Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Katharine Weymouth's ulterior motives

what print newspaper editors have to gain from arguing that content is king and format is just something to quibble over

You have to read Washington Post editor Katharine Weymouth's shrill defense of print journalism, thinly disguised as a commencement speech for Medill School of Journalism grads. For my money, the most interesting part of the speech is this chunk, which comes right after a grudging nod to the role of new media technologies like Twitter and Facebook in the ongoing Iranian revolution:
But using new tools do not mean doing away with the profession of reporting – of cultivating sources and spending days and weeks and sometimes years developing a story and digging to the bottom. Of parsing sides in order to get at the underlying truths. Ariana Huffington refers often to the new era in media as that of the “linked economy.” She is right to a degree. But like a chain, a linked economy is only as good as its weakest link -- meaning it’s only as good as the quality of the content to which you are linking. Without serious sources of news, both our economy and our society would suffer.

What format that content comes in is a separate question.

Just as Weymouth nods to Huffington, I'll grant that Weymouth is also right to a degree--a linked economy really is only as good as its weakest link. But treating content as separate from format flies against the principles that led journalists to want to expand reporting across new formats in the first place: New formats offer new types of journalism, new chances to reach new audiences, and (let's face it) new potential advertisers. Indeed, the effort to separate content and format--to suggest that one exists independent from the other--descends beyond confusing into the realm of the absurd.

Format may not matter if you're rich, white, and a resident of a large (democratic) metropolitan city, where you have access to just about all imaginable news delivery platforms; it matters a little more if you don't have a television, or you can't get online, or the only communication tools not controlled by the government are tools like Twitter and Facebook.

Oh, and also, it's easy to argue that weak links can be identified by an examination of content, not format, when you're a dyed-in-the-wool member of the weakest news delivery format we have. Newspapers aren't dying because their content is weak; they're dying because the format they use to deliver the content quickly dies on the vine. While online journalism is easily picked up and spread across platforms, the material offered in a print newspaper gets tossed at the end of the day. Iranian Twitter users break the news of revolution to a global audience of millions; the Washington Post reports the same revolution and a few thousand, at best, first learn of it via the print edition that lands in their driveway. The rest of the WaPo readership already got the news, from Twitter or hundreds of other news platforms, including--perhaps--the online edition of the Washington Post. If the goal of journalism is to deliver the news, then it seems pretty obvious that print newspapers are the weakest link.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Oh em gee, exactly. What I am getting tired of hearing is the assumption that just because it's online or doesn't appear in print, whoever did the reporting sucks--as if to say those that make their voices heard in new media formats are somehow lesser journalists, unable or even unintersted in cultivating sources, spending weeks or years developing a story, and digging to the bottom; as if to say that online journalists are somehow the weakest link; that the only way to make your word legitimate is to have it pressed in ink onto paper.

I think this notion only further emphasizes the inability of those to grasp the intangible space of online content. They just don't get it.

Performing, communicating, or reporting online requires a different kind of cognitive ability because you can't hold it in your hand. It might, at first, be difficult to cogently express your ideas without actually writing it down; so, it makes sense that it would take time to re-learn how to communiacte using this abstract realm of linking to one another; but it makes it no less valid as a medium.

People like Weymouth, after newsprint is out of print, become the weakest link. Ok, wait, so I won't go in that direction, but I will say that the line of thought Weymouth is expressing only works to reveal the ignorance and inability of the opinions she supports. But, NCLB here, so...


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