Thursday, November 27, 2008

Narrative Pleasure, Digital Journalism, and "Slow News"

Our journalistic endeavors tend to be dominated by the need to get the material published – that is, we want to get our story out there so that people know that something is wrong (or sometimes right) with the world – and we have historically been limited by the inherent strictures of the established media (considerations of space, editorial agendas as to what stories ought to run and how they should appear stylistically, etc). We can all cite famous examples of good material not getting published or getting published only in a severely truncated form. Marcus Bleasdale’s superb Congo material is a recent example of the hurdles we must jump, since he had such a hard time publishing it although it won some distinguished awards before the fact and partly because of those awards eventually appeared as it ought to have in the pages of several different magazines.

Along comes the web and suddenly we are presented with possibilities for self-publishing that go far beyond the traditional vanity press. And given that POY has recognized web publishing as a legitimate genre worthy of prizes means that self-publishing on the web can escape the stigma of the vanity press as well.

But we are faced with significant problems still. Those of us who work independently – and the web facilitates our independence in many ways – are confronted by problems such as how to assert our presence on the web, how to draw in readers, how to conduct business and ensure that we make enough money to keep working, how to deliver content in an efficient, speedy and sufficiently comprehensive manner, and so on. And in the end, because we are still in the process of a transition that may take years before these new forms of publication, distribution and narrative structure finally gel, we settle for half-assed measures – we end up publishing rudimentary slideshows on rather timid and tepid websites run by the established media, and we receive ridiculously little compensation in return. The amount of work required to put together a good multimedia piece is in no way compensated by editorial rates still based on (1) criteria related to print media, and (2) cost cutbacks stemming from the past and related to past ways of doing business.

So how do we bypass the established media and go directly to the consumer? One question asked by Mike Fox on a Lightstalkers thread about business models for digital journalists is whether or not the web can support our endeavors; that is, will viewers be willing, for example, to pay us directly for our content, perhaps downloading a story, either in pdf format or multimedia, onto their iPhone and viewing it there. As Mike points out, browsing the web is a different procedure from browsing a magazine or newspaper, so viewers of the future can be expected to be more selective, more likely to target specific themes (using a search engine to “alert” them as to new relevant material), and unlikely to review more than a few initial entries on any particular subject list after the search engine does the initial browsing and gathering, so that we have to ensure that our work shows up near the head of such lists. Clearly, this new form of “reading,” these new forms of consumption, present significant challenges to us, and perhaps some opportunities too.

There are two issues confronting us, then. How do we get paid? And how do we deliver content in a manner that guarantees its integrity and its ability to reach as many potential viewers as possible? As to the former, I suspect that new criteria for setting prices will eventually emerge and they will not be based on circulation figures but perhaps on file size, number of images, format, and so on. How we deliver the material concerns me more here, and essentially I would argue that if we manage to deliver it in a way that promotes narrative pleasure, then I think that we can answer affirmatively Mike’s basic question about whether or not consumers would be willing to pay for that content. That is, rather than content being a hindrance to conducting business – as editorial wisdom has it, people wont buy magazines with pix of starvation or death or other such journalistic clichés, presumably because readers suffer from image fatigue or they prefer babble about celebrities – it will in fact become one means of enticing more viewers.

Let’s consider a different genre in order to get a fresh perspective on this issue. Why do we go to the movies? Movies are full of violence and devastating imagery every bit as unsettling as anything a photojournalist can come up with. And viewing them doesn’t necessarily make us happy. We cry as well as laugh at the movies. We grip the edges of our seats, we endure ghastly scenes of torture and mutilation. A few examples: The beach landing in Saving Private Ryan. The abandoned parents in their lonely home at the end of the heartbreaking Tokyo Story. The famous slit eye in Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or. The slow and clumsy killing of the KGB agent in Hitchcock’s Iron Curtain. The murder of peasants in Platoon. The death of Apu’s wife and his subsequent abandonment of the child that resulted from their union in Satyajit Ray’s third film from the incomparable Apu trilogy. The beating to death by bats of Ed Pesci’s character in Casino. The battering that Jake LaMotta receives at the hands of Sugar Ray in Raging Bull.

Almost every one of these is a masterpiece and despite the brutal or heartbreaking content, every one of these compels our attention and evokes praise rather than condemnation. Why?

Narrative pleasure. Let me be quite clear: I am not talking about pleasure in a simple sense, the emotional equivalent of sugar on the tongue. I am talking about a psychological state in which is united intellectual, emotional and physical contentment that is brought about not so much by the specific image or theme but by its existence within a structure that provides order, makes sense, and either creates new values or confirms old ones, thus playing an important ideological role in the culture that ought not to be underestimated.

Narrative pleasure results from structure, not content. Narrative pleasure is the aesthetic version of Plato’s sociopolitical concept of Justice – a place for everything and everything in its place. It derives from elements such as those considered by Aristotle in his Poetics. Unity, for example. The relation of beginning, middle and end. Suspense and its resolution. The relation of form to content – a quick example of what I mean by this last point can be found in the film Vantage Point. Here we are treated to a story about the assassination of a president given a narrative treatment that undoubtedly is meant to recall Rashoman on the one hand and the historical assassination of Kennedy on the other; that is, we are treated to a replay of events seen through the eyes of various players in an ostensible attempt to explore the significance of perspective, truth, and coherence. What philosophers like to call hermeneutical horizons. The film is an utter disappointment because in the end all the narrative perspectivalism, the splitting up of the plot into distinct points of view held by each character, serves no purpose other than to prolong the suspense, and the actual plot is revealed and followed in the most prosaic and straightforward manner during the last segment, so all we get in the end is an exciting chase and nothing whatsoever said about the larger themes. There is ultimately a disjunction between the form and the content.

This is the problem with current methods of telling and distributing our journalistic stories. Our methods are disjunctive, piecemeal, choppy, reductive, and formally inconsequential. We furnish bites and bulletins rather than stories with sufficient body to make it worth our readers’ while to stop and absorb their meaning. We fail to provide meaningful, comprehensive and inventive structure capable of contextualizing the violence and the heartbreak in a way that redeems that content and makes it compelling, rather than just another journalistic cliché – just another skeletal child with flies in its eyes – that either repels or bores the viewer. If we take care to create narratives as compelling as those we flock to see at the cinema, then I see no reason why we cannot count in the future on people to solicit our material, download it, and pay us for it.

A pdf file, for example, could tackle a subject in a number of different ways, if we are willing to take the time to master the software and learn the principles of graphic layout. Take for example what I have tried to achieve on the Gagá page from my Dominican Batey website. If you look that page over, you will see the photos and text laid out in a variety of manner, and in a couple spots I have made use of imagery that in itself is not particularly good but combined in an adequate structure manages to tell the story in what I hope is a compelling fashion (I am referring to the section of photos with young kids running about, caught up in the excitement and sexuality of Gagá, as well as the section on whips). Granted, I may have created overly large files that download rather too slowly, but such things can be easily fixed. The point is, I didn’t ignore the narrative structure; on the contrary, I exploited it as fully as I could in order to present the material so as to elicit interest, certainly, but more importantly present it as a fully thought out story, with poetic as well as analytical elements, so ultimately the narrative model is not that of the typical “news story” but instead something more like a novel, in which one finds subplots, a myriad of characters, and a more eclectic mix of materials.

That latter point, for me, is very important. As I have argued elsewhere, I think the future of journalism on the web ought to be more eclectic, more polyphonic or intertextual, and cross-disciplinary. This means, inevitably, that we all need to expand our skill set, as the current jargon would put it, in order to keep up with changes in the industry and remain employable. I don’t think this means all that much extra effort, though it does beg questions about adequate compensation. However, while LS members have complained recently about the decision of various news organizations to equip their writers with digital cameras so as to cut back on expenses and consolidate the various aspects of news gathering, I have to say that this has been a salutary development as far as my own survival is concerned, since after years of living with lean cows I am finally getting more work precisely because I can provide both textual and visual content – and frankly I thoroughly enjoy playing both roles. Instead of viewing the consequences of digital journalism as a threat to our existence I think we need to identify their advantages and exploit them diligently so as to control to some extent their direction and their impact on us. And also, allow us to discover in ourselves unsuspected talents and resources that might just add to the pleasure of the work we do.

The formal presentation of news hitherto has been dominated by physical structures that are no longer relevant to the forms available to us in the digital age – the left to right, page turning format inherited by magazines from books as well as the fragmented columns and bars layout of newspapers like the Times are relics of the Gutenberg galaxy. Our job in the future is to take up where Gilles Peress and Fred Ritchin left off with their experimental narrative presentation of Bosnia. Our job is to reflect on the nature of html and flash and consider how these might best serve the creation of viable narratives for the next generations, most of whom, even in third world countries where the digital gap impedes consumption of materials from the internet due to the lack of computerization and wide band access to the net, are being schooled sensorially in a whole new mode and whose consciousness must inevitably be altered by this fact.

I am coming to believe, as well, that brevity is not necessarily a virtue and that in fact the web is capable of sustaining a more in-depth, comprehensive and “long-winded” approach to story telling. Sure, browsing and clicking is usually a matter of brief encounters, but I am no longer convinced that this is evidence of a deterioration in reading habits or that the web induces a kind of ADD in its browsers. There is browsing, but there is also genuine research – which after all is where the net originated, in scholarly research and the need for researchers to communicate with one another. One of the responses I got from my first multimedia piece, on Dominican syncretic religious practices, was that I left out this or that sect, that I didn’t explore this or that theme – in short, that I was too cursory and too brief. Some of the viewers were prepared, indeed expected, a more filmlike treatment of the theme, something longer and more satisfying. I explained that given the current limitations of webstreaming I didn’t think I could provide such a structure, though I agreed it would be superior; and I wonder still whether this will eventually be possible, but I am convinced that our survival, our prosperity, depends on our ability to create such narrative structures and improve upon the current means of streaming information across the web.

You may be aware of a movement called “Slow Food” which has arisen in response to the prevalence of fast food outlets globally and the putative unhealthfulness of such food. What I am advocating here is a greater investment of our time and energy in what could be dubbed “slow news” – news presented in greater depth and without strict allegiance to the time worn principles that govern the reporting of “events.” While it bears resemblance to what is usually called documentary, this approach goes beyond the discursive boundaries normally associated with that genre. I am advocating a form of digital reportage based more on the investigatory practices and principles embodied by the scholarly researchers who originally formed the raison d’être for the creation of the internet. Rather than report that a particular event has occurred, we explore its meaning; rather than note its passing, we fix it, we monumentalize it, we expand upon it through a variety of discourses. We assume that news is inherently, as the name suggests, a matter of reporting that which is “new” or current or instantaneous. Digital cameras and new forms of transmission have promoted this aspect of the news gathering industry, since they allow for speedy delivery of content. While this model will certainly continue to dominate the industry, I think that the web allows for an expansion of this other aspect of journalism, the analytic and investigatory branches of the trade. While we are hardpressed to find work on the frontlines of current events, we may well find that new opportunities will arise in this other market and that even the established media, once they figure out how to make the web pay, may eventually invest more money and effort in this area as well, so that a new kind of journalism can thrive and provide us with the means of making a living as well as pursuing what has to be one of the most interesting vocations available to people with a drive to understand the world about them and the curious habits of humankind.