sober of course). In the last two to three years, following that same intellectual curiosity,  I’ve had the opportunity to travel across this country. Even weirder I am given the opportunity to speak my mind on a subject I believe is important to myself, my community and communities across the world to people who, without patting myself on the back too much, seem to care what I think.

And life continues.

I have no idea what awaits me while I’m in Missouri. I know my passion remains with the organization Spot.Us and the idea of making the process of journalism participatory and transparent.

Sometimes I feel like great progress is being made both for the organization and the movement (I will go ahead and call this a movement). Other times I feel drained and concerned that it is all for nothing. That the industry will find a way and that the journalism industries’ main concern has nothing to do with journalism but its own survival.

And so for now. I eat, I pray and I love (HA! I hate shit like that).

13 thoughts on “Generations in the Desert – Thoughts from Aspen”

  1. Dave,

    Let me add to your interpretation. You’re on to something.

    According to the Scriptures, there was one primary reason why God caused that nation to wander in the desert for 40 years:

    The people had no faith. Think about it: Right after being delivered from slavery — via miracles that should cause jaw-dropping wonder — they begin to complain about their new life. They were rebellious. They were stubborn. They would not listen, and their hearts were hard. So, God said, you’re not going into the new land. Not even Moses, their leader. God waited until the generation died off, then he took their children across.

    When you consider what has happened in journalism in the last 25 years, the parallel is pretty striking. In 1995 or 1996 — within a year or two of the launch of and eBay — I asked an influential print journalist what his organization thought about the Internet. With all seriousness, he replied, “We think it’s a dirt road, and it’s not going to amount to much.”

    There you have it.

    In the 15 years since, I have watched a generation of journalists place all their faith in their set ways of doing business. When the “prophetic” voices told them they must grow to adapt to a changing marketplace, they rebelled and held onto their idols. As a result, they will (metaphorically) languish in the desert until a new generation crosses a river. The ancient story is a pattern often repeated and well worth heeding. To cross over, one needs only to believe.

    P.S. I’m a cusper too — just one generation back from you. And I can’t stand Eat, Pray, Love either.

  2. @Anthony

    Thanks for that comment. First – I’m impressed that you got all the way to the Eat, Pray, Love joke 😉

    Even more – the substance of your comment. As I confessed I am not religious. But your comment does remind me of the story about worshiping idols and the 10 commandments, etc.

    It just goes to show – the 40 years in the desert weren’t un-eventful. Just as our time now isn’t. We got paywalls, and everything in-between.

    I am not sure if Moses has come down from the Mountain yet and thrown his first tablet at the golden calf – but maybe some things are right in front of our eyes and we just can’t recognize it.

  3. From yet another cusper, one generation back:
    One of the most illuminating moments at the Knight Digital Media Center’s news entrepreneur bootcamp for me was a video from USC in the online class before the boot camp.
    A young Boomer looked around in his early 20s and realized that those just a wee bit older had a head start.
    So he went a different way and started his own business.
    As a second child, I learned a similar lesson earlier: When others zig, you better zag.

    Now on to the desert and Gen Y:
    Gen Y has always struck me as special, no slight intended for Gen X. I’m a mom of a millennial, and they were marked forever by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, plus the diversity of their classrooms as U.S. demographics changed. Many voted for the first time in November 2008.
    They’re competitive, talented and still altruistic. They love media. They have faith.
    They’re also the Boomers’ children, often from small families, marked with the teachings of people who wanted to change the world.
    All the studies show a greater connection to their parents than ever before, often enabled by cell phones. They’re the ones who taught their parents to text and drew them to Facebook. The smart parents learned.
    If we’re lucky, these millennials will indeed redefine what that Promised Land looks like in society and in media. The marketers are already targeting them, and this generation is constantly trying to figure out which messages are true and which aren’t. Boomers can still help.
    Often, when millennials say that news will find them if it’s important, they mean that mom and dad or other trusted elders will tell them, via email or Facebook or text.
    And I’m hoping they were born in the desert, so we don’t have 40 years to wait.

  4. Enjoyed your post. Good luck at Missou. Everything I know about Jewish history I learned from Charlton Heston (just kidding) but keep in mind that in escaping from slavery, the Red Sea only parted after the Jews put their toes in the water. I think that metaphor is appropriate for how faith finds a balance between risk and reward and how media must try new things in order to save themselves, but move quickly enough before the waves close in and come crashing down on them.

    By the way, I don’t think John Stewart is a “cultural Jew.” I’m pretty sure he doesn’t work on any Jewish holidays and might even be found at a temple on the high holy days.

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