Replacing Journalists with Authors

11 years ago Haaretz experimented with replacing journalists with authors.

Among those articles were gems like the stock market summary, by author Avri Herling. It went like this: “Everything’s okay. Everything’s like usual. Yesterday trading ended. Everything’s okay. The economists went to their homes, the laundry is drying on the lines, dinners are waiting in place… Dow Jones traded steadily and closed with 8,761 points, Nasdaq added 0.9% to a level of 1,860 points…. The guy from the *shakshuka *[an Israeli egg-and-tomato dish] shop raised his prices again….” The TV review by Eshkol Nevo opened with these words: “I didn’t watch TV yesterday.” And the weather report was a poem by Roni Somek, titled “Summer Sonnet.” (“Summer is the pencil/that is least sharp/in the seasons’ pencil case.”) News junkies might call this a postmodern farce, but considering that the stock market won’t be soaring anytime soon, and that “hot” is really the only weather forecast there is during Israeli summers, who’s to say these articles aren’t factual?

Alongside these cute reports were gripping journalistic accounts. David Grossman, one of Israel’s most famed novelists, spent a night at a children’s drug rehabilitation center in Jerusalem and wrote a cover page story about the tender exchanges between the patients, ending the article in the style of a celebrated author who’s treated like a prophet: “I lay in bed and thought wondrously how, amid the alienation and indifference of the harsh Israeli reality, such islands — stubborn little bubbles of care, tenderness and humanity — still exist.” Grossman’s pen transformed a run-of-the-mill feature into something epic.

“Thirty-one writers decided, what are the real events of the day?” he mused. “What is really important in their eyes? They wrote about it, and our priorities as journalists were suddenly shaken by this.”

Even as it shrinks, the national media is reorganizing around a social media–to–cable news pipeline of daily outrage. It is shedding the skin of its once-sacred “view from nowhere” objectivity and embracing the benefits of cruder ideologies. It wants eyeballs, but it doesn’t want to pay for material. Why do that when a generation of strivers will do it for free, or close to it? No, it’s not so hard not to see Andy Ngo as one vision of the journalist of the future, self-employed in an Uberized model that gobbles up inflammatory content and takes no responsibility for how it’s gathered. These media workers will be ambitious, ideological, incurious, self-promoting, social media native, willing to force the story, and very, very vulnerable.

Joseph Bernstein “Andy Ngo Has The Newest New Media Career. It’s Made Him A Victim And A Star.”

“Bring Out Your Blogs” and Just Write

2019 is shaping up to be the “Year Of ‘Hey Remember Blogs’ (Navel Gazing Edition)” and I like it.

Sure, maybe it’s just me, considering that the only times I seem to make myself blog is when talking about blogging (see Writing In The Age Of Silos, on replacing Facebook with personal websites, and if blogging social media’s savior to name a few) but more people are pointing people back to blogs and saying, hey, here’s a home for you.

This week’s take comes from Marc Weidenbaum who notes that 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the coining of the term “blog” and reflected on the state of things today:

If this year marks the 20th anniversary of the word blog, next month marks the sixth anniversary of Google killing off Google Reader, despite it having been the most-used RSS tool. Around the time I read several tweets conspiratorially tracing the decline of the internet as a safe place for self-expression to that turning point, Reynolds penned a mea culpa about the lost act of “inter-blog conviviality,” as subsequently mentioned by Warren Ellis in his excellent weekly newsletter. I thought, in turn, about why I link less to other blogs than I used to, and I recognized it’s in part because there are fewer other blogs, leading to me being reminded it’s 20 years since the birth of the word blog, if not of the act. In any case, thanks to all them for the brain nudge and habit nudge.

“Inter-blog conviviality” is a great term and really highlights what made blogging great back in the day – blogs sharing other blogs. They fed off of one another in a way traditional media didn’t at the time, and allowed the building of conversation through platforms and soapboxes that could allow ideas to spread and take shape beyond just catching headlines and memes. It helped feed great blogrolls where you could tell a lot about someone just by who they highlighted among their daily reads. It was a true social network.

Somewhere along the way blogging became something else. A pejorative. Then the “savior” of things like traditional media. As more people paid attention to blogs, blogging became serious, and a serious business. Instead of springboarding off of the mainstream media, blogs were starting to break the news. Then make the news. Then dictate the news.

Now, just about everything is blog.

One of the things that made blogging fun was that it wasn’t publishing – it was essentially journaling. It was rough. It was a quick take. It was a way to get thoughts out to a larger audience who then helped you flesh it out if you didn’t want to let it go.

Weidenbaum captures a little bit of this when he advises the reader to not worry about whether or not you can “write”:

And don’t concern yourself with whether or not you “write.” Don’t leave writing to writers. Don’t delegate your area of interest and knowledge to people with stronger rhetorical resources. You’ll find your voice as you make your way. There is, however, one thing to learn from writers that non-writers don’t always understand. Most writers don’t write to express what they think. They write to figure out what they think. Writing is a process of discovery. Blogging is an essential tool toward meditating over an extended period of time on a subject you consider to be important.

Shaun caught onto this point in a larger post worth reading:

Wiedenbaum nails it here. Previously, writing was an end. Today writing is a pleasurable end that — quite frankly — I tend to reserve for myself. Do I mind opining on current events and the things that interest me? Most certainly. Does it make me any money? Never has… at least, I don’t see myself becoming an editor at National Review or First Things anytime soon. Yet writing-as-meditation has nearly always been my style… to work out what I might think so that I can express what I actually think, or better still to express the parameters for what I might believe.

As I said above, blogging isn’t publishing. It’s a public scratchpad for folks with ideas larger than a tweet or an emoticon. It’s at its best when it’s not pretending to be the New York Times or Gizmodo or FOXNews. It’s great when it’s responding to challenges like #1000wordsofsummer where you’re just looking to get the words out and you can figure out what you meant to say later. (If I count other people’s words, this post is around 850 words, nearly there!)

I like this renaissance in blogging. And I hope it brings more people back into the fold – and some fresh blood while it’s at it.

Speaking of fresh blood: Keep an eye on Blusterhouse. Jericho Vilar and I have partnered up for a new blog that’ll be about more serious stuff than “hey, I should blog more.” If you like good writing, watch for Jericho’s stuff (dude’s a mean writer). If you like OK writing, I’ll have some stuff there, too.

“Why Wasn’t I Consulted?”

WWIC as a question is the foundation of townhall meetings that invite public discourse on community topics. Only now the Internet exists as a virtual townhall for the entire world on every topic big and small.

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web. It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

Paul Ford – “The Web Is a Customer Service Medium”

Paul Ford’s entire piece from 2011 is an interesting observation on the web as a medium and how newspapers and others have failed to truly utilize it. I’m going to have to file away Gutenbourgeois for later use.

Turn your readers into members. Not visitors, not subscribers; you want members. And then don’t just consult them, but give them tools to consult amongst themselves. These things are cheap and easy now if you hire one or two smart people instead of a large consultancy. Define what the boundaries are in your community and punish transgressors without fear of losing a sale. Then, if your product is good, you’ll sell things.

He’s essentially talking about the democratization of news and information, citing Wikipedia and MetaFilter as examples of the wisdom of the crowds, but with filters and guide rails in place that reward good and limit bad to an extent.

In each of these, the audience participates in what is essentially the final product and ultimately determines its value.

The challenge for the press and the internet in general is to make sure there are those “one or two smart people” who can help manage these communities. Otherwise you get the firehose that is Facebook and we’ve already established what a poor job Facebook does as gatekeeper of information.

A larger conversation could be had about this piece and how well it holds up in time in an era of Trump, Russian meddling, “Fake News,” and other real world consequences of how information is spread and believed. I’ll admit that in 2009 I was dismissive of Andrew Keen’s sounding the alarm on the consequences of Virtual Democracy:

Keen displays a complete lack of faith not only in individuals to make right and rational decisions, but also in communities to do the same.  But this also smacks of a fear from those in power in empowering those without power, an argument that has been made against Keen for a while as he has argued that there is a need for “gatekeepers” for information.  When gatekeepers merely fact check this is not a problem. But if they seek to limit access to information, you deny people the right to be fully informed (or even mis-informed, such is life).

How quaint.

But what does stand the test of time from Paul Ford’s piece is the view that the fundamental question of the web is “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” (WWIC).

Look around. Entire websites are devoted to people who feel their voice should be heard. Twitter exits because people have opinions and snark and memes to share that they feel should be entered as legitimate points within a larger debate.

Heck, I’ve been blogging on and off for nearly 18 years because no one asked for my opinion on these things.

There’s that saying about what opinions are like and everyone having one after all.

WWIC as a question is the foundation of townhall meetings that invite public discourse on community topics. Only now the Internet exists as a virtual townhall for the entire world on every topic big and small.

The good and bad of the Internet is that it presents the ability for all opinions to have a chance at equal platforms, while in reality not all opinions are necessarily equal. There is no technical difference between a tweet from an account created a week ago with two followers than one from, say, Barack Obama. Technically speaking, one has the same opportunity to germinate and blossom and be found and read as the other. And sometimes, that random tweet from an account that still has an egg as a profile picture, will blow up into something significant, even if it has no foundation in truth, and find its way into the public consciousness far quicker and deeper than the truth might later on.

Lacking some sort of editorial oversight, those “one or two smart people” or even the Gutenbourgeois, there’s little to stop bad ideas from changing our understanding of something in ways that is no longer true, but now becomes “reality” because the wisdom of the crowd wants it to be.

Keeping WWIC in mind and even appending it to a viewpoint you find online is useful because it can help put some of these random voices into a context. Is that voice shouting out because it comes from a place of informed opinion that has true value? Or is it simply looking for attention like an angry uncle on the front lawn yelling at the sky?

The caution I’d advise is against using WWIC to dismiss what is an otherwise valid yet opposing viewpoint. Just because someone wasn’t consulted doesn’t mean they can’t add value to a topic. And we should want to embrace opposing viewpoints to have a more well rounded understanding of the world. It’s just becoming more important that we strive to become our own fact checkers, because in a world of democratized information there’s no one to check it for is.

Somewhat related sidenote:Remember the fanfare when Facebook was partnering with the Associate Press and Snopes to fact check stories on the social network and help combat fake news? Yeah, those guys are out.

What were the algorithmic criteria that generated the lists of articles for us to check? We never knew, and no one ever told us.

There was a pattern to these repeat stories though: they were almost all “junk” news, not the highly corrosive stuff that should have taken priority. We’d be asked to check if a story about a woman who was arrested for leaving her children in the car for hours while she ate at a buffet was true; meanwhile a flood of anti-semitic false George Soros stories never showed up on the list. I could never figure it out why, but perhaps it was a feature, not a bug.

Brooke Binkowski – “I Was A Facebook Fact-Checker. It Was Like Playing A Doomed Game Of Whack-A-Mole.”