Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Future of News

"What does blogging about the interactive conference have to do with your Obama blog?" my son asked me this morning. "It all has to do with hope and change," I responded, thinking that is a broad enough theme to cover just about anything I feel like writing about. Besides I'm sure I can work in some Obama references in these posts.  For example, this morning I asked Susan Crawford, who was giving a talk about the dangers of Comcast acquiring a monopoly in broadband service, whether the Obama administration is sufficiently alarmed about this prospect. She seemed to think they are on top of the issue, although we have a lot of reason to worry about whether Congress will do enough to assure universal access to a service that should be viewed as a public utility.

Anyway, here in Austin this weekend, where it feels as though all forms of media are converging, it does all seem to be about hope and change. A panel I attended today called "Hacking the News," dealt with the convergence between hackers and journalists, or how computer software designers are helping journalists process and present the news in different ways, while journalists are learning to think more like computer geeks. One example: designing new formats that allow stories to be continually updated and  expanded. Another is expanding the use of links to original sources, as well as to social media, which allows readers to become participants as well as consumers.

The computer geeks and adapting journalists on this panel see an equation between data and story. They generally applaud the ability of new media to allow access to primary sources, as well as to permit updates and augmentation by editors and readers and commentators. One of the journalists on the panel said he thought of his old stacks of notebooks as lost data, to which it would be nice if people still had access, rather than having to settle for his filtered version of the story. Someone analogized the new processes to the scientific method, which is designed to eliminate the bias of any particular researcher, to allow transparency, and to obtain the benefits of the collective knowledge of a lot of participants. This does seem like a noble ideal for the news. One good question, however, is whether that kind of scientific accumulation of news is what the public wants. There is a lot of evidence that the public in fact prefers biased versions of the news.

I was also thinking, what about writing? One aspect of a news story that may appeal to news connoisseurs is the particular arrangement of words and sentences and paragraphs, as well as other media like pictures and graphs. Authors, including journalists, take artistic pride in the way they express their content. Good writing is what makes stories memorable, and enjoyable to read. Readers, who have a choice of sources of information, might choose to read a particular reporter or columnist or listen to a particular newscaster, because they like the way they speak or write. Interactive story writing therefore seems threatening to any author who cares about the artistic integrity of his work. I happen to think it's important to try to write as well as I can, whether I'm writing a brief or writing this blog, and I get nervous if other people re-arrange my words.  Even though I am an amateur practitioner of new media, which encourages cutting and pasting and re-arranging and commenting, I nevertheless like the feeling of control I have over this blog: at least I can control the form it takes on this site. Fortunately, new media still seems to allow us to maintain some degree of control over the form of expression of our work, if we want to preserve that.

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