Changing Aesthetics, and Other Stuff Too.

“One word is key: interdisciplinary.”

-Steve Outing, from his #jcarn                                                                             submission yesterday

I was very fortunate. By my last year of J-school I was studying long-form narrative journalism–craft and the like, the New Journalists, etc.–and a new course had just sprung up out of nowhere. Within the last semester or two this “Online Journalism” course became extremely popular. People raved about it throughout the halls of the 2nd floor of 33 E. Congress, in Chicago, IL.

One (of the many) great thing about the class was that it asked, very deliberately and fundamentally, what the role of the journalist is. This is a significant question to ask a young person in their third or fourth year of journalism school. So much of the last few years of your life have been spent rewriting the inverted pyramid and memorizing the AP Stylebook that those sort of things come to symbolize the profession. You forget that your main objective is to record and convey information that people can use. I hadn’t been thinking so much about making people want to use that information though; it seemed a given to me that people want information about the world, and they seek it in newspapers. I was out of touch with my own generation, perhaps, but perhaps that’s what four years of studying professional dogmas and platitudes will do.

We are getting all kinds of new answers these days about what a journalist is. You see journalists as computer programmers, data visualizers, social media strategists, community organizers. I’ve been thinking about something maybe less technologically innovative. I’ve been thinking about the aesthetics of journalism, and I think my thoughts are clearest in an example involving multimedia.

It’s surprising to me now, coming from a form of journalism so much about craft and narrative and point of view, that at the time it seemed so foreign to me when the Online Journalism teacher presented a video of a massive pillow fight on Wall Street, recorded from multiple perspectives in slow motion and set to something ambient sounding with a dance beat. There were no voice-overs, and minimal text to give context. It was just a few minutes, and then it ended.

“Is that journalism?” he asked us. He played another video reporting on the pillow fight, probably from a local New York network station. It had an introduction by an anchor, probably beginning with an awful joke about a sleepover gone wrong, a man on the street interview or two, and a clear exposition, perhaps something like “kids will be kids!” He didn’t have to ask if the latter was journalism. “Now, which do you think gave a better sense of what it was like to be there?” He asked.

It’s kind of tricky. I think it’s obvious that the first video provided a better sense of the chaos and hilarity of the event, but ambient music infers emotion, is not really “objective.” It’s actually antithetical to a lot of whats taught in J-school. But such is life.

I suggest we start getting more honest about “objective reality.” I suggest we not shy away from the artistic and the playful and the color that emotions and perceptions cast on real events. Especially when reporting on large-scale pillow fighting.

The most popular and engaging journalism out there right now plays with form. It breaks down the fourth wall and acknowledges that journalism is a human process of gathering and trying to understand information, like This American Life and Planet Money. It tells stories that illuminate more than mere “reports” do, like the items curated by @longreads and others. It blogs with a voice, as distinct from an opinion. I emphasized the word engaging for a reason. All of the examples above have deeply devoted followers, what you might call “engaged community members.” It is a buzz word in journalism right now, everybody seeking to “engage the community.” It’s assumed, rightly, that deeper engagement means loyalty, devotion, and–mostly but unspoken–a gateway to profitability. Nobody would let This American Life disappear.

Alright, so what am I going on about? Few of these skills come from a journalism curriculum, and many come from the arts and humanities and from the creative process in general. So my suggestion is for newspapers and fellowship programs and the rest to get the aesthetes from the other departments into journalism, the photographers and filmmakers and english majors who use communications in inventive ways to be more engaging. Young people don’t trust traditional media anymore, and much of it is about style as much as philosophy–the straight-faced anchor just reporting, the remoteness from the subject implied by the straight and unaffected language of the newspaper report or the inverted pyramid. The effect has eroded with the qualitative decline of mainstream media. Staff the paper with investigative and beat reporters, but also humorists and satirists and filmmakers and artists.

Maybe it’s a New, New, New Journalism, more artistic but ultimately more honest. Anybody can get a scoop on Monday and lose out on the next big one on Friday, and the crowds will follow. I long to see the day when news organizations are making videos like California is a Place. Because the technology is cheap and the barriers so low, we can all create stunning multimedia journalism now. See Kirk Mastin on this.

I am not calling for the death of the inverted pyramid or the straight-news style for explanatory journalism. There will always be a need for the pure, direct voice of explanation. And in fact, I think the blog is the perfect format for the inverted pyramid, a newer and more versatile appearance of the telegraph that birthed the form. Blogs are perfect for very quick updates and breaking stories where we need to get the information up front. I am calling on news organizations to expand their definitions of journalism–the traditional rags, not just the glossy magazines and quirky radio programs. Let’s make journalism more beautiful.

Not long ago I was editing a video of my own at a new job on the West Coast, trying to copy the Kirk Mastins’ and the California-is-a-Places’ with lesser cameras, when a story on the Atlantic broke from back in Chicago–a story that will likely cause half of you to disregard this post completely and half of you to praise it all the more. They reported that Dan Sinker, my Online Journalism professor, was the man behind @MayorEmmanuel.

No, it wasn’t “journalism.” He never claimed it was. But it also wasn’t a selling out of the profession, as some d-bags quickly claimed. Without reading too much into a foul-mouthed fake twitter account’s impact on journalism, I will say that it certainly fucking built a massive mother-fucking community of people, deeply engaged and all in on something, young people who just might have been given more incentive to follow Rahm’s campaign much more closely.

To carve myself out a unique perch to sit on, my argument is aesthetic. But to echo so many other carnies, the point is that the future–in the physical and social sciences too, but here in journalism–is interdisciplinary. Give fellowships to artists but also to historians and politcal scientists and philosophers to redefine the goals and objectives of the press. Give them to the marketers and economists and business grads to find new means of profitability. We may find out that @FakeAPStyleBook has more value to add to the profession than the AP Stylebook.

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2 Responses to Changing Aesthetics, and Other Stuff Too.

  1. I suggest we start getting more honest about “objective reality.” I suggest we not shy away from the artistic and the playful and the color that emotions and perceptions cast on real events. Especially when reporting on large-scale pillow fighting.


  2. Pingback: Carnival Roundup No. 3: Driving innovation #JCarn « Carnival of Journalism

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