Friday, May 22, 2009

Note on the preceding articles

These articles were originally published on my other blog, The Spark of Accident, but I had originally intended that blog for the purposes of exploring a certain type of photographic aesthetic; hence I decided to move these here so that they could stand on their own and serve as a jumping off point from which to explore certain themes in 21st century journalism, with the ulterior motive of perhaps starting up my own online news service.

As of this moment, the new site is a pipe dream, but I am intent on making it a reality. meanwhile, more thoughts on journalism will be forthcoming.

Narrative Pleasure, Digital Journalism, and "Slow News"

Our journalistic endeavors tend to be dominated by the need to get the material published – that is, we want to get our story out there so that people know that something is wrong (or sometimes right) with the world – and we have historically been limited by the inherent strictures of the established media (considerations of space, editorial agendas as to what stories ought to run and how they should appear stylistically, etc). We can all cite famous examples of good material not getting published or getting published only in a severely truncated form. Marcus Bleasdale’s superb Congo material is a recent example of the hurdles we must jump, since he had such a hard time publishing it although it won some distinguished awards before the fact and partly because of those awards eventually appeared as it ought to have in the pages of several different magazines.

Along comes the web and suddenly we are presented with possibilities for self-publishing that go far beyond the traditional vanity press. And given that POY has recognized web publishing as a legitimate genre worthy of prizes means that self-publishing on the web can escape the stigma of the vanity press as well.

But we are faced with significant problems still. Those of us who work independently – and the web facilitates our independence in many ways – are confronted by problems such as how to assert our presence on the web, how to draw in readers, how to conduct business and ensure that we make enough money to keep working, how to deliver content in an efficient, speedy and sufficiently comprehensive manner, and so on. And in the end, because we are still in the process of a transition that may take years before these new forms of publication, distribution and narrative structure finally gel, we settle for half-assed measures – we end up publishing rudimentary slideshows on rather timid and tepid websites run by the established media, and we receive ridiculously little compensation in return. The amount of work required to put together a good multimedia piece is in no way compensated by editorial rates still based on (1) criteria related to print media, and (2) cost cutbacks stemming from the past and related to past ways of doing business.

So how do we bypass the established media and go directly to the consumer? One question asked by Mike Fox on a Lightstalkers thread about business models for digital journalists is whether or not the web can support our endeavors; that is, will viewers be willing, for example, to pay us directly for our content, perhaps downloading a story, either in pdf format or multimedia, onto their iPhone and viewing it there. As Mike points out, browsing the web is a different procedure from browsing a magazine or newspaper, so viewers of the future can be expected to be more selective, more likely to target specific themes (using a search engine to “alert” them as to new relevant material), and unlikely to review more than a few initial entries on any particular subject list after the search engine does the initial browsing and gathering, so that we have to ensure that our work shows up near the head of such lists. Clearly, this new form of “reading,” these new forms of consumption, present significant challenges to us, and perhaps some opportunities too.

There are two issues confronting us, then. How do we get paid? And how do we deliver content in a manner that guarantees its integrity and its ability to reach as many potential viewers as possible? As to the former, I suspect that new criteria for setting prices will eventually emerge and they will not be based on circulation figures but perhaps on file size, number of images, format, and so on. How we deliver the material concerns me more here, and essentially I would argue that if we manage to deliver it in a way that promotes narrative pleasure, then I think that we can answer affirmatively Mike’s basic question about whether or not consumers would be willing to pay for that content. That is, rather than content being a hindrance to conducting business – as editorial wisdom has it, people wont buy magazines with pix of starvation or death or other such journalistic clichés, presumably because readers suffer from image fatigue or they prefer babble about celebrities – it will in fact become one means of enticing more viewers.

Let’s consider a different genre in order to get a fresh perspective on this issue. Why do we go to the movies? Movies are full of violence and devastating imagery every bit as unsettling as anything a photojournalist can come up with. And viewing them doesn’t necessarily make us happy. We cry as well as laugh at the movies. We grip the edges of our seats, we endure ghastly scenes of torture and mutilation. A few examples: The beach landing in Saving Private Ryan. The abandoned parents in their lonely home at the end of the heartbreaking Tokyo Story. The famous slit eye in Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or. The slow and clumsy killing of the KGB agent in Hitchcock’s Iron Curtain. The murder of peasants in Platoon. The death of Apu’s wife and his subsequent abandonment of the child that resulted from their union in Satyajit Ray’s third film from the incomparable Apu trilogy. The beating to death by bats of Ed Pesci’s character in Casino. The battering that Jake LaMotta receives at the hands of Sugar Ray in Raging Bull.

Almost every one of these is a masterpiece and despite the brutal or heartbreaking content, every one of these compels our attention and evokes praise rather than condemnation. Why?

Narrative pleasure. Let me be quite clear: I am not talking about pleasure in a simple sense, the emotional equivalent of sugar on the tongue. I am talking about a psychological state in which is united intellectual, emotional and physical contentment that is brought about not so much by the specific image or theme but by its existence within a structure that provides order, makes sense, and either creates new values or confirms old ones, thus playing an important ideological role in the culture that ought not to be underestimated.

Narrative pleasure results from structure, not content. Narrative pleasure is the aesthetic version of Plato’s sociopolitical concept of Justice – a place for everything and everything in its place. It derives from elements such as those considered by Aristotle in his Poetics. Unity, for example. The relation of beginning, middle and end. Suspense and its resolution. The relation of form to content – a quick example of what I mean by this last point can be found in the film Vantage Point. Here we are treated to a story about the assassination of a president given a narrative treatment that undoubtedly is meant to recall Rashoman on the one hand and the historical assassination of Kennedy on the other; that is, we are treated to a replay of events seen through the eyes of various players in an ostensible attempt to explore the significance of perspective, truth, and coherence. What philosophers like to call hermeneutical horizons. The film is an utter disappointment because in the end all the narrative perspectivalism, the splitting up of the plot into distinct points of view held by each character, serves no purpose other than to prolong the suspense, and the actual plot is revealed and followed in the most prosaic and straightforward manner during the last segment, so all we get in the end is an exciting chase and nothing whatsoever said about the larger themes. There is ultimately a disjunction between the form and the content.

This is the problem with current methods of telling and distributing our journalistic stories. Our methods are disjunctive, piecemeal, choppy, reductive, and formally inconsequential. We furnish bites and bulletins rather than stories with sufficient body to make it worth our readers’ while to stop and absorb their meaning. We fail to provide meaningful, comprehensive and inventive structure capable of contextualizing the violence and the heartbreak in a way that redeems that content and makes it compelling, rather than just another journalistic cliché – just another skeletal child with flies in its eyes – that either repels or bores the viewer. If we take care to create narratives as compelling as those we flock to see at the cinema, then I see no reason why we cannot count in the future on people to solicit our material, download it, and pay us for it.

A pdf file, for example, could tackle a subject in a number of different ways, if we are willing to take the time to master the software and learn the principles of graphic layout. Take for example what I have tried to achieve on the Gagá page from my Dominican Batey website. If you look that page over, you will see the photos and text laid out in a variety of manner, and in a couple spots I have made use of imagery that in itself is not particularly good but combined in an adequate structure manages to tell the story in what I hope is a compelling fashion (I am referring to the section of photos with young kids running about, caught up in the excitement and sexuality of Gagá, as well as the section on whips). Granted, I may have created overly large files that download rather too slowly, but such things can be easily fixed. The point is, I didn’t ignore the narrative structure; on the contrary, I exploited it as fully as I could in order to present the material so as to elicit interest, certainly, but more importantly present it as a fully thought out story, with poetic as well as analytical elements, so ultimately the narrative model is not that of the typical “news story” but instead something more like a novel, in which one finds subplots, a myriad of characters, and a more eclectic mix of materials.

That latter point, for me, is very important. As I have argued elsewhere, I think the future of journalism on the web ought to be more eclectic, more polyphonic or intertextual, and cross-disciplinary. This means, inevitably, that we all need to expand our skill set, as the current jargon would put it, in order to keep up with changes in the industry and remain employable. I don’t think this means all that much extra effort, though it does beg questions about adequate compensation. However, while LS members have complained recently about the decision of various news organizations to equip their writers with digital cameras so as to cut back on expenses and consolidate the various aspects of news gathering, I have to say that this has been a salutary development as far as my own survival is concerned, since after years of living with lean cows I am finally getting more work precisely because I can provide both textual and visual content – and frankly I thoroughly enjoy playing both roles. Instead of viewing the consequences of digital journalism as a threat to our existence I think we need to identify their advantages and exploit them diligently so as to control to some extent their direction and their impact on us. And also, allow us to discover in ourselves unsuspected talents and resources that might just add to the pleasure of the work we do.

The formal presentation of news hitherto has been dominated by physical structures that are no longer relevant to the forms available to us in the digital age – the left to right, page turning format inherited by magazines from books as well as the fragmented columns and bars layout of newspapers like the Times are relics of the Gutenberg galaxy. Our job in the future is to take up where Gilles Peress and Fred Ritchin left off with their experimental narrative presentation of Bosnia. Our job is to reflect on the nature of html and flash and consider how these might best serve the creation of viable narratives for the next generations, most of whom, even in third world countries where the digital gap impedes consumption of materials from the internet due to the lack of computerization and wide band access to the net, are being schooled sensorially in a whole new mode and whose consciousness must inevitably be altered by this fact.

I am coming to believe, as well, that brevity is not necessarily a virtue and that in fact the web is capable of sustaining a more in-depth, comprehensive and “long-winded” approach to story telling. Sure, browsing and clicking is usually a matter of brief encounters, but I am no longer convinced that this is evidence of a deterioration in reading habits or that the web induces a kind of ADD in its browsers. There is browsing, but there is also genuine research – which after all is where the net originated, in scholarly research and the need for researchers to communicate with one another. One of the responses I got from my first multimedia piece, on Dominican syncretic religious practices, was that I left out this or that sect, that I didn’t explore this or that theme – in short, that I was too cursory and too brief. Some of the viewers were prepared, indeed expected, a more filmlike treatment of the theme, something longer and more satisfying. I explained that given the current limitations of webstreaming I didn’t think I could provide such a structure, though I agreed it would be superior; and I wonder still whether this will eventually be possible, but I am convinced that our survival, our prosperity, depends on our ability to create such narrative structures and improve upon the current means of streaming information across the web.

You may be aware of a movement called “Slow Food” which has arisen in response to the prevalence of fast food outlets globally and the putative unhealthfulness of such food. What I am advocating here is a greater investment of our time and energy in what could be dubbed “slow news” – news presented in greater depth and without strict allegiance to the time worn principles that govern the reporting of “events.” While it bears resemblance to what is usually called documentary, this approach goes beyond the discursive boundaries normally associated with that genre. I am advocating a form of digital reportage based more on the investigatory practices and principles embodied by the scholarly researchers who originally formed the raison d’être for the creation of the internet. Rather than report that a particular event has occurred, we explore its meaning; rather than note its passing, we fix it, we monumentalize it, we expand upon it through a variety of discourses. We assume that news is inherently, as the name suggests, a matter of reporting that which is “new” or current or instantaneous. Digital cameras and new forms of transmission have promoted this aspect of the news gathering industry, since they allow for speedy delivery of content. While this model will certainly continue to dominate the industry, I think that the web allows for an expansion of this other aspect of journalism, the analytic and investigatory branches of the trade. While we are hardpressed to find work on the frontlines of current events, we may well find that new opportunities will arise in this other market and that even the established media, once they figure out how to make the web pay, may eventually invest more money and effort in this area as well, so that a new kind of journalism can thrive and provide us with the means of making a living as well as pursuing what has to be one of the most interesting vocations available to people with a drive to understand the world about them and the curious habits of humankind.

Alices in Wonderland: Thoughts on Narrative Discovery, Getting Lost, and Where to Find the Rabbit Hole

The changes to journalism in the digital age involve not just questions of economic compensation, technological innovation regarding new methods of delivery as well as new forms of presentation, and the redefinition of our practice as newsgatherers (will we cull still images from life or a video stream, will we combine the offices of writer and photographer? etc). They also impose upon us the obligation to review the role that narrative plays in our endeavors and decide on what sort of narratives serve our purposes best, how new media can shape those narratives, and what our narrative traditions have to offer us, both in terms of orienting us as well as providing clues to the type of content we wish to purvey. While we ponder the brave new world of clicking and linking, we also have to reflect on first principles, so it behooves us to consider the basic functions of narrative in general. It turns out there are important reasons for doing so.

Since the advent of new social theory in the late 50s and onwards, which also spilled over into literary theory as a result of the focus on language and semiotics, theorists and critics have shifted focus from traditional social determinants (economic and political factors) to the ideological function of narrative both in its capacity to foment and confirm key social values and also its use as a kind of social glue, reconciling contradictions that might otherwise tear a society apart (of course, what theorists have tended to overlook is the capacity of avant garde narratives to create new values. More on this later.)

Ever since Levi-Strauss’s famous formulation regarding the ideologically conservative function of mythic narrative, these theorists have examined the key role that storytelling plays in a culture, how it forms the ground of our being. The basic principle is that “mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of opposition toward their resolution”. Levi-Strauss analyzed the Oedipus myth, but there are many basic myths that fit the paradigm. Take, for example, the story of Adam and Eve. The bible makes it quite clear that incest is taboo; yet, if we are to accept this account of creation on the surface, it would appear that humanity is the product of incest, that society could not have arisen if it were not for incest. So human society is the bearer of a dirty secret, an “original sin,” a fundamental flaw that must be repressed or expunged. The narrative posits an ethical dilemma that seeks resolution: on the one hand, the need to privilege one human strand over all others, one tribe, the chosen people. Thus there is need to demonstrate its “noble” lineage, which must remain pure and intact, going back to an original creation. On the other hand, there is the need to admit differences between the various tribes, the fact that they are not all the same either in value or in substance, and that if it were not so, then all of humanity would be damned and civilization would be inherently evil. The contradiction is resolved via the narrative that is spun through the Book of Genesis, and I will spare you the literary analysis; the point, however, is that the narrative is busily at work performing a valuable ideological service to society.

The strength of Levi-Strauss’s argument stems from his recognition that the content of the narrative is only half the equation; the other and more crucial half consists in its form. That is, it doesn’t matter whether any particular story overtly emphasizes a certain set of heroic values, as in Mel Gibson’s mawkish We Were Soldiers, a film that extols the virtues of family, comradery, plain talk, and “honest feeling” to the point of making you want to choke on your apple pie. What matters is that it participates in a generic family of narratives that are structured in such a way as to formulate heroic behavior in a particular mold. Think for just a few moments on how romantic love and marriage are “structured” by the many stories that surround each of us from a very early age: princesses saved by princes, outside threats annihilated (and usually figured as ugly, lustful, and somehow unnatural or unwholesome), marriage/kingdom and children/subjects all wedded together in a finale that slips the noose of Time, thus intimating the superiority of the arrangement, its everlasting value. How many stories participate in this basic structure, from the Grimm brothers to Disney? Such stories create expectations in its listeners and tap into emotional reservoirs in order to elicit an almost Pavlovian response that gets channeled along very strict lines. You are made to desire a certain end and will follow a specific path to achieve it. The power of its hold on us is considerable. I remember vividly the reaction that a professor of mine had while we sat in a theater and watched Spielberg’s E.T. He wept. This was a highly respected professor of art and literature, a connoisseur who made a living on the side advising wealthy patrons of art, and a man of consummate culture and critical understanding. He was a Cambridge gentleman. And he wept at the sight of a silly plastic extraterrestrial doll fashioned out of the emotionally retarded imagination of an overrated Hollywood director. I myself cry ever time I see the Alistair Sim version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol. When Tiny Tim comes out with that “god bless us everyone” I can’t control it.

And that is the thing, it begins at a very early age, long before we develop the critical faculties to analyze the stories, question the values, and alter our behavior. These are what we now call Meta Narratives, narratives so firmly entrenched in our consciousness, with forms so fundamental, that we are not even aware of their existence. Because as Louis Althusser argued, ideology is unconscious. First we absorb rudimentary narratives such as the taunts of children: “Tom and Nancy sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.” These establish the basic terms with almost mathematical precision: A meets B creates C. As we get older the theme grows with us. It gets developed in pop music: “ Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage,” sung by Frankie Sinatra no less. And of course it reaches its narrative zenith in soap operas, musicals, novels and other more sophisticated cultural forms. Such narratives train us to be good bourgeois citizens: to subordinate or subsume the potentially threatening or extravagant drives of sexual love to the demands of middle class family life focused on the production of more good citizens to keep the marketplace going and stoke consumerism, which in a sense is a passive mode of pleasure seeking and functions as a kind of perverse, inauthentic, or parodic aestheticism. False perceptions, false realities.

What we are talking about is plot rather than theme, and as Aristotle realized, its social or cultural power is peremptory, and that is why he placed so much emphasis on the aesthetic realm. He considered art more valuable intellectually than history, though the former is fiction and the latter putatively “true.” The story neednt overtly extol the virtues it secretly desires to impress on the audience. The theme and the plot could work against one another, as they do in the Mel Gibson film. This is the worst type of ideological condescension and subterfuge. While the film broaches themes that would appear to be egalitarian, multicultural and broadly humane (extensive scenes are given over to the enemy’s viewpoint and stress their humanity), the plot surreptitiously reinforces its basically conservative and Americo-centric value system. The enemy is depicted as “normal” and “human” insofar at they evince American behavior traits, and in the end the American way wins. The plot, at bottom, is a competition in which the “best man wins” – a metanarrative at the very core of the American value system.

Of course, as I hinted above, there are narratives that probe and question and create new values. And even while these also operate more or less along the same lines as the mythic structure that Levi-Strauss analyzes (plots, after all, must reach a “resolution”), the outcome need not be conservative. It can break chains as well as forge them. There are narratives that invite you to discover and learn, just as there are narratives that merely plump up the pillows under the fat asses of couch potatoes. There are narratives that reassure or console, and there are narratives that leave you hanging, or that leave you with questions rather than answers. And while both types make use of similar motifs very often (compare Disney’s Sinbad with Homer’s Odyssey), those motifs or methods as they appear in narratives of discovery may provide us with a key to understanding why narrative pleasure is so powerful and how we might harness it for the purposes of journalistic communication.

I cannot speak for others, though I am curious to know what early narratives grabbed hold of you – for me it was any narrative built on this motif of discovery and escape: James and the Giant Peach, Alice in Wonderland (or Through the Looking Glass), the Narnia tales, the Ring trilogy, The Phantom Tollbooth, many of the Grimm fairy tales (darker than the Hans Christian Andersen set), Exodus, Stuart Little, The Odyssey, and a host of others. I have noticed that my six year old daughter likes to watch Discovery Kids and Dora la exploradora on TV and also that most of the childrens literature I buy for her (or my mother sends on down) generally makes use of the motif of journey and discovery. It may well be the most basic narrative motif of all. And I suspect that its raison d’ être consists in the fact that discovery and intellectual curiosity compose a drive every bit as exigent as the death or sex drive.

Which started me thinking about what we do as journalists and what characterizes the genre in which we work (whether it be imagery or text is immaterial actually). Journalism is historiographic, for example: it seeks to be the paper of record, the evidentiary testimony. Journalism is also educational: it seeks to analyse the meaning of the events it reports. And journalism is certainly didactic; that is, it has a moral function within the culture. It is very much concerned with how we live and with assessing that way of life. In a sense journalism is journey of discovery and enlightenment, an exploration certainly, an adventure. It travels the world in search of meaning. It seeks to make sense of things. So, logically, we must look to journalism to provide us with the same, or some, measure of excitement inherent in narratives of discovery and exploration.

And one of the peculiar features of this type of narrative is its ironical emphasis on getting lost – and found again (like Dorothy repeating the mantra, there is no place like home) – which is more than just a convenient plot device intended to get the story rolling (of course, you have to go down the rabbit hole in order to begin the journey). It is also a state of being that implies as well a state of reading or comprehension which in turn bears consequences for how we think about the process of understanding itself. If we reflect on these principles we may well learn how better to fashion our journalistic narratives in order to tantalize our readers as well as inform them. The importance of loss is that it is a prerequisite to recovering one’s bearings, it constitutes an ideological reorientation. One must shed one’s prejudices and presuppositions in order to prepare to receive real knowledge. It is a twist on the Socratic tradition. The dialectic is designed to refute doxa or “opinion.” Alice is forced, largely through the devices of nonsense literature, to question her assumptions about reality, discard orthodox notions, and reinvent herself. It is an old old trick, best exemplified by Christ’s use of parables in the Gospels. His whole assault on the establishment amounts to confounding the pharisees and their literal understanding of their own history. He challenges them to rethink the meaning of what they do through posing ostensibly impossible conundrums that don’t appear to make sense. Stick a hookah in his mouth, and he is really no different than Alice’s caterpillar. Add an impish smile, and you’ve got a Cheshire cat.

Anyone who has read Proust knows that the “longueurs” induced by his hypnotic and ostensibly rambling sentences were considered by the author to be a strength of his style rather than a debility; that is, the boredom they sometimes induce was intentional because they free your mind, they allow you to drift and daydream and escape control to some extent. The pleasure derived from getting lost in a narrative, from becoming absorbed into it, is the secret of narrative power. It is a wonderful paradox: loss is gain, lost is found, aimless direction is purposeful, and wandering is wisdom. It is the exact opposite of bourgeois thinking – what are you taught in college? Choose a track (major) and stick to it. Attend class, hit the books, keep your eyes on the prize, and follow all the prescribed steps that lead you to the ultimate goal, a well paying job.

OK, let me drop down from the theoretical stratosphere for a moment and plant my feet where every photographer ought to be, right on the ground. Forget literature for a moment. Listen to what Alex Webb has to say about taking pictures:

I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner. And so I began that first morning by walking into crumbling, tattered Port-au-Prince. The roiling, boisterous street scene of hawkers, beggars, and money changers, timeless and familiar, engulfed me. . . . (Introduction, Under a Grudging Sun.)

Engulfment in the experience, walking willy nilly, getting lost and wandering without direction, and all the time waiting to discover, to intuit, to learn – and to keep going. For one of the things that tickles me about that book is the Haitian epigraph that Webb attaches: dèyè morne gainyain morne (beyond the mountains there are more mountains). Which hints not only at the trials and tribulations we face, but the desire that the journey never end, that we continue to traverse the mountains and get lost in them.

Such a different experience from what we find in the newsroom, which is all about deadlines, speed, straight lines connecting A to B to create C. And of course it has to be. But let’s not forget that within that institution there is still some room to maneuver, there is still some time for dawdling and reflection. As Josh Korr of Publish2 reminds us, the choices are not quite so stark. We neednt resign ourselves to a choice between, as he puts it, the “curly fries” of nude Britney content and the limp “broccoli” of intellectually fortifying content; instead we can have that broccoli cooked up with a “crispy Thai chicken . . . and red pepper in chili jam sauce.” While the newspapers may report on the bare bones of a particular event, or worse report on nothing at all and provide mere “filler”, there are magazines like the New Republic, the Atlantic, the Nation, or webzines like Slate, which provide articles with more meat so we can better understand the meaning of that event. And of course, via linkage, the various elements can all be brought together in one place so as to provide a smorgasbord of information rather than a diet of bread and water. Narrative comprehensiveness can be furnished not only by beefing up individual narratives but also by bringing various narratives into relation with one another, in a kind of web mosaic.

That is one solution. People love to click or surf the web. Clicking, linking, is the equivalent of Alice’s little bottle that asks, Drink Me. One slug and you are translated to another realm of being. That potential for discovery, loss, transformation and wonder is kept alive by clicking on links.

What Korr has in mind is certainly a viable possibility and could easily be incorporated into the media’s MO. What I have in mind is something different and less likely to function under institutional direction, but could certainly align itself with institutional initiatives of various sorts via linkage. It is a bit like a pilot fish attaching itself to a great white shark. While the great white commands everyone’s attention, the pilot fish can reap the benefits by riding alongside for a while. If, for example, CNN were to run a story that I was covering too in my own way, then the trick would be to divert some of the visitors of their site over to mine. If established media were to adopt Korr’s suggestions and provide a plethora of links, then it might be possible to negotiate with them and have them directly link to your own. Of course, you can already link from your site to theirs, and getting your own site out there in the public eye is merely a matter of setting up the metadata so as to encourage Google’s creepy crawlies to register the site and push it toward the head of the search list.

That is another solution. But there are also solutions inherent in the forms we choose to present the material we wish to communicate. We need to explore different types of website construction and push html, flash and other softwares to their limits to see what we can come up with in terms of presenting solid material in new ways. The problem with so many news sites and blogs is that they are content to provide the same old tabloid style layout and add in a dash of linkage for seasoning. Instead we should approach the canvas like a mad collagist, break up the old plates and throw ‘em in there too.

Current innovation is largely subsumed under the category of journalism as film, as a cinematic experience. This manifests itself as a variety of multimedia forms that assemble oral history and other soundtrack material along with what are basically slideshows of still images, though occasionally we get a more kinetic result with the addition of video or attempts to move in and around the still imagery a la Burns. The leading exponents of this trend are, of course, MediaStorm and Magnum in Motion, the latter of which has just produced an unusual website that presents the results of Jonas Bendikson’s documentary project on modern slums, the Places We Live.

While I looked over Jonas’s elegant and concise multimedia site, it occurred to me that it performs its function with remarkable facility and style. It is supremely adapted to the viewing habits of browsers too, it flies along without sacrificing any of its gravity, it keeps you riveted but it doesn’t drag, doesn’t overload. It is important, experimentally speaking, because it marks a very deft adaptation of the protocols of journalism to the exigencies of webstreaming and surfing. It also incorporates a certain amount of “play,” a dimension of learning that we cannot afford to overlook when we put these things together. And like any decent experiment, it raises lots of good questions not only about its primary theme but also about the form and its potential, which can stimulate more innovation.

The motif of the closed room at the end of each string that a viewer travels, which allows you to revolve 360 degrees while the inhabitants of the room narrate their stories, is not just an innovative means of presenting oral history, which is one of the vaunted advantages of multimedia presentations, but serves as an interesting metaphor of the project as a whole. Traveling around the site is very much like entering the rabbit hole and ending up in the small room at the end of the tunnel with no way out, until you drink from the little bottle that promises to transform your being, (in this case, your thinking about people who live in the world’s slums).

But despite the packaging, the basic narrative is still very much traditionally journalistic: it moves from a general statistical background to the human interest story at its core. You are given information about a city at the head of each journey, a sort of data-map to accompany the geographic one, and then you meet different families to get their stories, their points of view regarding the conditions under which they are forced to live. And you don’t just hear them – you are right there in the room with them, so there is a virtual reality brought to the encounter that significantly amplifies the experience. This in turn humanizes the story, as they say in the biz, it provides the emotional and rhetorical content that brings life to statistics and forges a connection, a sympathetic rapport between the viewer and the subjects. That connection can be a very powerful tool for change.

But other facets of this fascinating issue – which I happen to believe is one of the most important facing us, that is the issue of development, urbanization, and population displacement – are left out of this engaging picture, so many of its crucial explanatory features are ultimately missing and a complete understanding of this phenomenon is not possible via this site. What is the history of this movement? What are its antecedent features and causes? To what extent and why is this phenomenon a feature of post-colonial societies? Why is this a problem of the Third World, as it appears to be on the site, and not the First World – or is it? (in fact it was, in a somewhat different form – this was a dominant theme of the European 19th century, as a result of industrialization, so in order to understand this phenomenon, we also need to investigate the workings of global capital and development in the past as well as our own time.) What are the consequences of such population movements and concentrations? What are the environmental, economic, political and cultural consequences? Not that any site could achieve such completion or be an encyclopedia unto itself. But these are all questions traditionally subsumed under journalism when it sets about investigating larger themes, they are not outside our conventional framework, so we should not hestitate to broach them.

Therefore, the question arises, at least for speculation’s sake – why shouldn’t we expand our discursive territory even while we expand our aesthetic plane, and thereby provide more and different types of material (information as we say nowadays)? Why shouldn’t we cross boundaries and combine disciplines and create truly polyphonal sites? Why should the idea of giving voice to a multitude of people be limited merely to reproducing oral histories? Why shouldn’t we conceive of the site as a kind of library with an overarching theme, a place where a variety of readers will find a variety of content that not only caters to each one’s need but also seeks to pull it all together, to make sense of it all, to find you while you wander around its many corridors. I don’t think you need sacrifice the elegant concision of a site like Jonas’s in order to provide more information, either. One of the points on the map could conceivably lead the surfer back in time as well as to another place, and provide historical imagery and oral history just as in a Ken or Ric Burns documentary. At the back of the site is a list of pertinent links, and these can be used to direct the viewer to other sites providing historical, sociological, political and economic information.

Will the cinematic model of presentation prevail or will other models supplant it? I suspect that it has a significant future and its potential is yet to be tapped. It is a bit like the Nickelodeons of old, which eventually developed into the greatest of twentieth century art genres. And given that movies still play such a large role in the culture, and all the “reader expectations” as academic theorists like to say, are already in place, it is all too easy to play into that set of expectations and direct them toward the consumption of news material. As software and the ability to stream content across the web improves, thus facilitating easier downloads, the appeal of such presentations will surely grow. The phenomenal popularity of sites like YouTube, which even politicians are now using in order to communicate with the masses, is evidence of the fact that cinematic experience, its kinetic quality, exerts a strong appeal on people and perhaps best defines or satisfies the readerly habits of a 21st century audience. But there is an older model that, for all its dusty associations with the past, also promises great things for the future, not the least of which is the potential for liberating the reader, for providing a truly eclectic content that allows for individual exploration and discovery. I am sure many of you know the movie Seven. In it, the disaffected older detective Somerset spends his nights in a closed library solving crimes by researching through the books on a multitude of subjects. Up on the second floor, the guards play poker and appear to be uninterested in “culture,” but they indulge the detective’s intellectual tastes by playing classical music on the portable stereo. The library accommodates all types.

And this raises a fundamental question facing all of us as we reinvent journalism in the coming years: what exactly is the function of the reporter these days? The old categories don’t seem to have much value in this new and developing context: we are called upon to be more than just photographers, writers, sound recorders, historians, editors, researchers, or computer whizzes. We wear all those hats and others too. Course we don’t want our photographs to get swallowed up in a kind of mental pap suited for the dietary needs of this century’s cyber astronauts. We want our images to stand out, to play their full role. But discursive polyphony need not work to reduce everything to mush; it can work to put things into relief too, and even make them hard to swallow.

And it is not just a matter of whatever particular tool you happen or have to pick up. Snap a shutter, push the record button, put pen to pad, or rearrange some dpi’s – these functions of production are matched by a much more significant demand – that we change our very thinking about what we do and what we ultimately produce.

Several people on a Lightstalkers thread seemed to feel that our practice was no longer a matter of being a mere content provider, that we had to dress up the meal too. Actually I think the analogy is poorly thought out – dressing up a meal is providing content. Granted, you don’t eat the table setting, but you do consume it in another fashion. We are still content providers, very much so, and the danger is that we may allow a love of novel presentation to eclipse the content that is our ultimate raison d’etre. Our job is to provide meaning, and we can ill afford to confuse the means with end.

Exploit and explore new forms of presentation? By all means. Diversify our production in order to tap into different markets – books, websites, exhibitions, lectures? Certainly. But by no means should we ever forget the fact that we are providing knowledge as well as entertainment, and the health of our aesthetic practice depends on a confident grasp of the inherent value of that knowledge. Again I insist that ultimately we are involved in aesthetic production; that is, we work in the realm of perception and understanding. We are narrators, story tellers, so it behooves us to consider very carefully the roots of our practice, recognize its ideological effects, and work toward creating narratives that do more than telegraph information or merely confirm what we already know. We need to pull together the various pieces that our institutions would keep apart. We need to confront a system of disconnection and disembowelment with a strategy of linking and connection, because the effect of this drawing and quartering of our being is none other than the emptying of memory, its adulteration, which leads in turn to our inevitable repetition of a farcical history instead of recreating it – and ourselves in the process. A truly living memory, our authentic history, is born out of just such a painful process, born out of dying, created out of destroying, found when one is lost.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Room to Move: Space, Digital Technology, and Industrial Changes in Journalism, with an Outline for a New Enterprise

“I can`t get the best unless I got room to move” John Mayall

I. The Problem

We tend to think of crises in terms of cramped spaces, pinched wallets, the walls closing in. Crises are defined by lack, by loss of liberty, by defeated expectations and dashed hopes.

It aint necessarily so.

Regardless of how one feels about President Obama’s measures to stimulate the economy, one thing about his perspective on the crisis is clear: he sees it as an opportunity to clean house, to institute sweeping changes that will reorient American enterprise and change the way we do business, to open things up rather than close them down. Many comparisons have been made between the current crisis and the depression, and while critics are correct in pointing out that the analogy is faulty, again one thing is clear: FDR also saw the crisis as an opportunity to grow, to expand, to create.

The end of newspapers is perhaps merely the end of doing business the old way, and if the captains of that industry had been sufficiently innovative, perceptive and diligent, they might not have had to scuttle their ships. The record of their attempts to shift to online production and figure out the future of journalism forms a truly pitiful tale of scant imagination and feeble will. The fact is, their interests were too deeply invested in the old way of conducting business, and management was not of the generation that enthusiastically seized upon and immediately understood the potential of web communication. When the geysers opened up a web page, all they saw was a screen version of the same page they had so long produced with ink and paper. Instead of reviewing their modus operandi, instead of reflecting upon first principles, they fatally sought to reproduce their practice in essentially the same form that had served them so well in the past.

This has all suddenly become grounds for lament, because although the crisis for newspapers arrived long before the current debacle, it was mishandled just long enough to allow the papers to survive until present circumstances tipped the balance. Papers that had limped along doing business as usual with only half hearted attempts to absorb the lessons of the new medium, have now been forced out of business.

And, interestingly, this lack of understanding revolved around an insufficient grasp of the parameters of the space that digital technology had opened up. Rather than cramping our style, digital production bears the means of freeing it up. Rather than costing the industry, it can cut down on costs. And rather than cutting back on reportage, it can proliferate it.

“All the News that is Fit to Print”

In one of the better discussions of these themes, “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers,” Paul Starr has argued that the newspapers developed a means of reporting news whose form was an inadvertent result of the market forces governing the enormous profits they reaped.

The key to the rise of independent and powerful newspapers in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was their role as market intermediaries--that is, in connecting large numbers of sellers (advertisers) and buyers in a local area. That role required changes in content, language, and design, so as to appeal to a wider public that included women, working-class, and immigrant readers. Instead of narrowly focusing on politics and business, newspapers now had an interest in presenting a wider range of stories. The result was a succession of editorial innovations in the coverage of sports, crime, entertainment, and community life, and the addition of such features as interviews, comics, and gossip columns. The coverage of politics and business changed, too, as newspapers increasingly presented more color, context, and analysis instead of reprinting long speeches by politicians or merely chronicling events--a shift that intensified once radio and later television took over much of the business of breaking news.

The fatter the paper the better. This principle, survival of the fattest, ruled the newspaper industry in its heyday, and it spawned a broad type of newsgathering that served community interests very well, even though the whole enterprise, in terms of its economic ends, had little to do with the high minded calling of its journalists. One subsidized the other. This breadth and eclecticism, this smorgasbord of intellectual content, benefitted the readership inadvertently because it guaranteed that they would receive if not necessarily digest a panoramic view of the world and thus avoid being locked into a hermetic semantic bubble in which one’s opinions are merely confirmed rather than challenged. As the internet replaces the newspaper, according to Starr, it could be that we will see less “incidental learning” and “greater disparities in knowledge between news dropouts and news junkies, as well as greater ideological polarization in both the news-attentive public and the news media” due to the fact that websites are generally more narrow in scope and ideologically motivated.

The issue for Starr and others is whether or not emerging models of digital journalism can guarantee the same breadth of coverage and community service. What form will online news take and where will we derive the revenues to support the enterprise?

The Potential for Advertising

The cause lies in the damage done to the economic underpinnings of print media. According to Starr, “the Internet has undermined the newspaper's role as market intermediary. Advertisers do not need to piggyback on the news to reach consumers, and consumers have other ways to find out about products and sales.” How did this come about? Why should not advertising continue to play a role on the internet and thus subsidize the journalistic enterprise that exists alongside the consumerist propaganda? Why should not the online paper continue to serve as a market intermediary? Advertisers still piggyback TV and radio news.

It is not clear to me as yet that the damage is irredeemable or that it has even been adequately defined. The whole argument about advertising revenue, for example, is repeated uncritically. Take the classifieds, which has been cited as an instance of the loss of connection between advertisers and buyers insofar as the papers cannot compete with the likes of Craigslist or eBay. These new alternatives are thought to be better positioned as market intermediaries since they do not bear the cost of news production. This argument turns out to be specious on closer examination. The classifieds, in and of themselves, cannot be said to have borne the cost of news production either. The costs of news production are covered by excess profit, which stems from several sources, and the industry was committed to that subsidy, so the issue of news production does not enter in to the discussion at this level – what counts is whether or not a particular market offering generates revenue and serves as a means of drawing readers, and there is no reason to discount the possibility that a sufficiently retooled classifieds for the web would not have continued to perform these functions. The question remains: why couldn’t the newspaper magnates come up with a new means of funding the enterprise, just as eBay, Craigslist and other successful websites did?

What are the factors operating here? Well, one thing that the pundits rarely discuss is the form that the operation should take given the potential for change and improvement offered by the web. Again, the concept of space figures in. Newspaper owners didn’t consider the means whereby space is created and navigated on the web, so they lost ground to competitors like Craigslist, because those younger entrepreneurs were quick to seize upon certain innovative measures.

This is what the Journalism Iconoclast has to say about that:

Rather than make a searchable, easy-to-use classified system online, newspapers shoveled non-Web friendly newspaper classifieds onto the Web. These weren’t searchable, didn’t contain links and photos were an afterthought. . . . they even carried the same space restrictions over from print onto the Web. Space in print is limited. The whole print model was built around scarcity.

There is no scarcity on the Internet. There never will be.

So, when people started seeing ads on the Web advertising homes with a frpl, instead of fireplace, it’s not hard to see why when Craigslist hit, the gig was up. Craigslist is not a technological wonder, its UI isn’t very good and it feels quite dated.

But it at least didn’t have ridiculous print abbreviations. And it was searchable, it allowed for links, it had photos and it was easy to use.

Precisely. There was a total failure of imagination and it killed the whole endeavor. The key for success lay in recognizing that the web is a different medium with its own formal properties and if one is to capitalize on the medium, one must synchronize the content with the new forms. The simple act of clicking, which moves the whole mighty mountain of information that is the web, has not yet been sufficiently understood or exploited. It is not at all like turning a page. The people at Craigslist went far enough in their understanding to appreciate that a searchable database with links would significantly improve access to the classifieds, and they quickly attracted devoted users. They also recognized that the protocols governing print classifieds were no longer germane, so they discarded them.

One may object that Craigslist doesn’t charge for its service, whereas a paper does. A paper puts a price on each word used in a classified ad. But Craigslist does charge for certain services and does make money. According to its factsheet, it supports its operations “By charging below-market fees for job ads in 18 cities, and for brokered apartment listings in NYC.” The job ads cost “$25 in most cities, $75 in SF.” Given their reach, with “Local classifieds and forums for 570 cities in 50 countries worldwide,” this means of generating revenues apparently works quite well and allows for the majority of users to benefit freely. Part of the genius of the creators is that they grasped an essential principle governing the net: they thought locally and acted globally. There is no reason the newspapers couldn’t have concocted something like this.

Here in the South, a truly proactive classifieds could easily provide an online journal with significant funds as well as a means of connecting the journal with a broad variety of users. For example, if the interface were improved (something more innovative than Craigslist), if features of eBay and Paypal were introduced, and then if some means were created whereby customs and shipping could be facilitated (which is a serious problem among Latin American countries, given corruption and protectionist tariffs) – a shipping company that cultivates links with the various national customs offices so as to ensure speedy and cheap delivery of products – then a subsidiary and very lucrative business could be developed that in turn would contribute toward the cost of news production.

I will have more to say about advertising and the means of subsidizing news production below, but one other assumption needs to be mentioned here. One of the things about print advertisement is that space is at a premium. Because there is limited space, the advertiser is forced to pay higher prices to rent that real estate. Since space is not a premium on the web, since “scarcity” is not a factor, advertising rates are lower. This does not mean, however, that revenues from online advertising cannot contribute adequately to the cost of news production, if that mode of production is retooled and scaled down. New types of ads, too, can be thrown into the mix, thus making it more desirable for advertisers to rent space on the web.

As the Iconoclast points out, the newspaper companies have to become more than just newspapers – which in a sense they always were, given that the moneymaking and the newsgathering formed separate spheres and employed different personnel with little contact between them. Just as Apple Computers converted itself into Apple and began developing a host of subsidiary enterprises, so too digital journalism has to develop and sell products that are subsidiary to the central purpose of the enterprise. The Economist, for example, is part of a larger enterprise, the Economist Intelligence Unit, which employs political and economic analysts on a freelance basis around the world to file monthly reports on their countries, which in turn are sold to business leaders, politicians, libraries, think tanks, and so on at a decent profit.

Citizen Kane and Miss January: the Universality of Desire

Current wisdom holds that the web doesn’t make money (unless you happen to be a pornographer); but it does enhance the ability to do so. And as to the huge profits reaped by pornography on the web, why hasn’t anyone done a serious comparative study in order to determine whether that model would work for other industries? The fact is, examination of their methods reveals the same principles that underlie advertising.

What, for example, is the fundamental structure of any given pornographic website? The “come on.” They flash a nude image, invite you to click on it to see more, and at some point they transfer you to a page where you are asked to pony up. Having excited you, they weaken your resistance, rivet your attention, and pit your reason against your desire. They exploit what Hegel called the Divided Self. This is precisely the MO behind advertising and consumerism. Walk the aisles of Macy’s and you will immediately grasp, if you are not totally dazzled by the ostentatious displays and the clerks spritzing perfume all over you, that the design of a department store is intended to produce the same effect as a porno site. It is all about the display of desirable objects. And instant gratification.

But you demur, news is serious business and there is nothing sexy about that. Well yes and no. We like to think that we are serious, and of course there is good reason to complain about the way news and entertainment have been mixed up, with the former becoming adulterated as a result. But desire is still an inevitable part of the mix, and in fact news does elicit desire. We speak about news junkies, and while the phrase is facetious, it does point to a motive force that we tend to overlook.

First of all, desire is not exclusively a matter of sexiness. Not only are there different types of pleasures – intellectual as well as sensual – which are equally exigent if not equally sensational or immediate – but there are also different types of desires or drives that can be exploited by those who wish to sell a product. We remember Freud for what he had to say about the sex drive, but we forget that he also wrote about the death drive and the fascination that death and violence exercise for us. It may be unpleasant to admit it, but one draw for the news is the ugliness of life, the tragedy. This is also why the soaps are so popular, or why movies fetishize guns as much as tits and ass. We talk about image fatigue and apathy, but I think there may be just as much cause to worry about an inordinate love of tragic or painful imagery. Horror has its attraction, otherwise we would not have books with titles like “My War Gone by, I Miss It So."

Am I suggesting that online papers adopt the coquetry of the porn sites and tease its readers with images of violated bodies? No, of course not, but I am asking people to be honest about what we produce and recognize that we too are eliciting desire and coming on to our readers, albeit in a different manner. Let us admit, as a first principle, that people do desire news. That simple fact is rarely mentioned, and its consequences are never examined.

Click Me Baby: Sex and Technology

One thing that pornographers grasped very early on was that the site itself, crudely laid out as it may, was sexy; that is, the mechanics of viewing also functioned somehow to incite or abet desire.

I was at a high level conference recently where all the political and business leaders of the country had convened to discuss the future of the country. Despite the gravity of the themes discussed, one thing I noticed was that everyone was always consulting their cell phones, fiddling with their Blackberries, checking their emails or messages and so on. Most of the activity was aimless, and in fact I suspect that the ostensible purpose of retrieving information of one sort or another was irrelevant to the actual motive force, which was pleasure. That is, people just love fiddling with gadgets, it gratifies desire in and of itself apart from the “serious” purpose of the activity that the gadget purportedly exists to facilitate. There is, in a sense, a disjunction between the form and the content, insofar as each function separately to gratify desire – but they also work in tandem and their separate dynamics can be exploited to reinforce one another.

Go to any internet center, and you will see all the people furtively engaged in clicking on links. Clicking is obsessive and compulsive. Clicking is full of promise, it is a wink and a nod, a beckoning finger. It is digital coquetry. Plot-wise, it is the embodiment of suspense, which is of course a major motive force in the construction of riveting narratives.

The upshot of this is that online newspapers have an unwitting ally in their quest to elicit desire and pull in readers. This is why a thorough examination of the form of the online paper needs to be carried out. Many pundits are arguing that survival of the papers as they switch to web production depends on their ability to invite more reader participation, to include viewers in the process of producing the news. This argument has not progressed much beyond rather lame suggestions about the pros and cons of citizen journalism and attempts to elicit participation through blogging. But no one has bothered to take this argument where it needs to go, into an examination of how the structures made available through digital coding satisfy the surfer’s craving for excitement and what sort of narratives can be created out of the mix. Instead of timidly reproducing what has gone before, we must break with the past and profoundly reshape future journalism.

II. A Solution

What are online news sites – are they in fact legitimate sites of production in their own right or are they mere adjuncts to enterprises that continue to function in their customary manner? would appear to generate plenty of interest, but when one thinks of CNN of course one thinks of the television version. The same with the online papers. The sites are all afterthoughts rather than genuine independent enterprises with their own direction and vision. Herein lies the problem. Their structural dependency has consequences for their function and their form. They are thought of as extensions of an original, already established enterprise and they adopt the form and thinking of the parent company. It is high time that the new online journalism cut the umbilical cord.

Web Space, Grub Street, and the Reinvention of Journalism

Much of the writing I do is severely restricted, a thousand words here, no more than 1,500 there – all because a printed paper or magazine has limited space. But on the web there are no limitations on space, so why do the papers insist on maintaining these same strictures? The consequences for photography are even greater. Why should my multimedia pieces be only three minutes long? Chris Anderson’s sublime report on Lebanon ran for 15 minutes and viewers were riveted to the screen. There are various unexamined arguments regarding reading on the net: that no one reads large amounts of text on a computer screen and that surfers prefer to click around and have short attention spans. They don’t read; they browse. But reading habits are often dictated by the content as well as the form – if we don’t think this way, we are unwittingly discounting the power of our narratives to transform people. By doing so, we betray everything we stand for. And nowadays, as people use their computers at home more and more, they do in fact read larger segments of prose, simply because the material is available there on their screens. Whole books are downloadable now, and I doubt that many readers bother to print the file out on paper afterward.

No one has really tried providing alternate types of narrative, so there is no real way to tell. When Grub Street started up in earnest in the mid-eighteenth century, articles were in fact quite long and people read them avidly. This new cultural practice coincided with the rise of coffee shops. Today’s chains like Starbucks and Barnes and Noble are no different. You can see people sitting with their cappucinos and laptops. The whole environment is geared toward leisure and leisurely reading. Moreover, the range of subjects was just as great, if not greater than what we see today in papers – scientific articles of every type, fictional pieces, poetry, editorials, all jostling side by side in ample journals that approached the size of books. Advertising did not yet exist; subscriptions and the cover price paid for production, and the content did not suffer though the economy of this industry was obviously much smaller. The journal format eventually gave way to the tabloid, but there is no reason to believe that the tabloid, given further technological change and economic pressures, might not eventually give way to yet another form, or even return in some ways to the original amplitude of the journal, even with a reduced economic base.

Because, again, the thing about web production is that the resource has no limits – production need not be based on concepts of scarcity. Space is limitless. Yet the articles, instead of expanding, are more often truncated. The multimedia are nothing more than slideshows, with little or no attempt to exploit the kinetic energy or the soundtrack in imaginative ways. After a century of filmmaking, these productions remain stuck in the age of the kinetoscope – with the notable exception of companies like MediaStorm or Magnum in Motion, but how often does one see their multimedia outside of the factory walls? And why cannot the photograph itself now command more respect, more space and more control over what is being “said” in the pages of the new online journal? Why cannot the photo once again have free reign in a genuine photo essay as in the heyday of the magazine? The fact is, all the reasons for cutting back on photos no longer hold. The photograph can become a genuine motive force on the pages of the new journal. I will explain how below.

Meanwhile it is important to remember Fred Ritchin’s basic tenet regarding journalism on the web: “One cannot simply “repurpose” what has been previously accomplished onto the Web, as so many publications are doing, particularly the “brand-name” ones. There has to be an awareness that the old conventional strategies are not always applicable anymore, and that a new medium requires new thinking.

The Value of News and the Niche Market

What I am proposing takes advantage of what economists call niche marketing. In other words, in order to boost the value of a product, one must create a “niche” in the market so that the product receives its appropriate value. For example, markets in the North are flooded with the kidney shaped mangoes that Haiti and Mexico export; however, here in Santo Domingo we cultivate something like 10 different types of mango that look nothing like those and in fact are superior in taste and texture. Above all there is a small drop of gold called “banilejo” that is superb. They are also easier to pack and ship and can be picked slightly green without forfeiting the taste, since they ripen just enough afterwards. These mangoes are now being marketed abroad as a specialty item that commands a higher price and is slowly creating a devoted following. Depending on how one packages the news, a niche can be created to promote its unique qualities.

Now a porn site does not depend on advertising to make money; it sells the right to view the imagery. And we all know, or have been told, that a paper cannot follow suit; attempts to charge surfers for the right to view content have failed. Except, let it be said, in the case of specialized papers, such as the Wall Street Journal, because these focus on a particular community of readers who are willing to pay for specialized content that they cannot get elsewhere. Newspapers, on the other hand, are forced to compete with other free services such as Google, since general news items are accessible and unrestricted. Nonetheless, one doesn’t get solid analysis from general news posts, nor does Google or any other news feed offer features. Features, in fact, have become an increasingly popular product for news organizations, and are now competing with hard news for drawing readers. The New York Times reported back in October that in fact such features along with the new offerings such as podcasts and so on had indeed boosted readership of their website. The point to understand at this juncture is that news organizations do in fact sell desirable products – news interpretations in various forms (features, editorials, investigative reportage, etc). They may not be as sexy as this month’s bunny, but they do create demand. And some webzines such as operate on a hybrid model that creates a scale of access – premium content is charged.

While surfers may not be dazzled sufficiently to pony up for the right to view most news material, many still do in fact seek out the news, they hit the New York Times site regularly. They do so because it is free. No! Just because something is free does not mean that it is desirable. They do so because they seek certain content, which happens to be freely accessible. In other words, there is an equation here, a relation between the two elements, which determines the market value of this product. What value? You cannot fix a price on a feature. No one will buy.

And yet there is value. Ask yourself, why were advertisers compelled to pay such high rates for space in a paper? They did so because their hefty investment returned heftier profits in the form of increased sales. But why use a newspaper to get the ad across, why not stick with television or radio or billboards, all of which are more modern media and probably more effective? Some might argue that the newspaper allowed advertisers to target the local community efficiently and comparatively cheaply. While a chain like Walmart might prefer the broader coverage afforded by a TV spot, and be able to pay for repeated announcements, a local business would not sensibly invest such sums if it could achieve broad enough coverage within the community it serves, since the paper would succeed in reaching the desired target and “repetition” would be achieved by the natural if unpredictable passing of the paper from hand to hand.

But that still doesn’t quite explain the advertiser’s decision. They also did it because the ad would appear alongside serious content whose proximity lent integrity and respectability to the advertiser. It functioned like an imprimatur. An ad in the pages of the Times has a certain cachet. This is why advertisers often worried about the placement of their ads and whether or not the accompanying story or photos detracted from the presentation of the ad. Newspaper content does indeed have value – like the web it can be said to enhance sales, even if in itself it does not sell, or sell well enough to cover the costs of its production adequately.

Of course it is still about the numbers, but numbers don’t suffice. TV spots are charged according to the popularity of a show, billboard rates are based on the daily circulation of traffic. Just as advertisers would pay more to air an ad alongside a hit show, they would pay to advertise in the Times with its high circulation. So why doesn’t the web version, with its even higher circulation, exact the same tariffs?

First of all there is the issue of space – online ads don’t command the same tariffs because space is not at a premium. This argument has been repeated often without being carefully examined. Online ads do in fact bring in revenue; according to TNS Media Intelligence, as cited by the Times, “Overall online advertising, however, is strong. Display advertising, the graphics-rich ads that newspaper sites carry, grew 7.6 percent in the second quarter [of 2008].” Yet revenues fell during that same quarter by 2.4% compared to the same period for the year before. Moreover, the various new elements included on newspaper websites, such as blogs, multimedia and podcasts, have managed to draw in more readers: “Unique readers in August were 17 percent higher than a year earlier, at 69.3 million, according to a Nielsen Online analysis of newspaper sites for the newspaper association.”

Part of the problem with the switch to online production and complaints about reduced revenues is that these newspaper giants are saddled with the cost of the older mode of production which in turn was justified by the excessive profits of the older mode of advertising. This whole model needs to be discarded and a streamlined economy put in its place. Then the revenues from online advertising will not seem so inadequate. Moreover, the ad space itself could be entirely rethought – linking and other formal aspects of the web could turn advertising into a whole new ballgame and excite both advertisers and consumers in new ways. An ad, for example, could be turned into a short computer game. If journalism is to become more interactive, why shouldn’t the advertising? The online journal could retain web designers who would act in the place of ad agencies to create ad campaigns that exploit the potential of the web. Here is another subsidiary business that could create considerable revenues for the company.

Then there is the peculiar nature of news as a commodity, and this is where the need for thinking in terms of niche marketing enters in.

One of the things that distinguishes news content is that it is an unusual type of commodity. It is a form of intellectual content that commands a special kind of value. Starr points out that news is a “public good”:

News distributed to the public is a public good in two respects. First, from a political standpoint, news contributes to a well-functioning society inasmuch as it enables the public to hold government and other institutions accountable for their performance. Second, news is a public good in the sense economists use that concept. When someone consumes a box of chocolates, no one else can have them, but that is not true of news. The news itself is never really "consumed" at all, which is why anyone can pass on news to those who have not paid for it – and in the digital environment, information is so easily and instantly passed on that news is, in a sense, even more of a public good than it has ever been.

Markets under-produce public goods because private incentives are insufficient to generate as much production of those goods as there would be if all those who derived a benefit from them had to pay. Still, for a long time, thanks largely to their role as market intermediaries, newspapers have been able to produce this particular public good – newsworthy information, necessary to hold government accountable – on a commercial basis. And that way of getting around the problem of financing news for the general public is now coming to an end.

To grasp this problem fully we must have recourse to one other time tested economic concept, which is Marx’s distinction between use value and market value. A commodity, which can be any object at all that enters on to the market, enjoys two different types of value. Coffee, for example, has a use value that describes its purpose as a comestible product. But once it enters the market it also has an added value in terms of the price people are willing to pay for that product if they do not themselves produce it. This value is contingent on many factors that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the intrinsic value of the product. Low grade coffee could achieve high prices on the market if there is a scarcity of coffee due to bad weather or blight. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee fetches higher prices on the market than the equally good or even superior coffee grown here in Santo Domingo due to advertising and adept marketing strategies.

News is a commodity too, but its use value is such that it would appear to be a hard sell. It does not enjoy rarity; it is not in scarce supply; it is easily “pirated,” copied, and handed around freely; it is not an immediate need in the sense that foodstuffs are, which satisfy an urgent inescapable demand; it is not a sensual but an intellectual commodity and thus requires a sophisticated appetite to appreciate it. Nonetheless, its use value is recognized by all as a public good, a valuable intellectual tool, a rigorous mode of information with a system of checks and balances to ensure its accuracy. As a social institution, it is important enough to be considered the Fourth Estate. It thus enjoys a unique prestige (as well as opprobrium), and as a result it serves as an excellent vehicle for advertising or subsidiary enterprises that stand to gain from the inherent ability of news to lend out its prestige as well as guarantee connection to a host of consumers – because news does in fact reach a broad audience. The New York Times site registers something like 20 million viewers.

Outline for a New Enterprise

One thing that Starr mentions in his article is the fact that if we were to switch to an endowment model to finance the news, the sums needed would have to be enormous – to pay a journalist his or her salary of, say, a hundred thousand a year, the endowment would have to be at least a million dollars, since the salary would be paid by the interest generated from the principle sum invested. While the fat cats may require such a salary, I do not believe that good journalism depends on their existence. Woodward and Bernstein certainly were not earning such sums when they investigated Watergate. Moreover, salaries are not the biggest problem of news production; it is the mode of production itself that is prohibitively costly. The truth is, the cost of production can be drastically cut by virtue of going online. A severely reduced staff, much smaller office space, no print shop, etc. Reporters don’t necessarily need an office, since they can work online and deliver reports from the field. If anyone enters the offices of a newspaper one is immediately made aware of the vast sprawling machinery of production, so much of which is no longer needed. If reduced revenues are a problem, they are offset to some extent by the reduced costs. Online production doesn’t require as much money.

Clave Digital, Santo Domingo’s leading digital news organ, and really quite a stellar operation, is run out of a small building that is perhaps a quarter or less of the size of the building that houses Listín Diario, the leading traditional paper here. Clave employs a small team of reporters and photographers to gather the news, and another handful of editors to run the show. Regular columns are provided by freelancers, and when big national events such as elections occur, the paper employs freelancers to amplify coverage. It is a streamlined and efficient operation that manages very well to provide the community service that Starr discusses.

The new journal I am contemplating would embody the principles of web 2.0 and adapt the form of the traditional photo agency. It would be decentralized and would not require a large central headquarters. Most likely the technological infrastructure (the servers etc) and the financial infrastructure would be located in one building, to be determined largely on the basis of affordable real estate, tax considerations, cheap electricity, and reliable internet connection, while the rest could be connected via VOIP and other web technologies.

There would be four basic elements:
1. Editorial: a core of editors overseeing the content and thematic direction of the journal.

2. Media Team: this would be a subsidiary company set up on its own entrepreneurial terms and initiative, so as to ensure an incentive to do their best work. It would not, however, play a subsidiary role in the construction or production of the news. It would work closely with content providers to create narratives and scenarios – unique platforms – that would give in depth stories their best means of being viewed, while they would also develop new forms of advertising unique to web technology. The company would be free to farm out its services to other enterprises.

3. Business: Accounting, Sales, etc. This aspect of the enterprise would be responsible for developing disparate businesses intended to create excess profits needed to subsidize news production. Several initiatives have been mentioned: a web-friendly classifieds; a web-oriented advertising “agency” (in tandem with the media team); creation and promotion of a “think-tank” or investigatory body that produces political and economic analyses for sale to specialty customers; resale of stock imagery; a book publishing venture that retails documentary and other long-term studies that arise out of the process of reporting the news.

4. Reportage, depending on field teams hired on a freelance basis and making equal use of photography, text and sound. New kinds of reportage would be explored, exploiting all available technologies; therefore, a more intimate working relation would be cultivated between digital designers and content providers. Photo essays would reclaim their past glory. Some articles could even be driven by the photos rather than the text. The photos themselves could be put to new uses, as narrative maps, as jumping off points to other narrative tracks, etc. The articles would break new ground formally and thematically – narratives would not necessarily be linear but would instead operate within a “field” that would in turn offer options to readers as to how to navigate through the story. We would be publishing new types of articles that break with the old categories and seek the fluidity of cross disciplinary studies. We would create bridges between traditional practices so that a truly broad perspective on any given issue could be created via linkage to other sources, much like a bibliography. We would concentrate on developing features, investigative reportage and commentary, while spot and breaking news could be included in the mix in the form of RSS feeds or some such thing, thus providing a daily compendium of leading stories, much as already does. Longer documentary essays, previously the exclusive territory of magazines, would be returned to the fold. Other types of articles on art, science and such could be provided by outside specialists in these fields. Thus critics, social scientists, artists and writers could all contribute.

The business end of things would also be run along the same principles running the aesthetics, or content, of the enterprise. Take Ritchin’s concept of synergy: just as a photograph “becomes, like other media, a gateway to other ideas and other media,” so too the various aspects of the business could also create links between different enterprises and thus create opportunities for everyone. For example, Magnum in Motion already has an innovative media team in place, but instead of just selling the product, they could also sell their service to other enterprises like the one I am proposing; and of course further links could be developed, such as a regular feed of Magnum images (as they already do with This allows Magnum to diversify and thus amplify its market offerings, while it also provides the journal with an expert team that is already focused on the same goals, journalism-wise, that the journal espouses. Other aspects could follow suit: participation from readers could be facilitated by making use of Utube, which already has a huge following and thus allows the easiest means of acquiring the equivalent of “iReports” and such from the citizen journalists out there. Editors could single out superior contributions for further development and perhaps offer a monetary incentive, but otherwise the whole enterprise would cost the company nothing.

The result would be not a newspaper, because it is composed neither of news in the old sense nor of paper; it would not be a magazine or a webzine, because it would absorb these into an even larger and more fluid entity; and it would not be a pale version of television. It would be an online journal, a record of our times produced according to the terms set by our times.

Part of the key to this enterprise would be its focus. In order for it to work, it needs to have a clear identity just like any other brand name on the market. The few successful webzines that exist, such as Salon and Slate, have identifiable thematic and ideological concerns that attract readers. They function much like older magazines such as The Nation. Since the new journal aspires less to ideological unity and more toward broad coverage of issues, the focus would be provided by concentrating on a geographical region. This enterprise would cover Latin America. It would aspire to be a leading authority on the issues facing this region, and it would be bilingual, so that readers in both North and South America could enjoy access. The concept of community is being radically altered in the wake of new media that bring disparate corners of the globe together and essentially annihilate time and space. Hence, while a news organ needs to be linked to a community, the nature of that community needs to be reconsidered. This does not mean, however, that a local newspaper could not adopt some of these measures and still maintain an intimate connection to the local community in which it operates. The virtue, again, of Web 2.0 thinking is that it manages to join the local and the global in meaningful and beneficial ways.

Sources of Revenue and New Content

The endowment model is already up and running, and has always been a part of journalism. Much of the best journalism is the product of organizations working outside the purview of the established media; grantors like the Guggenheim foundation, NGOs such as the Open Society, and even governmental organs such as the old Farm Security Administration, have all contributed to fostering excellent journalistic work, from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to After the Last Sky. (It is worth noting at this point that the form of these memorable works is really quite different from generic journalism.) And what sort of work is likely to be remembered years down the line, the many newspaper articles published in the dailies, or books like Herr’s Dispatches and Griffith Jones' Vietnam Inc, which were enabled by the fact that the authors were working for the papers. One thing that the new online journal could do is foster the creation of just such works with the express intention that they should be developed with these long term goals in mind.

Closer affiliation with major educational institutions would allow for greater synergy and the opportunity to develop focused investigatory and documentary endeavors. For example, instead of reaching out, say, to Columbia University’s prestigious School of Journalism, an online journal of the sort I am proposing could link up directly with that same university’s School of Foreign Affairs and develop programs in tandem with them that would seek to fortify democratic values in Latin America and so on. With the combined resources of the social scientists and the journalists, all sorts of sociological research could be executed in new ways that achieve greater comprehensiveness and marry on-the-ground local expertise and journalistic rigor with the conceptual breadth and depth of academic thought.

Affiliation with certain types of corporations would also be feasible. Microsoft, Apple and other digital technology companies are essentially in the business of communication, just as we are. A marriage between the two would not necessarily impinge on journalistic freedom, since these types of companies are merely interested in providing the vehicle for content, and the content itself is less of a problem politically for them. A company like Apple promotes itself in terms of innovation – well what could be more innovative than sponsoring a new kind of online news service that takes full advantage of the new technologies to revolutionize reportage? By lending its support a company like Apple would simply be putting its money where its mouth is.

There are in fact already examples of working online newspapers: John Vink’s Ka Set, which covers Cambodia, operates on a shoe string and does a marvelous job of providing insightful reporting. The potential for these operations to grow and redefine journalism for the 21st century is indisputable.

Narrative form, Participatory Journalism, and the Spieltrieb.

A few desultory comments remain to be added here about how we can encourage reader participation in ways that cultivate an informed, well educated readership able to handle responsibly the demands of an open society. I have written about the relation between pedagogy and journalism elsewhere; here I wish only to point out that current arguments about the need for reader participation are somewhat superficial, since they do not grasp, yet again, the formal potential of the web or the fact that the redefinition of space allows for an entirely new relationship between the reader and the author.

Instead of focusing on the mere expression of opinion, let us first recognize some basic principles about human thought: above all, the fact that individuals require means whereby their creativity can be tapped and expressed. Creative activity of whatever sort is a basic constituent of human happiness. I remember reading Edith Hamilton’s The Greeks when I was young and being impressed with what she claimed was the Greek definition of happiness. I have never forgotten the words: “the exercise of vital powers in a life affording them scope.” Vital powers, in the sense of those forces within us that perpetuate life and vitality – the exercise of our imagination, for example, of our ability to shape our environment and create order. But the second part of the clause is equally important: we need an environment in which there is scope for the free exercise of these powers. An open society guaranteeing our individual freedoms. Or a web space in which there is ample room for narrative and conceptual exploration.

This principle is fundamental to human culture. What is the story of Genesis but another version of the same moral? Adam is placed in the garden to cultivate it, render order, exercise his imagination and create a beneficial space along the lines of the original creation. Or take the field of psychology. Friedrich Schiller wrote of the “spieltrieb,” the child’s exigent drive to play, through which it creates an ordered imaginary world that helps them to learn and master the real world. We are all perpetual children. As Nietzsche once wrote, “a man's maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.”

Thus the whole argument about the need for readers to participate actively in the “creation” of the news must take into account that this need is motivated by profoundly instinctual forces. And that the impulse has less to do with the expression of opinion per se and more with the creation of narrative form. Who could have predicted the remarkable success of the Wikipedia? Who could have predicted that people would wish to collaborate in the construction of an online encyclopedia, a word that is practically synonymous with boredom, with dowdy dryasdust pedantry and claustrophobic library cubicles. Homework! But no, the Wikipedia people understood that their enterprise gave contributors the chance to play.

An examination of the Wikipedia would surely result in new ideas about how to renovate online journalism and cultivate similar practices intended to foster a community of communicants. Just off the top of my head, I could conceive of a similar kind of forum adapted to the communicational goals of journalism, whereby, given any enduring news story (Iraq, for example), contributors could be channeled through a wikipedia-like blog in which various aspects of the story would be developed and explored – Iraq’s history, culture, and so on – so as to round out the news and provide context. The rules for the blog would be similar to those guiding the Wikipedia. Thus we could avoid the rather tedious and querulous blogging that characterizes most of the online forums.

Another means whereby reader participation can be cultivated is through creating new platforms for the stories – insufficient attention has been paid to the radical experiment carried out by Fred Ritchin and Gilles Peress, Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace, which presented an entirely new narrative concept intended to convert the reader into an active creator of the story. This bold experiment takes advantage of the necessary pleasure we all take in putting things together, in rendering order, according to our tastes. And instead of treating the narrative in a linear fashion, this experiment made the bold move of organizing the story geometrically, within a field.

Such an approach to narrative is so far-reaching that I think people have not as yet begun to understand its extent. In the words of Fred Ritchin, “The solution I have in mind involves a simultaneous elevation of the photographer to author and his or her downgrading from authority to discussant; an overt embrace of certain aspects of media malleability, including its potentials for synergy; an active solicitation of divergent points of view as well as layers of context; and the empowerment of reader and, whenever possible, the subject.” No one, so far as I know, has acted on these principles or tried to put them into practice in a comprehensive manner that embraces not just the presentation of photojournalism (which was the focus for the original experiment) but the industry of journalism as a whole.

I am not proposing that the online news service dispense entirely with established forms of story telling or that it indulge in unnecessarily lengthy and complex articles that are perhaps best reserved for other disciplines. Greater synergy, for example, between academic and journalistic institutions does not mean that the latter should usurp the functions of the former, but it does mean that a journal of record can expand its coverage through linkage to academic websites where readers could be directed to find all sorts of information, thus cultivating “divergent points of view as well as layers of context.” I have already done this on the website I created to cover issues regarding the sugar plantations. It is a bit like creating a bibliography, but it can function much more dynamically and of course much more effectively since the material is just a click away. Brevity is certainly a virtue, so long as it does not result in cursory reportage, paragraphs composed of no more than one or two sentences, ideas dwindled to mere bytes and bits – I am not interested in telegraphing the news, which is already handled aptly by the news feed or electric ticker tape. I am arguing for more, for room to move, for an intelligent and more liberal use of the space that the web has opened up for us.

We are faced with the exigent need to make sweeping changes in our practice and our thought. I refuse to lament the situation; I prefer to embrace it and perhaps dare to shape it to some extent. It may be that it is harder to adopt such an attitude for those who live in developed nations and have enjoyed the benefits of the old way doing business; but for those of us who live in developing nations and are accustomed to a different rhythm of life, in which one lurches from crisis to crisis and becomes inured to the shocks that flesh is heir to, this is more easily viewed as an opportunity to take up the reins that others have loosed.