Saturday, October 31, 2009

Keep Your CPU Out Of My DNA

Every once in a while, an open-minded middle-aged person becomes so exuberant about some new thing and even his own obsolescence that he lapses into sheer nonsense. Daniel Lyons, 50, writing about Apple's rumored new tablet computer, which he actually doesn't know anything about, gushes that, whatever it is, it will be "great and scary":
Great because the techies in Silicon Valley are giving us powerful new tools for telling stories. Scary because the old ways of telling stories are about to become obsolete, and if we cling to them, we'll be washed away. In the past we've all worked in silos. "Print people" had one way of describing the world. "Video people" had another. But the silos are getting crunched together. It's as if for most of your life you could get by speaking only English, but now you need to learn a bunch of other old languages, and, what's more, you must then master a new language that is evolving out of the DNA of all the old ones.
What's scary is when actual journalists surrender so willingly to the notion that improved media technology necessarily entails more advanced values. Actually, I have a friend who does make this case when it comes to medical IT, and I'll stipulate that. My greater concern is for a well-informed public in a complex republic. If it hinges on the Hackosphere as currently constituted, no matter how cool-looking the devices, that we're in big trouble.

The way the most diligent "print people" have of doing their job is called journalism. You interview people in the know, investigate what's going on behind the scenes or under the rug, take your sweet time, and do your best to keep your own ego and preferences our of your copy. "Video people" usually read what print people report, make a few calls of their own, and videotape an interview or two. "Blog people" by and large sit in Starbucks and aggregate and comment on what everyone else is reporting. The shape and size of computer displays don't alter the indispensability of good reporting and well-written, longer-form texts.


MK said...

Outstanding post! I couldn't have said it better. What really is odd is how few of the stories about the newspaper crisis have addressed this. Some have, however. A few months ago I read a story about the near disappearance of local police reporting in Baltimore. All sorts of problems can arise when a police department realizes that diligent reporters who have been on the beat long enough to become experts no longer are hanging around, asking tough questions about what happened and why, demanding to see records under public access laws. Diminishing of journalistic oversight in some areas really does come at a high price. If I find the link, I'll post it!

Enjoy your Saturday!

MK said...

The article actually was a commentary in the Washington Post's March 1, 2009 Outlook section. See David Simon's "In Baltimore, No one Left to Press the Police" at

An excellent account of the impact of the decline of journalistic oversight by a former reporter on the police beat.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. The ink my my veins, I guess. My parents and beloved godfather were newspaper people, and I fell in love with journalism before my time with RN. His appreciation of good journalism deepened mine. The decline of print, I'm sure, would've alarmed him.

Anonymous said...

perhaps it isn't the medium, as much as the inability of the better journalists to figure out how to make money in a different economic regime.

The Nation ran a piece a few months ago about how good science journalism was dying. they made many excellent points. one point they failed to notice was that The Nation is extremely bad at science reporting. by the metrics with which they measured newspapers, they fail even more badly on that score.

i'm tired of hearing from newspaper companies about how different economic models out-compete them. i'd rather hear from them about how they are figuring out how to fund excellent reporting, rather than relying on a 19th century model.

on the other hand, i generally regard journalists as anything but the heroes they make themselves out to be. they're not villains either, but they are--in my experience--utterly incompetent as soon as they get outside the main political topics they know best. (and even there, they are so scared of being called biased that they retreat to calling horse races instead of digging up facts and identifying dishonest politicians as liars.)

if a robust media is important--and i agree it is--then it's going to take more than whining on the part of the media. most journalists are hardly woodward and bernstein. heck, W&B weren't even as good as their reputation.

let's start with my usual rule. let's apply to journalists the same rules they wish to apply to everyone else.

Fr. John said...

Well said as always, Thomas. Thanks.