New forms for the long-form

A note:  Newsfoo provided me with significant food for thought.  I was warned this would happen.  The post that sits below is one of many that have been rolling around in my head like little balls of mind-snus since the plane home in early December, but it’s only now I feel that this one has taken enough shape to share.  Thanks are due to Matt Bernius for engaging generously with this post when it was still largely a dérive – I have, with his permission, left in some of his notes and reactions. In response to one section, Matt wrote: “following [Bruno] Latour, the argument should come as a byproduct of walking the path, versus an active shaping of the argument to fit the path.”   That’s more or less how this post has come together, but I hope to pick up and refine some of the themes and ideas raised in it through more focused posts and conversations.  Naturally all infelicities, inaccuracies and mysteries below are mine alone.  And though I’m hoping to write more regularly, it will be more efficiently and concisely in the future…

At Newsfoo, a session on long-form journalism prompted me to think later that maybe we should have been talking instead about immersive journalism.

There was in the session an anxiety (my reading) that long-form journalism as an important way of capturing and understanding the world, is in danger – because it’s expensive, labour-intensive to produce, takes a long time to read, and takes up a lot of space in print and, in a different way, online.  The discussion ranged over the changing nature of news content and changing settings and habits of news consumption – and the impact this has on how we apportion our attention.  Within the ecosystem of online news, information and comment, I got the feeling that the lapidary status update (and in other settings the SMS) was being regarded as the increasingly sharp-elbowed atom/pixel of news and information, hustling other, more stately forms to the back of the queue.  If attention is “shortening” – whether deterministically because of the volume, variety and velocity of the stream (I think of our period as that of Strom und Drang – the stress of the stream), or because the market wills it, or because because because because… – either way, this was Kryptonite to those seeking to do or foster long-form journalism.  (It may be helpful, as a tech-free counterweight, to cite Julian Barratt, of The Mighty Boosh: “Having kids means relaxing is a different thing for me now. Today, finishing an article in a newspaper is like going to a rave.”  He and I both have young twin boys.)

Finding a way in which to deliver existing long-form journalism to readers seemed to rest primarily on time-shifted reading services like InstapaperRead It LaterEvernote, or favouriting long articles to read later.  I myself do this a lot, but am struggling not to overburden my Instapaper (I don’t have a commute at the moment), in the same way that my delicious bookmarks became almost an unusable index of my own deferred attention online, rather than a library or annotation of key resources.  But, as I say, I’m interested by the immersion, not so much by the length per se.  Is there a news journalism that exists and unfolds according to its own time (like *cough* Wagner), and that publics would tolerate, consume, and even sustain?  Starting out with the contrast drawn between the atomised stream and long-form work, both for journalism and for those that reading/watching/listening to it, I’m wondering whether this is still a helpful distinction, whether it reflects and relates to the way many of us experience information landscapes now, and if not, whether/how the form of news more broadly itself might need to change.

The time-shift solution had as its corollary the discussion of “contexts”, in this case meaning (for a handful of meanings of “context” were circulating over the weekend, and particularly in the session on “context”) the settings in which the journalism is to be read: how the content for a morning commute on a phone might differ from that for a work lunch-break on a laptop, or for an iPad in bed.  How might the form, the presentation, the content itself change and adapt to these settings?  Would my device, or a service on it learn, for example, that on my morning commute, I click on, but never finish any article over the length of 500 words, and therefore stop presenting me with these?  Would it learn that during lunchtime at work, I only have 20 minutes to read, usually about Tottenham Hotspur, and therefore it should autopackage a set about Spurs consumable within that timeslot.   And so on.  And would this mean that content would need to be re-written, re-edited not just for different delivery mechanisms or devices, but also for different contexts – and with instructions to the device to create the optimal type of immersiveness appropriate to the context (mute email, SMS, tweets, etc)?

It sounds nice – like a Masa to one’s Erast Petrovich Fandorin. So much more than a butler – an aide-de-camp, a retainer, an info-bouncer, an enabler of efficiency, and therefore of deeper concentration, purer flow, and higher reflection.  Opening one’s third eye to the news chakras.

But I’m not so interested in talking at the moment about the technology first and foremost, the adaptations it forces from us or enables us to make.  It’s clearly significant in the ascent of man to be able to imagine, pinpoint and serve a community of those who spend 19-27 minutes reading Malcolm Gladwell pieces at stool in the early morning – but it doesn’t tell us why they read Gladwell at that time particularly, or what effect it has.  But I’m wondering whether, in amongst the discussions about the delivery mechanisms, the time-slots, the format, presentation and targeting of content, I missed the discussions on the broader question of function and purpose.  I was rather jetlagged, so it is very possible.

The media, and journalism in particular, and news journalism perhaps most of all, has had plenty of time in technology-rich societies to metabolise the scale and scope of the changes being talked about (the clue was in “seismic” – not everything, or everyone, is left standing after an earthquake).  At its worst, the discourse of innovation has overpowered responses to these changes.  The further multi-skilling of reporters, the thinning of the butter onto further platforms and outlets, the doctrine that “everyone can be a reporter”, the mandatory incorporation of performative interactivity, has left much news, for me, in its current persistent formats and formulae, emptied out of itself, an ever more imperfect representation of and mirror to the world in all its multiplicities it purports to report on and inform us about.

I’m describing of course the thin slice of the audiovisual and text-based news media with which I interact – it’s largely in English, from the UK or US, filigreed periodically with local media from elsewhere and in other languages.  Mostly online or in print, a little radio, a little TV.  Some is re-mediated through blogs or other online media.  It’s also coloured by my professional work over the past decade in several locations around the world with local journalists, researchers and activists.

A word uttered a lot at Newsfoo – and more widely in other venues dissecting news, journalism, documentary and the new information landscape – is authenticity.  Again, like context, it’s a word that suffers a lot of slippage, and covers a multitude of ideologies.  In reading a draft of this post, Matt Bernius challenged me to ask how, in relation to the news media, the presumption of authenticity (and therefore authority?) was established in the first place.  He suggested that mass printing technology in the early 19th century both created publics, and manufactured a type of authenticity within those publics – meaning these publics consented to how each particular publication represented the world, trusting its description of events, and reinforcing its version of the truth.  I’m OK with that as one working idea – there are others I’ll return to at another time.

Now there’s a (partly manufactured) binarised tension between new forms of media, personal, direct, real-time, visual, chaotic, conversational, incremental, and the institutional media.  The former are assumed, because of their supposed directness, permeability, accessibility, informality, to be somehow inherently more authentic, and the latter maligned for an ever more frail fiction that they can present “all the news that’s fit to print”, in what, in the past, would have been seen as authoritative, regular, chargeable doses.

It’s not that news media are incapable of coping with the shifting sands of authenticity.  Many within these same established publications and outlets understand this far better than I do, and are making sometimes extraordinarily good content that combines the best of having an established institution and audience with clear-eyed, far-sighted curation (the information filtering, summarising, synthesising and stitching that makes for one possible emerging shape to authority now) of a wide range and diversity of sources.  Alexis Madrigal, to whose work I was introduced while at Newsfoo, is a good example – exploratory, iterative, curious.  And long-form journalism still provides immersive experiences – if not always Wagnerian, then Mogwai.

Given the increasingly manifest, explicit complexities of the world around us, part of the crisis of journalism, I think, lies in this increasing parallax between the world as increasing numbers of individuals and communities perceive it, through a vastly expanded and diversified information landscape, and the declining ability of institutional media systematically to ingest, cohere and represent the world around us in a way we can still consent to as truthful.   Has the utility (for the public) of an imagined, consented truth that news media can present, and from which they derived in part a proxy power to hold power to account, finally run out of road?  Perhaps a key emerging role for news media and journalists might lie in more systematically tracking and unpacking the nature and web of connections, instances and influences that flow to and through and from events – a section within the newsroom that does nothing, for example, but continually search and log events into a timeline and a map, just in case.  Might this look less like finished articles, and more like a set of evolving propositions or questions?  Might these news media become deliberately separable into layers or clusters distinguished by location, resources, politics, or other marker, at the same time as becoming more specialised, or more permeable?

Matt Bernius: Alternative conjecture… Perhaps the promise that there even is a single situated position for the reader/consumer to experience the news from. In institutions roles were clearly demarcated by position… in assemblages roles are temporarily assumed by actions. People have been largely trained by western media, to trust only a single outlet. Thus they were conditioned to the idea that there is a unified story…   a lot of the conversations at news foo still resolved into binaries – there is a right or wrong story. While digital is binary, electronic, the release of a bazillion binaries has created a (somewhat) nuanced information space. We thus want a return to single narratives and are beginning to largely reject that when we get it.

[Added on 15 Feb: David Shields' Reality Hunger addresses a similar problem in the contemporary English-language novel - he argues that most novels still follow a nineteenth-century cognitive/narrative model, and as such do not reflect life as we live it any more.]

Perhaps that’s behind to some extent why we (yes, me too) currently find such attraction in stats, data visualisation and data-driven journalism – it takes impossibly huge sets of data (objective! science! truth!), and provides us with means to conduct broader, macroscopic analysis.  It also provides us with the ability to draw conclusions, and pretty pictures.  Google’s Ngram Viewer, and before it, newspaper-focused tools like Berkman’s MediaCloud, are early glimpses of what we might be able to extract from the body of journalism over time.

It’s also clearly evident in the Wikileaks brouhaha.  Julian Assange’s alternately fascinating and curious op-ed in The Australian on the day of his arrest in December proclaimed the birth – through the release of vast quantities of only lightly redacted source materials on which journalists for one rely for their content – of a new form of journalism, “scientific journalism.”  It’s a clumsy coinage, for sure, but the principle of prising apart layers that were previously interleaved, and providing direct access to the source material in its entirety for anyone to scrutinise, annotate and interpret, is a sound one, and seems to me potentially a more relevant candidate to the Gutenberg analogy than the bovine dictum that “anyone’s a reporter/publisher”.   Coupled with Matt Thompson’s Speakularity, this has the potential to transform definitively what we mean by the record, let alone a newspaper of record – even whether there’s such a thing as off-the-record.  (One might want to contrast this with the “Specularity” that we exist in a lot of the time right now…)

Matt Bernius: Do you see this as the hope of “immediation” that given enough technology (and not direct human intervention) we can go from eye-witness-reporting to I-witness-everything? By immediation, I mean removing (or appearing to remove) all the layers of human/computer mediation that occur from event-of-origin to event-of-viewing.

It’s partly why, I now realise, I repeatedly recommended at Newsfoo the book Pandaemonium, painstakingly compiled by Humphrey Jennings during the 1940s, and completed after his death by his daughter and an academic.  Pandaemonium consists of a chronological assembly of passages (“images”) that in multiple ways to the “coming of the machine”, from 1660 (Milton’s Paradise Lost, whence the book’s name comes) to 1886, lightly grouped and glossed.  It’s a brilliant, brilliant work, obsessive, meticulous, termitic (in a word I borrow from Manny Farber, whose essay White Elephant Art vs Termite Art I also indiscriminately recommended).  I am left wondering where this bricolage is happening now – Tumblr?

Maybe this post relates more to the session led by Tim O’Reilly about the need for philosophers in the newsroom (I’d also advocate strongly for including anthropologists like Matt Bernius and Meg Pickard).  Tim, after the session, said he was not referring to “the ossified distribution of codes, but the practice of everyday life in this arena – how to be a better human being.”   Or, it occurs to me, How to live well in a time of hyperexpressivism – Strom und Drang – the stress of the stream.

And that means that this must also be about grasping more, quicker: a greater diversity of perspective, tone, texture, proximity within the greatly increased amount and diminished time available.  It’s hard to get far in these discussions without getting into talking about tools as an expression of these values, so here’s my one example (for promising prisms like SwiftRiver, see their blog).  Bruno Latour, whom Matt Bernius mentions way back at the top of this post, is a key contemporary theorist of democracy.  His research at Sciences Po in Paris has turned out a tool for mapping controversies, MACOSPOL.  Here’s Latour’s 7-minute tour d’horizon of the problem and the proposed solution.

Note what he says, quite deliberately, about newspapers (if you’re still reading, wow, congratulations). He elaborated on this, apparently, in a presentation at Uni Siegen in Germany over the summer, talking about navigating datascapes and the future of newspapers, but I have yet to find a summary or transcript of this session online.

The post-newspaper, the renewed news media needs as one of its primary functions to provide ways of navigating large datasets, to help readers understand them as they unfold – and I think this is a sort of investigative, long-form, or better still, immersive journalism that permits a different kind of interaction, ongoing, periodic interaction, and even some participation.   Involve readers and others, as The Guardian did so smartly in the MPs expenses investigation, harnessing (in a neat Newsfoo formulation) private, non-social interest for a social effect – but participation isn’t necessarily the crux of all of it – sometimes you want to be immersed, taken somewhere.  The maps of MACOSPOL, for example, provide one part of the view, one means of understanding one dimension of a story, but importantly, of identifying further dimensions – and this is a critical function that news media and their journalists can provide too, provided they have the right frameworks within which to do so.

Finding and pulling together information, facts and events, unearthing connections between superficially unconnected things, people or industries, finding things representative of human experience in the mass and the abstract – journalists do this day-in-day-out.  But being prepared to rethink systematically what is meant by long-form – by authenticity, by context, by long, and by form – and using those existing core strengths, might bring a significant dividend in terms of new kinds of knowledge (or at least new understanding), and impetus to more holistic scrutiny, debate, and even (whisper it softly) change.  If, through intelligent, purposeful marshalling of tools and formats like these and of those yet to be imagined, in whatever medium, I can be immersed, can lose myself for an hour, two, more, in new and unfolding dimensions, that’s fine by me.  But things as they are…

[There's an excellent post by Matt McAlister of the Guardian about atomisation in the news - it's shorter than this one, and better written.  Go there.]

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