Is the article a luxury, a byproduct, disintegrating or simply over?

There’s been a splurge of stuff in the American blogs about “the article” and whether it still has a place in journalism. At first I thought this was just another missable debate provoked by the peculiar urge of some commentators to prove that the web is so exceptional and revolutionary that it alters the world, the universe and everything. Then I thought that there were a few things to say.

This discussion began, as many do, with a post by that carrier-to-the-extreme Jeff Jarvis on buzzmachine.com. The opener gives the flavour: “A few episodes in news make me think of the article as not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a by-product of the process.”

Jeff didn’t argue that people were going to stop writing articles, just that they were going to be less central to journalism. Because so many more people now capture and distribute news, more of that news will be in little pieces. Background can be linked to, synthesis is a luxury and reporting is what counts. I hope this is a fair summary. (If it isn’t Jeff will let you know, as he did with Matthew Ingram.) There’s also been a parallel and closely related discussion about whether “news” and “analysis” are going to be divorced and separated by these changes (see here and here).

One could quibble that “the article” wasn’t ever the “goal” of journalism. One could point out (and commenters on Jeff’s post did) that value-added luxury is a contradiction in terms. But the basic issue here is the relationship between fragments and the whole. The new trend right now is for refining ways of streaming bits of news at you in more interesting and enriched ways: expert Twitter curation, liveblogs and so on. In other words, the fragments are where peoples’ attention is directed just now. That’s an exploration of the possibilities of new platforms and applications: there’ll be yet more of them next year, and the year after that. When the innovation wave has washed away – and that may be a long time yet – what will be left?

  • Like many discussions of changes wrought to journalism, this is a producer-driven way of looking at it. The people who will decide how news is consumed are the audience, who now have very much more leverage on how news is done than in the past. Not least because, if consumers care to try they can compete with journalists on something close to level terms. The social adoption of technology is always slower than techno-determinists believe it will be. And it always brings surprises.
  • I’m not arguing here that nothing changes. In an old-fashioned “news story”, three different things were at work. New and background facts on the same topic were stacked together, new facts were brightlined or put at the top and a bit of perspective and meaning were added. The first and second of those functions don’t now work the same: digital search makes the gathering of information quick and updates can be in live fragments. But coherence and perspective are still needed. When you’re facing a torrent of bits of news, they’re indispensable.
  • It’s tough to figure out the likely connection between fragments and the whole unless you have a view about where journalism adds its value (or indeed a view about whether there is such an activity as journalism). Last year I tried to work this out so as to have some foundation for judging the slew of new applications techniques and innovations coming towards us. The full version is here, but in essence I asked what journalism could contribute when so much capture of the present doesn’t need the apparatus, training or culture which journalism has developed. I listed four things which I thought were better done by people with training, skill and experience: verification, sense-making, eye-witness and investigation.
  • For relating fragments and the whole, it’s sense-making that matters. The term is supposed to encompass opinion, analysis, context and background – everything which helps to make a fragment more useful. Every discipline which enforces brevity gets more force out of words: Twitter’s 140-character limit has given us some miracles of eloquent compression. As with the haiku, so with the tweet. But fragments still gain when stitched together by sense. The total should be greater than the sum of the soundbites.
  • Digital media capture images, words and sounds and redistribute them simply and cheaply. Software such as Storify makes linking the fragments better and better; again, more refinements will arrive. But linkage, distillation, context, interpretation do not depend on software but on judgement. Sometimes I go to a site or a news bulletin for new facts. But mostly I go for facts plus meaning. Since words can usually pack in more meaning than sound and moving pictures, that usually means I’m reading an “article”.
  • So you can’t divorce “news” and “analysis” as if they’re two separate things which got hooked up by accident or mistake. They’re  so interwoven in journalism that it can be hard to tell the two apart. Facts without distillation and judgement are of less use. Walter Lippman was one of many people who wanted to keep reporters confined to the business of discovering news, meaning facts; interpreting them was, he thought, the business of better-qualified persons. “The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other and make a picture of reality on which men can act,” Lippman wrote. That distinction was artificial then and is now.
  • All of which is to say that I don’t think the article is over. Or even less central. But you judge: this was an article, not a fragment.
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1 comment

  1. George –

    Thank you for the context.

    The comments swirling around Jarvis and Ingram tend to obscure the central issues you noted in your Inaugural Lecture last year:

    “Journalism is the systematic effort to establish the truth of what matters to society. …Many journalists speak as if and seem to believe that their assistance to
    democracy is so vital and self-evident that it is up to society to provide a route out of their current problems. At least some people watching the news media’s travails are, rather, waiting for its practitioners to rethink their way of thinking and working.”

    You might also want to note Dan Conover’s work on creating useful information in the first instance. His recent post is at http://xark.typepad.com/my_weblog/2011/06/kerosene-journalism-the-quest-for-the-atom.html

    Chuck