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Zen and the Art of New Media Journalism

August 11, 2009

I finished up Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance last night and was intrigued by something Robert M. Pirsig (the author) wrote in the afterword:

This book has a lot to say about Ancient Greek perspectives and their meaning but there is one perspective it misses. That is their view of time. They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes. When you think about it, that’s a more accurate metaphor than our present one. Who really can face the future? All you can do is project from the past, even when the past shows that such projections are often wrong.

Not to stomp all over his exploration of metaphysics, which I appreciated, but I couldn’t help but also think of this view of time as it relates to journalism:

  • Print journalism takes a “facing forward” view of time: There’s nothing much to see except for what just happened, which is often quickly forgotten and only hazily remembered in the rush of new information.
  • Twitter either takes a facing forward view of time, or is what you see in your extreme periphery from the Ancient Greek view.
  • New media journalism done well is the Ancient Greek view of time: It offers not just up-to-the-second news (at the periphery of your vision), but also context and organization for the landscape appearing directly in front of you. As time goes on and more things come into view, they’re continually organized and arranged to fit into their correct places, so that a story that broke yesterday is in the same place 10 years from now, but with a much clearer view. Connections and relations between stories obviously become easier to see, too.

Update: A very timely post by Vin Crosbie of ClickZ, who has “come to the conclusion that the foundation for any news organization in this millennium should be live, interactive databases of utilitarian information….” via @alexgamela

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Celeste Gracey permalink
    August 11, 2009 3:00 pm

    I don’t think up-to-second news is the most powerful aspect of the media, because it requires viewers to be totally focused on a media outlet to have any worth.

    Rather, the most powerful tool of digital news media is the extensive and detailed recording of the past with vast archives.

    Without newspaper archives, the Internet would contain little more than self-promotion, gossip and ranting fools.

  2. August 11, 2009 11:25 pm

    Nice point on context. (I hope) new media journalism will offer an alternative to the distorted view of the world given by traditional media with its own time and production pressures.

  3. August 12, 2009 8:39 am

    @Celeste – Up-to-the-second news—and let’s just call it Twitter, since that’s what we’re really talking about—may not be the strongest aspect of media in the traditional sense, but its impact is huge and undeniable. At the same time, it’s only the first part of the archival process. So when you say “the most powerful tool of digital news media is the extensive and detailed recording of the past with vast archives,” that’s true, and Twitter is the first step in that process (archiving starts right away now).

    @adamwestbrook – That’s my hope, too. One of social media/new media journalism’s greatest strengths is that it allows a collective history to be formed. It’s not just journalists and historians telling us what happened anymore—and it’s not just journalists deciding what’s news.

  4. Celeste Gracey permalink
    August 12, 2009 4:45 pm

    @Paul. I don’t really buy the whole “the people decide what’s news” argument. Most people don’t even understand the basic components of what makes something newsworthy — just look at all the worthless personal blogs.

    What is changing is our understanding of what people are interested in and our ability to cater to that public opinion. Journalists, however, are still readily sneaking vegetables into dinner, and people are eating it all the same.

    Bloggers eat whatever we give them, and crap out the same information, be it true or false. There very well could be another William Randolph Hearst.

    It’s true that bloggers have contributed some to the media’s ability to cover events, but I think it’s totally overestimated. Without paid journalists, bloggers would be mostly unsuccessful, especially by comparison.

  5. August 12, 2009 10:16 pm

    @Celeste – I had basically the same attitude straight out of journalism school, so I won’t fault it. However, I think the more time you spend in journalism—and particularly new media—the more you realize the whole blogger/journalist division is just made up.

    It’s like I say on my About page: Journalism isn’t a medium. I know people hear “blog” and they think of some guy banging on a keyboard in his mom’s basement, but that’s just not the case. A blog is just a delivery method. Go read the West Seattle Blog (which is kicking its competition’s ass in Web traffic). Go read Talking Points Memo. These sites and the people running them are producing original journalism and they’re beating their Old Media competition to the story on a regular basis.

    A blog, just like a newspaper, is only as amateurish and illegitimate as the person running it.

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