Want news? Hire your own journalist.

Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake (disclaimer for benefit of my libertarian friends: this post is not about liberal politics) wrote on April 21st about Marcy Wheeler, linking to a FDL campaign to raise $150,000 so that Wheeler can set up shop as a full time writer with research support, a travel budget, etc., to continue breaking the kind of news stories that the NY Times picks up on. To date $62K has been raised.

This approach is an important advance on previous attempts to fund independent news writers, for reasons Hamsher sums up nicely:

Every time donors decide that there is value in what bloggers do, there is a class of donor “gatekeeper” who siphon off the money and create projects they control that get no traffic except what bloggers generate by linking to them. They act as “consultants,” advising organizations to their own benefit with all the attendant conflicts of interest. It’s “fake blogging,” it’s not real. But it happens over and over again. That’s just how the system works, and I’ll be writing more about it.

Indeed. I used to work for one such “new media startup” that managed to do far less on a budget of several million than Wheeler and others like her have accomplished to date without any outside funding. Whatever your politics, this is an interesting model for a low-overhead way of paying for journalism. Hamsher is right that most efforts to date have funded the creation of so-called “content-driven” websites where content is treated as a commodity and an afterthought.

I am not a FireDogLake reader by any stretch, but the campaign does motivate me to go put something in independent foreign correspondent Michael Totten’s tip jar.

NB: Notice that I refrained in this post from using the terms “blogger” or “journalist.” I just don’t have the heart for that debate today, and the words now have all the freight of “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” “Writer” will have to do for now.

The Future of News or the News of the Future?

I spent part of the morning immersed in  Jay Rosen’s Flying Seminar on the Future of News, an annotated and definitive collection of links to thinking on the critical state of affairs in newspaper journalism. It seems to me that there’s a sense of crisis and urgency, but also a new desire for clarity and sobriety on all sides: old media, new media and everyone in between. As Paul Starr wrote this month in the New Republic, “This is no time for Internet triumphalism: the stakes are too high.” I left a comment on Rosen’s post that was lifted from my earlier post, talking about how objectivity in reporting isn’t, as most people in the blogosphere believe, about opinion, but about influence.

What I have to add today is an insight, or maybe just an observation: Journalism is a stolidly 20th century practice, with respect for tradition, while new media is made by tradition-busters. The former are worried about the future of news, while the latter are concerned with the news of the future. Those are two very different orientations, underneath the skin, and I think this is why people too often talk at each other rather than to each other in this particular debate.

While reading Rosen. I was reminded of something I read yesterday in a book called Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review. My latest day job is around software development, and I find that there are many similarities between writing code and, well, writing. English and Java are both languages, after all.

In the introduction to the book, the author uses journalism as a positive example of why software developers need to build checks and balances into their writing process, the way newspapers employ fact-checkers and copy editors. What this means, and I’ve verified it with my coder friends, is that most software is published without the equivalent of editorial oversight, right up until late stage testing. (If you had as bad a time with iTunes 8 as I did, you know that late stage testing doesn’t catch nearly enough bugs.)

Conway’s Law, put forth in Datamations in 1968 states that “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” Right now, the native culture and practice of the world of code does not include, nor value, the equivalent of editorial traditions, even within its own deep structure, and the foundations of new media spring from the culture of code. Coders may not be the writers and thinkers of new media, but they are the architects of it, and form influences content tremendously.

Interestingly, I see evidence that the chasm might first be crossed by code monkeys writing enterprise software, rather than the Spacebook/Myface/New Media/Web 2.0 folks. Much of the work I do now in my day job involves promoting a newer software development model called Agile, which does indeed involve practices analogous to editing, copy editing and fact-checking–the “secrets” in Best Kept Secrets of Peer Code Review. And there’s every possibility that even Agile is a stepping stone to what traditions will emerge in the culture and practice of making things out of bits rather than ink.

If we think back to the 15th century (that’s how old I am!), the printing press preceded any agreement on spelling and grammar, but then precipitated them. The same level of reorganization is happening in code, but it takes time for the need for these best practices (as they are called in software) to emerge, and even longer for them to take root. Moore’s law doesn’t apply here, as we’re talking about hearts and minds and habits, not circuits and gate arrays.

I don’t think the sky is actually falling; New Media is in its adolescence, and doesn’t want to talk to its parents, or be seen with them in public. Which is fine. Someday it will have kids of its own.

The NEA has an “Edifice Complex”

The LA Times published a survey today called “If I ran the NEA…”, asking all sorts of public figures what they would do. I haven’t read them all, but so far I disagree strongly with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (“Public Works projects”) and Jon Robin Baitz, who gets the “nincompompous mentos” award (which I’ve just established in his honor) for rather surreally suggesting that we levy a special tax on successful artists.

I agree most strongly with Noah Wylie, the actor from ER, who says rather brilliantly and libertarian-ishly:

If I were NEA chief, I would hope to remember this: While the “nonprofit” arts industry enriches the cultural aspects of our society, we are not a charity. We are businesses that give fantastic return on invested dollars. In 2005, we had 2.6 million full-time employees. We expended $63.1 billion and generated $6.3 billion in local and state taxes. Our work generated an additional $103 billion for local merchants and their communities (sustaining 3.1 million jobs and over $16 billion in local, state and federal taxes). I would tell everyone I meet to invest in us. We give great economic stimulus to every community where we work.

I also like Edward Albee’s response. He points out that 90% of arts funding goes to institutions, not artists. He refers to this as our “Edifice Complex.”

Actually, there is such a thing as journalistic objectivity…

Nancy linked today to a Salon article by Gary Kamiya on The Death of the News, which contains this wonderful quote on a future without the evil Mainstream Media as we know it: “It will be feast and famine: There will be far less primary reporting done by professionals and far more information available to ordinary citizens.”

Lots of video from the eye of the hurricane, for example, but no one in a position to tell us a week later why FEMA fell down on the job. That’s because the only person who can tell us that is someone who has made a career of building the contacts and trust to talk to the right twenty people in the federal government and get the story.

A lot of people who are happy or indifferent over the death of the daily newspaper seem jaded over journalism’s perceived moral bankruptcy. One of Nancy’s commenters, for instance, says that journalistic objectivity and fairness are “a wonderful ideal” but “do not exist.”

I agree with him that *personal* objectivity is a figment, but I don’t think that journalistic objectivity is really about personal opinions. The objectivity that matters in journalism lies in the separation of business interests from editorial interests. Newspapers, and many magazines, have a firewall that separates the two: the editor and the sales director, and the reporters and the ad salespeople, are treated as church and state. As an editor, I once had a junior ad salesman approach me about assigning a review of a restaurant he was hoping to land as a client.  Although I handled it quietly, that could have been a firing offense on the level of plagiarism at most newspapers. And that was on the “soft” side of the paper, not in the newsroom proper.

What we lose when the institution of professional journalism goes away is a social construct that gives us a class of people whose job it is to focus solely on reporting the news without having to worry about what they say impacting their livelihood. They can offend advertisers and politicians with aplomb, and live to publish another day. They are also freed to build the kind of trust I mentioned before: getting to know people in sensitive positions with the backing of this structure that respects the integrity and privacy of the journalistic process, so that when the hurricane strikes, they can get the inside story.

This is hard to do without newspapers. I know of very few freelance journalists who have built a career covering hard news. Breaking news happens too fast to go through the process of selling an article.  And most of the day-to-day news of government is impossible to cover as a freelancer simply because no one but a newspaper is going to pay you to cover the city council day in and day out so that when something does happen you have the expertise and contacts to report it.

Now, I am not saying that newspapers as we know them shouldn’t die. Maybe the reporters of the future will be more like hackers than reporters, mapping streams of meaning through the rivers of data as they flow. Maybe they’ll be like Chloe on 24, able to do just about anything from data mining to hacking into the president’s blackberry from a computer terminal. And maybe the personal relationships won’t matter as much. But I still wonder who will pay for this activity, and what their relationship will be to the people doing it.

Why the end of privacy is not the end of the world

According to The Consumerist, Facebook’s new terms of service assign the company perpetual ownership of all your posted content, even after you close your account. Yes, this means that years hence, when you run for President, win an Olympic Gold Medal, or marry one of Brad Pitt’s kids, Facebook has the right to sell your high school musings and sextings to the Tattler or Perez Hilton, or whomever. Less glamorously, these records might be sold to your employer, or to your opponent in a lawsuit.

And I think that’s a fine thing. No, wait. Here’s my reasoning: Our “right to privacy” is based on a culture of concealment. As a society in flux, with conservative roots and a progressive trajectory, we have clung to a crufty set of normative mores that are impossible to uphold, and we gloss over our low success rate with this “privacy” thing. We talk about privacy as a right and an ideal, but isn’t it really just a tool for jury-rigging our identities? We use privacy as a work-around to escape those parts of our being that don’t validate when tested.

The “right to privacy” allows and encourages us to remain visibly perfect, to use a pretty skin to mask our imperfections. Because our failings are hidden, and because we are alone with them, they fester into the angst, anomie and depression that are the hallmarks of the great art of the 20th century.

If we imagine a state of complete disclosure, a Heinlein-like universe in which we all know everything about each other, there could be no shame, nor could there be any reason for our personal data to be “used against us.” I think the reason our teenagers don’t care about privacy is that they live in a culture that doesn’t think the same way about shame and concealment. Those ideas have no potency for them.

And they are right. Would I give up my personal privacy for the “right” to live free of judgment and shame? In a heartbeat.

(hat tip Jeremy Zilar)

What is next?

“There is a languor of the life, more imminent than pain; it is pain’s successor, when the soul has suffered all it can.”

The other night I was watching the latest Battlestar Gallactica, when Adama spoke those words in voiceover and my hair stood on end. It was as if someone had reached into my soul and given voice to its exact condition. It is something I had previously attempted to describe as a Dry Depression, a state not of despair, but of a kind of post-despair that allows laughter without enjoyment, and pleasure without fulfillment. The quote, by the way, is from Emily Dickinson.

Years ago, I used to read Richard Ford’s novels of men in midlife crisis with diligence, persisting from the writing, but not really getting the point. Midlife crisis seemed vacuous to me. Now I understand: it is vacuous indeed–stupendously, black hole-ishly vacuous, and hungry, and empty of poetry or meaning. Last night I took a box of family photos out of the attic, and found that moisture had invaded–a clump of them were stuck together irreparably, while the rest had simply dimmed and faded. They looked like the pictures of other people’s relatives you find in a suitcase bought at the Salvation Army. I thought: I am completely untethered now; I’ve outlived my own memories.

What prompted me finally to blog this? Not the passing of that other middle-aged malcontent, John Updike, but a post by my sister-in-law, Nancy, which is its exact opposite.

The Oprah Factor

Today I am missing James Baldwin. I’d like to know what he would have to say about the rash of false memoirs, several of them Oprah-centric, starting with James Frey, and continuing today with the canceled publication of Herman Rosenblat’s wildly improbable–and as it turns out (tada!) untrue–Holocaust romance. Rosenblat got the book deal in part because he’d told his story on Oprah’s show.

I do not think Oprah can be held accountable for the veracity of every anecdote told by every guest, but that’s a technicality. What disturbs me is that the Oprah industrial complex seems to be promoting a particularly voracious brand of sentimentality that, when applied to the truth, has the approximate effect of a flesh-eating disease.

Baldwin summed up this tendency best in Notes of a Native Son, when he wrote: “Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the battle field.”

So we are treated to a macho drug addict, a white girl in the ghetto, children raised by wolves and a boy saved by a girl with an apple, and told to marvel at these “true stories”–to what end? What do they teach us? Or are they meant merely to distract us?

Storytelling is our culture’s digestive system. We process experience by trying to recombine it in ways that make sense and provide us with mnemonics–myths, legends, tragedy, comedy, fiction. My 16 year-old son asked for two things this Christmas: Nietsche and Dostoyevsky, so I know that this tradition, this healthy process, is alive and well. Anyone who watches Battlestar Gallactica or The Wire knows that myth-making can be as powerfully cathartic and uplifting today as it was for those who first took in Shakespeare’s plays.

The “true stories” that have been exposed as false lately aren’t stories that carry the moral weight of powerful fiction; instead, they are reductive and sentimental. There is a stench rising from these stories; they are rotten. We spent the first part of the Bush era debating whether or not we were lied to about weapons of mass destruction, which was the wrong debate: The question wasn’t whether or not this were true, but whether it were plausible. Was it salient, or just noise? We were so caught up with the “truth” that we failed to look at the real story.

The truth is synergetic, it’s more than the sum of a collection of “facts.” The truth has weight and momentum. Not all facts weave into our stories, and not all improbabilities are created equal. The existence of weapons of mass destruction was a mere improbability. The election of our first black president was a miracle–one that Oprah has every right to celebrate, and will and should. It’s crucial that we understand the difference as we move forward. We need to tell the stories, both true and fictional, that allow us intelligence and complexity, not those that gloss over and sentimentalize that which is difficult to digest, or distract us from our pursuit of our own betterment.

Oprah isn’t always a sentimentalist–to declare her such would be needlessly reductive in itself. I think she’s usually more genuine than that, and displays an emotional intelligence that keeps her from straying into this kind of maudlin exercise. But she spawns a lot of secondary sentimentality, the way Hemingway spawned a lot of bad macho fiction, that is dangerous and needs to be called out.

New Site Design: Rockstar Programmers

I recently designed a website to promote Ed Burns’ Secrets of the Rockstar Programmers. Ed was a brilliant client who was good at communicating what he wanted the site to do, and what it should look like. I think being a great design client is every bit as hard as being a great designer, and I have a lot of respect for people who bring their full attention and skill set to the task. My first job out of college–about the time Madonna was wearing fingerless fishnet gloves and hanging out in Danceteria, if that dates me–was as an assistant to the design writer Ralph Caplan, and he was always threatening to write a how-to book called “How to Be A Client.” I’m still waiting for that book, and I wish he’d get to it.

There was a forensic quality to this design, as I was striving to match the look and feel of the book jacket without having access to the graphic files. I do love a challenge.

Twilight of the Editors

As I’m in high job-hunting mode, I have spent a fair bit of time poring over job listings on Media Bistro, Craigslist and the like, and am noticing a disturbing trend. Yesterday, I read an ad for an editor job that listed “dog owner” as a prerequisite. Today I saw an ad for a technology editor job at CNet that required the applicant to know how to install car stereos.

Another variant is setting the expectation that an editor be a “fan” of the subject matter. “Are you passionate about the mobile space? Do you ask strangers what they think of their phones, the services on them, how it could be better?” reads another craigslist ad for a copywriter for a phone company. Yeesh, do they want to hire a professional writer, or a phone fetishist? There is no such thing as a specialized phone-writer, as this breathless and witless ad suggests, no more than there are chefs in the culinary world who prepare only eggplant. And I doubt that this same company required their lead developer or their graphic designer to be a phone phreak. So why do companies looking for editorial staff think that they are hiring a hobbyist or a fan, rather than a professional?

Great writers and editors are experts in one thing–writing and editing. The best are passionate about ideas and the technology of communication, driven by an allegiance to the great institutions and traditions of literature at one end of the spectrum, or to the grace and economy of commerce and professionalism and the promise of the information frontier on the other.

I spent several years as a beauty writer for InStyle, working for a beauty editor who never wore so much as chapstick. Part of an editor’s job is to “get” their subject matter on a higher plane than personal engagement. If anything, the absence of personal preferences and passions could be construed as a plus–you want an editor to be making decisions based on the gestalt of the publication, not personal interests. One of the best editors I have ever worked for confessed to being essentially indifferent to the subject matter of her publication, but she was passionately engaged in making it the best publication in the country on that topic, and she was doubly passionate about working with writers on stories they cared about. I myself have written a parenting column, a business intelligence column, a pop culture column, and a nightlife column, at various points in my career, not because I’m some kind of evangelist for those topics, but because I’m a writer and it’s what I do.

My mother, who is a graphic designer, experienced a similar thing when desktop publishing was first the rage in the 80s. Suddenly, design was something “anyone” could do, and the profession was devalued…. until people began to tire of ugliness and the resultant inutility, and quietly hired the designers back. I do think that much like the dip in the graphic design profession, this de-professionalisation of the editorial arts is a natural response to the democratization of media–and that like design, the pendulum will swing back for us one day. I do feel a bit sad about my lousy timing–selfishly, I’d far rather be alive during a heyday than a twilight, but there you have it.

Thanks to Nancy for fueling my discontent by turning me onto the dyspeptic genius of our fellow journalist Kevin Allman on this same eerie topic.

A Mid-Century Modern Ghost Town

Chris sent me a link to this ghost town in Taiwan, photographed by Craig Ferguson in File Magazine. Apparently there were so many deaths during construction in the 1950s that the Taiwanese wouldn’t inhabit it–nor tear it down, as you can’t disturb ghosts!

There is a fine line between our futures: the dymaxion future of Buckminster Fuller and the dystopian future of JG Ballard, described as ” dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.” This place is decidedly Ballardian. But I still want to take it over with all of my friends and live there (I’d be the one printing a local newspaper that could double as a beach towel). Ghosts or no!

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