Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Independent Journalist in the Digital Age

Why does one write if not to bring together the pieces? From the moment we enter school or the church, our education draws and quarters us: it teaches us to divorce body and soul, reason and heart.

Wise doctors of Ethics and Morals ought to fish the shores of Colombia, where they invented the word "sentipensante" to define the language that truth speaks.
Eduardo Galeano, El Libro de los Abrazos (my translation).


I recently read a thoroughly depressing article on the state of the media – depressing largely for its execrable jargon (derived from the pseudo-analytic concepts of Mad Ave marketing), its paucity of ideas, and its blithe ignorance of the true mission of journalism. Nowhere in the article was there any hint of the idea that journalists might be pursuing their sometimes hazardous and often ill compensated careers because they are called to it. It is a vocation.

This article (http://www.journalism.co.uk/2/articles/532538.php), which presents the Guardian’s Digital Director, Emily Bell’s assessment of the economic disaster facing the media, was full of dire predictions (“The western media is on the brink of 'two years of carnage',” ) and Adspeak: the papers and TV news programs for example are referred to as “brands”. Nonetheless she points out rightly that the challenge for the established media is “getting the success of traditional, offline revenues to move online.” Certainly, as we all move online, the issue of how to make the web pay is paramount, particularly for those of us who work independently, since pay scales have not kept up with the costs of production and we are not receiving a guaranteed salary, so expenses are not always covered and day rates are disappearing.

The problem is that an exclusive focus on the marketing aspects of this transition, without reference to the other facets that will also determine significant changes in the form and content of future journalism, is unlikely to serve all us who endeavor to protect our independence and promulgate a higher form of journalism. Instead, journalism will continue down the path it chose back in the early 80s, when it decided to market itself as a branch of entertainment. Of course this does not mean that news should not “entertain” its audience, so long as we understand that entertainment to be of a serious variety, equal to the pleasure that one derives from reading a great novel, for example; but the goal of informing, of educating, of truth telling should never be subordinated to the goals of marketing, because that will inevitably result in an adulteration of content. Witness Emily Bell’s conclusions and consider how her perspective enjoins this rather superficial vision of web journalism:

“The traditional news media are failing to produce 'differentiated' content online amongst a 'hurricane of knowledge and publishing' caused by the growth self-publishing online, such as blogging, she added.” Aside from the fact that the phrase “differentiated content” is a calculated bit of stilted diction designed to dress up a rather vulgar concept of interactive communication between reporter and reader, there is also a gross overvaluation of web content and the phenomenon of blogging – with the patent suggestion that journalism should adopt blogging as a model of effective (read: profitable) communication. This viewpoint leads Bell to conclude rather facilely that “outlets should move away from the editorial models of the 'age of representation', where news organisations published what they thought readers should know, . . . to an age of participation and a better understanding of who the audience is.” The use of academic theoretical jargon again dresses up what is really an elementary argument with certain hidden and, it seems to me, pernicious assumptions. One of the implications intended to sway the reader is the characterization of editorial practice in the “age of representation” as authoritarian, in contrast to a putatively more democratic editorial practice in an “age of participation,” based in a “better understanding” of the audience. But of what does this better understanding consist? Frankly, I suspect that rather than serve the best interests of the audience, if we take that to mean their education, this slippery phrase covers up an intention to manipulate the readership in order to profit from their “participation” in the production of “differentiated content.” In other words, it is just bread and circuses to divert rather than educate the readership; and what is more, this entirely cynical approach to marketing news is based on a false aggrandizement of the reader’s ego, since the reader is invited to weigh in on the issues, and thus derive satisfaction from having had his or her opinion solicited. It seems to me that Bell’s vision is nothing more than journalistic demagoguery.

Bell concludes, “Journalists should be actively encouraged to see news as a conversation.” Again, it might seem a laudable concept – conversation, or dialogue, presumably being superior to lecturing – but what are the consequences for journalism if what results from this conversation is nothing more than the kind of blab one generally gets from blogging? To be fair to Bell, her version of this “conversation” is not intended to be quite so degraded, but despite the example she gives (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/robertpeston/ ), it is not at all clear just how this conversational paradigm will significantly improve journalism.

I can only hope that whatever looms on the horizon will not be so debauched as to succumb to the cheap blandishments of web entertainment. Unfortunately, judging from the superficial character of this article and its very poor writing, it would seem that the model for journalistic communication via the web is still tied to, if not to say straitjacketed by, the prevailing habit of “browsing” content instead of analyzing it, and “text messaging” instead of thoughtful composition. Instantaneity and brevity rule the day; but what we want is a more expansive journalism, a more eclectic approach, and a more innovative use of materials. Again editors will argue, as they did in defense of the switch to infotainment, that instantaneity and brevity are what the people want, that the readers’ mode of consumption is already established and the media must follow suit if readers are to be placated and “circulation” is to grow – but we are still in the infancy of the digital revolution at the beginning of the Information Age, so we can hardly characterize reader habits as yet as though they were cast in stone. Books are online, whole newspapers are online – these and other such forms require readerly habits of a more deliberate and slow paced nature, and undoubtedly as more and more people download them, more such people will be induced to adapt their style of reading.

As I reflected on this article I began to speculate on the form or forms that journalism might take in the coming years, and what this all means for those of us who remain independent contractors. Here are some of the possibilities:


1. Television probably wont change all that much, since the means of production are not easily appropriated by an independent contractor. Given the high cost and complexity of the means whereby televised imagery and sound are transmitted, an individual can gain access only by working with the established media – that is, large corporations able to purchase and maintain the necessary resources. You can sell them your video, but you cannot so easily appropriate the means of production and create your own tv studio (though as more tv moves online, perhaps independent tv stations will proliferate). And even if you could, you still have to buy time on the air, and that is exceedingly expensive.

2. Print journalism on the other hand is wide open to appropriation by independent producers, since all one needs is a laptop, a camera, some software and other such tools that are readily available to the average consumer. Buying air time requires nothing more than paying a webhost, and that is a negligible expense. Thus, the means of production, per se, are not an obstacle to the independent producer; instead, compensation becomes the central issue.

3. If more and more of us strike out independently, will established media outlets be forced to operate more like a photo agency? Will the economics of the web oblige them to work more with “stringers” who are on site – “embedded” in the best sense – and thus cheaper and faster and savvier than the globetrotter? This seems to be the trend, though magazines for example presently find it more useful to buy imagery from the wires. But I could foresee a time when photo desks will have rolodexes filled with the contact data for independent contractors at various locations. In fact, they already do, but they still rely on agencies to find them the reporter on the spot. As agencies continue to weaken, editors will be forced to do more of the legwork.

4. Lamentably, certain factors will contribute to a decrease or depression in wages: The proliferation of independent contractors who are not unionized or protected by an agency, which means we are all disunited and easily played off against one another; the fact that media outlets will have no obligation to pay insurance or other benefits to these contractors, who are not employees of the company; low cost of imagery available from the wires, which will put competitive pressure on the independents to keep their own prices low; restrictive or nonexistent expense accounts; continuing pressure to produce stories quickly, instead of allowing for genuine investigation and substantive analysis; and the continuing uncertainty regarding how to make the web pay.

5. The low wages and the reliance on foreign stringers might boost employment of photographers in developing nations, while making it harder for photographers in developed nations to make a living.

6. Technological development along with economic necessity will probably force us to wear more hats: the reporter of the future will unify in his or her practice various activities that hitherto were the exclusive domain of the photographer, the writer or the soundman. While I welcome this development, since it allows me to fulfill all my creative urges and gives me a bit more control over the content, I also deplore certain consequences: more work for less money, plus the almost impossible task of shooting imagery, recording sound, and writing up material all at the same time. Moreover, I have come to suspect that the current rage for multimedia presentations, at least in the form they are produced presently, which except for a couple standouts, is a rather timid affair, is a lamentable pandering to the lowest type of entertainment, not even a circus but a sideshow with a few crumbs of bread.

It seems to me that we are met at an interesting crossroads: while the possibility for independent endeavor is perhaps greater than ever before, given the current technological environment, the individual is also much weaker, beset by uncertainties in the economic environment, the political environment (including the demise of agencies, the lack of institutions, like unions, to protect our interests, etc), and what I consider the ideological environment, in which is formed the concepts and values that govern our practice and give us social standing – in a word, respect. As to this latter, again, current technology is a two-edged sword: it places editorial power in our hands to the extent that we can edit material more easily before submitting it, it gives us more control over our output, but it also “democratizes” photography to the point that editors feel they can stuff a point and shoot in the pocket of a writer and send one person out to cover the story instead of two. The photo, rather than a revelation, is more than ever a mere illustration, an adjunct to the article, a bit of color, a graphic accent intended to vary the page layout, nothing more. As a result, we are dispensable – our function can be assimilated by others. The idea that a photo is a quality statement with its own peculiar expressive power is eclipsed by the virtues of digital on which editors depend: its instantaneity, speed and ease of transmission and handling, its convenience. Lip service is paid to the photographer’s eye, saliva is spilt over talk of exciting imagery, but in the end the ruling factors remain logistical rather than aesthetic (and by aesthetic I mean the principal means whereby we apprehend experience and make sense of it). As such a photo becomes just another mass produced, anonymous, undistinguished utilitarian object. Adornment. It loses its power to surprise, to disrupt, to unsettle (though not to offend), and to perplex. It conforms, in the words of Roland Barthes, to the “civilized code of perfect illusions”; it behaves itself like a good bourgeois in good company. A sad fate, if you ask me.

I would rather drink absinthe and die in a drafty attic.