Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Future of News

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here - not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail

I recently started getting magazines again. Specifically, The Economist and Consumer Reports. Both have proved to be surprisingly insightful.

Leading up to this decision, I had been on a 10 year magazine-hiatus since my teens, when I received Reason and Sports Illustrated. I never read the issues with any regularity, and this left me with a trifle of guilt upon their arrival. When I started college I left behind magazines for good (along with TV) and I completely lost touch with current events. It was embarrassing at times. Like when I wondered why Jim Carey was challenging incumbent president George Bush.

But my real beef with magazines was that I didn’t care about the news. What I craved was insight.

News is temporal, it changes with the scenery. I was reminded of this whenever we visited my grandparents at their Floridian retirement community. The poor residents of that community were barraged with reports of murder and petty crimes. Local news channels invariably resembled Cops, with scenes of police car lights burring at night. Undoubtedly this all appealed to the worn out memory and attention of the elderly, who might as well have been watching reruns of the same broadcast over and over again.

After I decided to return to magazines, it took me months to make my first decision. I ended up going with The Economist, and then Consumer Reports, and I couldn’t be happier with them.

The 2 magazines reflect upon each other in a unique manner. Whenever I go from reading one to the other I feel a nice dissonance.

The Economist is filled with 15-page world and topical surveys. Articles regularly include sweeping statements like this one:
De Tocqueville, in his optimistic phase, said that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” America has succeeded brilliantly in repairing the ancestral fault of racism. Thirty-six years after Richard Nixon casually remarked that “there are times when an abortion is necessary…when you have a black and a white,” America elected the child of a black father and a white mother to the presidency. The new administration is trying to correct some of the excesses of the Bush years, much as Ronald Reagan corrected the excesses of the Carter years. (Lexington, July 09)
As noted in a recent Atlantic article, the genius behind The Economist lies in synthesizing, interpreting, and digesting current events, rather than barraging the reader with breaking news or unique scoops.
The Economist prides itself on cleverly distilling the world into a reasonably compact survey….As a result, although its self-marketing subtly sells a kind of sleek, mid-last-century Concorde-flying sangfroid, The Economist has reached its current level of influence and importance because it is, in every sense of the word, a true global digest for an age when the amount of undigested, undigestible information online continues to metastasize. And that’s a very good place to be in 2009.
Such a style of non-objective journalism is certainly prone to pitfalls, but at its best it can be truly enlightening. In The Economist, news is not simply reported for the sake of being news. The best stories link news items to grander constructs and themes. World leaders and CEOs are portrayed as human characters on the world stage. Modern themes playing out are tied to their semi-distant historical roots. Overall trends are elucidated, regardless of whether they are obvious or not. Sometimes the best things to point out are those which are obvious. A friend of mine once commented that what he loved about John Madden’s style of football broadcasting is that he’s not afraid to hark on the obvious. The Economist often excels at doing just that.

Permeating its writing is a supra-macroeconomic perspective (laid out imperfectly in their publication, Making Sense of the Modern Economy). For a while this approach struck me as too unfocused and general. Unlike magazines that are topical, niche, or partisan, it’s difficult to describe. But over time it began to click. The effect is similar to the historian who cries that history repeats itself, only it pulls not from history, but from disparate areas of the world, discussing the sorts of trends, similarities, and contrasts that you might expect to hear from a small group of smart and well-experienced travelers. One example was their insight, critical of America’s drug war, that Mexican drug violence is largely caused by Clinton-era success against Colombian drug czars (On the trail of the traffickers, 05/05/2009)

Consumer Reports in contrast is an expose of detail. Issues feature 20-page specials on kitchen appliances and cars. The advice is so concrete that you can taste its utility: “Stainless [steel refrigerators] might look inviting at the store. But it smudges easily and requires frequent wipe-downs. Clear-coated stainless or faux-stainless vinyl coatings are easier to keep clean.” (p. 27, August 2009 issue). Or “Toto’s Ultra Max II [water-efficient toilet], $510, is among those that use just 1.28 gallons per flush. But clearing the blue dye in our liquid test took two flushes, or a whopping 2.6 gallons.” (p. 47, same issue).

The magazine is geared towards that shopping maven side of you who is looking to make the wisest consumer decision. But its real value comes in teaching you how to think on a very basic level.

The death of news media - many fear - will lead to the end of the well-informed American citizen, who is now more likely to get free news on the internet that to tune into a TV station or buy a newspaper. Following Iran's election protests, The Economist declared, "Twitter 1, CNN 0". Yet we are not witnessing the death of the news industry, so much as its reformation. Gone is the demand for late-breaking news at ones fingertips or on the TV screen. In its place, however, is the need for a more interpretive spin on the news - one which doesn't tell us everything that is happening in the world, but rather is more selective by telling consumers only those news items that they need to know, and perhaps why they need to know it.

For now the media industry - particularly newspapers - is running scared, and no doubt many journalists will lose their job due to lessening demand for such broad coverage. But taking their place are slimmer media outlets that have the capability to not only inform their customers, but to sharpen their wit while they're at it. The mind of the average American news junkie won't so much be an encyclopedia of miscellaneous facts - ranging from local carjackings and rape trials to state elections and abortion debates - but rather it will need to become more discerning, organized and fluid in its abilities. In response to the current adrenaline pocked ADHD news industry, this change will be for the better.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)magainze pile, 05/30/2007, quietjenn; (2)Clocked at 67 mph/124km, 07/23/2006, runswithscissors; (3)Blue Marble, 11/28/2007, acbo; (4)Hard drive clock, 02/16/2009, Jack AZ; (5)Consumer Reports Testing Facility, 01/22/2009, ZRec.

Video: (1)Toilet Paper Testing from Consumer Reports, 03/30/2009, Consumer Reports channel.
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