No Gnus is Good Gnus (with Gary Gnu)

I’ve about had it with the news industry.  I’m ready to participate in a new social news experiment: try like hell to avoid “keeping up” with the news industry and see just how much better my life can be.

Lemme Splain… no, Lemme Sum Up

Before I go off on the news industry all together, though, let me sum up this week’s reading assignment in very broad strokes to demonstrate that I read them.  We have Bender (2002) and his “Daily Me” recounting how everyone at MIT is ‘oh-so-much-cooler’ than everyone else because while we’ve been playing with etch-a-sketch, they’ve been able to select their own news sources. I grudgingly admit I’m jealous and wondering why more of MIT’s thought leadership hasn’t made it out of the ivory tower into popular use without falling victim to crass commercialism, but then I remembered that we have MIT to thank for Microsoft, so I shouldn’t be surprised at the ‘many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip’ that have come vomiting forth from the ivory circuitboard.

Then we have Sunstein (2004) and his article about Filtering. Sunstein seems to spend much of the article showing that the internet actually allows filtering, and very little of the article building a strong argument for how that actually could damage ‘Democracy’.  He just seems to assume that by pointing out the fact that by filtering our news we’re closing ourselves off from opposing viewpoints and therefore damaging Democracy.  I challenge Sunstein to show me a filtering system that actually works to the level he’s assuming for filtering out diversity under the mistaken guise of ‘undesirability’. Personally I think that the reason we’re filtering in  the first place is because there’s just so many visual voices crying for our attention, and lately, our outrage, that we’re shutting down the influx as a sane act of self-defense.  More on that below.

Bruns (2006) picked up the Wiki aspect of news today and sounded off on the inherent limitations of that method of newsgathering. While informative, Bruns’ Wikinews article didn’t exactly trigger much in the way of new thoughts on this subject for me.

Jankowski & van Selm (2001) seemed incredibly outdated to me and honestly, irrelevant. I know, I know, that’s a -very- loaded word, and I don’t mean that they’re irrelevant to the development of the historical understanding of the internet’s impact on the news industry, but I’m already anti-news to begin with, so the article felt rather irrelevant to the current state of affairs to me. Outdated in the extreme, it’s amazing how quickly ‘state of the art’ research becomes ‘historical curiosity’. What I walked away from Jankowski & van Selm with was a better understanding of how the internet is now critical as a scholarly medium, simply because the pace of change has ramped up and traditional media culture can no longer keep up.

In my anthropology studies I was warned not to use any sources published prior to 1980 because of the tremendous methodology shift that occurred after the GI Bill allowed middle classes access to universities and changed the way that anthropology was studied. I thought that was excessive. In studying ICM, if something is not printed within the last year, I approach it as an historical piece, not as a current document. Some articles older than last year certainly still retain validity, but not as many as we might hope.

I’ve started reading Matheson (2004), but I have to confess that I’m not exactly grabbed by it. With it being an optional assignment, I confess I haven’t made it all the way through yet. What I do like is that Matheson has chosen to address the epistemology of journalism. Quick checking in the Wikipedia entry shows that ‘epistemology’ refers to a ‘theory of knowledge’, a philosophy of knowledge that includes methodolgy and addresses both knowledge and belief.  I like Matheson’s premise in working from this angle because a lot of my own personal diatribe against the news industry comes from an inherent disagreement with the epistemology of journalism to begin with.

On With the Show

I hate the news industry. I really do.

The old adage from the days of print-based primacy goes, “Never piss off a man who buys ink by the ton.” It’s an extension of the aphorism that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” In plain English, character assassination trumps physical assassination (for everyone else except the guy who got killed, I suppose).

But really, let’s examine just what the news industry does. First of all, they don’t make their money by writing news. That’s why for any print newspaper there’s the concept of the ‘newshole’ to begin with. (Jankowski & van Selm mention it in their article) I’ve worked at a newspaper (the Poughkeepsie Journal, 1996-7) creating the galley dummy for the next day’s edition as part of my daily tasks. The first thing I did was find out how many sections the press was going to run, and that determined the total ‘column inches’ of space that the paper had to work with. I then worked from the advertising book for the day and put in all of the ads (or all of the placeholders for the ads).  We had a computer program that assisted us in doing this by the time I came along, but the old timers still in the department showed me how to tabulate the space by hand, too.

Only once the ads were all firmly in place in the paper did we call down to the press room with the galleys. The Pressmaster would approve the galley (looking for technical problems), and at that point we would make the phone call up to Editorial to tell them how many column inches they had in which sections of the paper. Once the column inches were determined, the editors figured out what articles they were going to run.

Newspapers are in the advertising business. Make no mistake about it. The fees charged for each copy of the newspaper doesn’t generate the revenue that keeps the papers in business, but the ads sure as hell do. One weekend the Poughkeepsie Journal had to run a special advertising section by IBM. IBM had negotiated with Ad Services and was paying for an 8 page special advertising section to run in Section A of the paper with one strict requirement… the middle spread of the ad section HAD to fall on the Broadsheet Fold of the section… the middle of the section where you open the two pages up to full size and it’s a single sheet of paper with no pages in between.  PoJo had a running style sheet which hadn’t been messed with for years which dictated where the Op/Ed page ran in Section A. Unfortunately, the IBM section ran right through the PoJo stylesheet, based on where the broadsheet fold happened that particular day. The Powers that Be were invoked by the weekend editor because -she- felt that Editorial styles were going to -have- to win out.

I’m happy to say that the IBM piece ran as scheduled, and for the first time in years the Op/Ed page shifted to accomodate it. Even more happily for me, that editor never once challenged Ad Services again since she had been verbally ‘educated’ that the ads pay her salary, and I believe the phrase used by the Editor-in-Chief was “What, you think that we make our money because people actually want to *read* what we write? We’re just the excuse the paper uses to sell ad space. Be happy with what you get if you value your paycheck because this week it’s courtesy of IBM.”

Nothing Gnu About It

There’s really nothing new about the way that online news has changed the basic business structure of news. They still make $0 off of their circulation fees, and 100% of the income comes from ads. It has *always* been this way with the news, and it always will be.

What seriously annoys me about the field of journalism in the first place is that presumption of driving value. Almost a priestly caste of information gatherers whose bias shapes the news and limits or colors what it is we’re exposed to. While I admire Sunstein’s premise in a theoretical ‘extension to extreme cases’, I hold that the dangers to Democracy from news filtering were actually more pronounced in the past when geographical distribution determined which media channels were available to any given person.

Think about it. Unless we’ve lived in metropolitan areas, there hasn’t exactly been much in the way of choices for the local newspaper. If you live near a newspaper outside of the metropolitan centers, then you only lived near one newspaper, usually speaking.  If you didn’t like the opinions of the editor, you could write and complain, but you couldn’t actually get a better newspaper unless you paid for special delivery from one of the metropolitan centers.

This in the past put print journalists into a position of actual power over the information flow of their circulation readers. Part of the reason that journalism developed is because we the People can’t be in every spot at once, paying attention to everything at once. And so a profession developed around the need to provide the service of reporting and distribution.

Sacrifices To Expediency

Why is there a journalistic style of writing as separate from “general” writing in the first place? Why do we have to confine ourselves to the whole concept of writing in terse style, employing a hook, front loading the articles in certain ways to convey opinion without communicating anything but facts? Because of the newshole, that’s why.

When you only have a certain amount of space to deal with, you write to fit. You write to incorporate the limitations of the medium in which you are working. Just as a painter who wishes to produce oil paintings must learn the rules of working fat media over lean media so that the paint doesn’t crack and peel, a journalist had to learn how to adapt the pattern of communication to fit within the limitations of the newshole.

As the night went on in the newspaper, there were often last minute ad insertions which, of course, shrank the newshole. Last minute revisions were frequent and reporters often had to cut material off of their articles to make way for more ads because the newshole was a continually shrinking measure. The editors were the ones in charge of allocation of space within their Section, with the Editor-In-Chief controlling the overall arrangement of sections and topics to begin with.

Because of these needs, and the layout of the medium of newspapers itself, print journalists had to learn how to write in a terse, condensed style to communicate the most amount of information (fact AND opinion) in as short a space as was physically possible, without being ‘dense’. The fact that this style of writing continues to be taught as a professional skillset today means that there must be some perceived value in this kind of writing, but at the same time, we’re breaking beyond the restrictions that caused the need for the style in the first place.

Anti-news for me

I personally resist the news. It wasn’t always this way; at one time I was a news consumer just like everyone else. But then I began working in advertising. When you work in advertising, you start paying more attention to the ads. My partner frequently grumbles about my habits of deconstructing advertisements as I see them broadcast or encounter them in print. It makes watching TV with me slightly disconcerting because I pay attention to the commercials … and then want to discuss them.

That personality tweak aside, I also began to develop an appreciation for the fine art of the subtle sale. Sales pitches began to jump out at me all over the place, and not just in ads or commercials, either. I began to process things with synesthesia. Synesthesia is deliberately mixing or substituting one sensory input or output for another. On a hallucinogenic trip, synesthesia is chemically induced, but it can be used cognitively and on purpose without the chemicals in order to understand how we process data. To understand what I mean, think about what color you associate with ‘Monday’. The concept of days of the week have no color attached to them, but yet I bet that your mind supplied you with an answer to that question.

In my synesthetic processing of external stimuli, I began to imagine every sales pitch as a voice calling out “Look at me! Look at me!” When you look, the voice then says “Obey me! Obey me!” Luckily, I can turn off synesthetic processing at will when it’s self-induced (without chemical cause; I tend to avoid those because reality is strange enough for me to begin with). But literally, I began to notice that the same patterns of advertisements calling out for attention on the page began to trigger for news stories. Watch the nightly news on TV and you can see them using the good ol’ Bait & Switch with news stories, putting the one with the most interesting headline last and continuing to tease you with it and then switch to other news bites.  Look at CNN.com’s layout and you can almost see the news links jostling each other in line for attention.

The Real Value of Online News is Me

With the realization that the news stories have always been a vehicle meant to attract the viewers so that ad space can be charged for, followed by the realization that the internet hasn’t changed that at all, I’ve come to realize that the value in online news lies in me. And you, and you, and you too in the back, there.

The news industry is scrambling because traffic patterns are changing and the newspapers are no longer commanding the bottleneck of attention spans. With so many online sources and options bombarding us from all over the world, all of which are calling for their own form of attention and action, the role of the newspaper is changing. The traffic pattern has shifted, and they are no longer the ones who can charge the multitude for a guaranteed pool of exposure.

The value for online news is in me, and how I choose to find it. And while I will occasionally look at the online news forums, I tend to stick with CNN.com and maybe Salon.com if I want to watch conservative-baiting online. Other than that, I refuse to get all up and into newsgathering online. While I’m participating in the blogosphere, I don’t rely on blogs for my “news” because “news” to me is a commercialized invention imposed on writing in general, and its an imposition I reject. I reject it as a writer (see how long and rambling this post is?) and I reject it as a reader. I’d rather just buy Time magazine and read it on the toilet than worry about subscribing to news feeds beyond a select few topics of personal interest.

I actually like the idea that there’s an entire industry out there scrambling to figure out where the hell *I* disappeared to with my habits online. I like the fact that the bait and switch power is in *my* hands now. And *I* choose not to look anymore. I’ll research what I need to know. I’ll skim Time magazine on the throne to see what I missed that week in terms of general news. But even when the cable is turned back on at home, news will *not* be on the agenda.

References

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2 responses to “No Gnus is Good Gnus (with Gary Gnu)

  1. I believe I understand this correctly but I need to make sure. A reporter writes a story, then edits it to fit a certain number of inches, then just before H-hour at the presses he may have to edit it more to accomodate advertising. If this is all done on a computer, why not post the original article online? Couldn’t a newspaper do a print version then post an online, e-paper with all the original story lengths? This would be like a “Reporters’ Cut” edition that could still host ads. Wouldn’t that be an effective means of keeping journalistic integrity AND turning a profit?

  2. @Ryan

    Having studied some more in this program and met some of the outsdanding candidates of the journalism program since posting this comment… do you still want to talk about journalistic integrity? *bweg*

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