Notes on the creation of a new media landscape

Posts Tagged ‘Journalism

The Story Is Dead. Long Live the Story.

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Based on an article in the BBC’s recent report The Future of Journalism, Vin Crosbie’s blog recently published another premature obituary for our profession—a piece that is fast developing into its own genre of new-media punditry:

People very much want to know local news and information, such as which restaurants in town serve Chinese food and are open at this hour, what the score is at this moment at the local secondary school’s football game…But they want to know all of it now, not just the few topics about which a local news organization might have available staff that day to report…
The web has … erased the distinction we journalists used to make between ‘news’—what we said it was—and information, stuff, the whole of the rest of the world.

Let’s give him that. The conclusion inferred from this, which Crosbie’s blog quotes approvingly from the BBC report, bears closer examination: “Our old image of gripping them with our ‘stories’ is no more. The story is dead.”

Long-form journalists who haven’t taken the hemlock already need no comfort from me. But new-media pundits—who often sound suspiciously like old-media pundits (except, of course, for yours truly)—can always stand a good rap on the knuckles. Here’s one that I think is especially well-deserved.

The story is not dead, it’s just suffering. The reason is that publishers, journalists and other story tellers have been slow to adapt to a digital world with lots of newfangled pens and pencils, including audio, video, full-motion infographics, Flash animation, various forms of interactivity—and, of course, words, the better the better.

Some of us have confused the availability of new tools with the need for a new theory of knowledge. To be sure, our moment is revolutionary, and the media disruption we are experiencing now will have revolutionary outcomes. But the story in this revolution is like the axe in the transition from stone to bronze: We still used axes. The edge just got a lot sharper.

Forty-five years ago, in Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan described the digital revolution before us now with preternatural precision: “We have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly we approach the final phase of the extensions of man—the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.”

In this revolution, we are ill-served by reducing the ambition of even purely local news to “which restaurants in town serve Chinese food” or high-school football scores. If that is digital deliverance, save me from it.

Right now, digital story-telling is a pathless land. I work for one of the places venturing forth into this undiscovered country, and at least so far, it’s very lonely out here. But it won’t be for long.

Knowledge and information can and will be virtually ubiquitous, wikied and individually curated, to our great common benefit, but so too will stories continue to be reported and told. At some point in the not distant future, stories with sharper, digital edges will inform conversation in a transformed version of the public square—a place busier than the old one, no doubt, and substantially messier, but one that serves the ultimate democratic goal of consensus in a way that a clamor of bits and bytes of purely utilitarian information never could.

In his New York Tribune editorial of 1865, Horace Greeley famously advised: “Go West, young man, and grow up with your country.”

If Greeley were around today, I think this is what he would tell publishers, journalists and other story-tellers of all ages:

Go digital, and grow up with your fellow citizens.

Jim Gaines
Twitter: @jamesrgaines

This is a conversation. What do you think—about the future of the story and story-telling? Take a look at FLYP—what do you like, and not? What do you see elsewhere on the Web or in the world that suggests good story-telling? Or do you agree that the future of digital publishing is in purveying pure information?


Written by Jim Gaines

August 31, 2009 at 4:07 pm