My advice to journalists: Smoke crack, Twitter occasionally
A friend on Twitter–aptly screen named Newsjunkie365–asked me for my thoughts on the weeklong blog frenzy sparked by two writers from The New Yorker who aren’t enthralled by Twitter. One is Steve Coll, the other George Packer(who I discussed, in a brief yet negative fashion, a couple of months back.)
Already, I’m coming unconscionably late to the smack down–very un-Twitter like of me. It started a whole seven days ago. However, The Atlantic blogged about it yesterday, which gives me an excuse.
The discussion follows the typical parameters we’ve come to expect from this kind of “debate:” New Media technology X enters marketplace, Old Media types whine about the kids these days.
It’s a bit tired, true. But it also provides some fun, time-wasting, Internet entertainment for all involved. Myself included. Techno-evangelists get to rail on traditional media figures, while traditional media figures get to play the Luddite victim.
The graying New Yorker scribes are worried that we’ll soon see a generation that doesn’t read books–you can get Kierkegaard for .99 cents on the Kindle, btw–and that the Twitterverse has brought journalists one step closer to extinction.
Personally, I think this misses the larger point–the financial problems of media companies have more to do with the failure to understand technology than the technology itself. The Internet isn’t putting journalists out of business–it’s the fact that media companies, arrogant and clueless, decided to give away reporting for free. That’s the original sin.
Putting that aside, like Packer and Coll, I make my living writing long form narrative non-fiction. I’m confident, that at least while I’m alive, there will be a market and expense accounts for in-depth reporting. Perhaps it will be a smaller market than in the past, and maybe more competitive. But I hope–there goes my confidence!–that eventually the radical shift in the way we ”consume” news will work itself out, and journalists will again be able to make a stable and comfortable living.
It might be that the journalist’s life will be more of a hustle, more entrepreneurial than in the past few decades. (Hello, True/Slant!) This can certainly be annoying for journos, and it can be uncomfortable to blatantly embrace the self-promotion that it entails. (I mean, really,how many times will I have to email Glenn Greenwald before he links to this blog…) It’s easier, and more gentlemanly, to have that self-promotion done by others who work for your company (as Packer noted after he was informed that his blog was being sent out on Twitter by the magazine’s PR apparatus.)
But, if you’re afflicted with the writing/reportage gene, then these hurdles aren’t going to stop you. Where there’s a will(and a readership) there will be a way.
Caveats: I’m not a techno-booster. I don’t own a Blackberry anymore. I think of a lot of blogs are waste of time. I don’t have a Facebook account. Twitter can occasionally be pretty cool, while at other times, lame. (See: Tequila, Tila.) I share my colleagues concerns that our attention spans have diminished, and that journalism’s future seems to be heading towards the direction of Politico. But, contrary to The New Yorker angst, I can say that I’ve read probably a good 50 plus books since joining Twitter nine months or so ago. I’ve written hundreds of blog posts. I’ve entered into interesting exchanges with folks on Twitter(like Newsjunkie 365) as well as here on the blog. I’ve gotten a lot of normal writing and reporting done in that time as well–mainly, because I’ve managed to unplug.
So, while we are getting flooded with this constant flow of information and the agitation of being permanently connected, it just means we have to adopt new values, too. One of those values–which is actually a pretty old value with a new name–is unplugging. Moderation, an appreciation of quiet time, space for intellectual discovery etc. Maybe this value will need to be taught to our up and coming hyperactive generations, but I don’t really see the problem with doing that.
In conclusion, a word on drug/technology comparisons.
The best line in The New Yorker post is when Packer admits to living a crack-free lifestyle. (“I haven’t used crack, either,” he writes.) Well, I have smoked crack. I recommend it for all writers to try at least once, especially to New Yorker staffers. It’s pretty good–it’s crack, after all–and down the crack pipe went my first semester at college. But torching a crack rock is very different from typing a Tweet.
For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought that blogging, not Twittering, was the media version of crack. Metaphorically speaking: I get an intense high from instantly publishing, but the minute I stop, I get a kind of an empty and anxious feeling, as if I’ve just poured part of my soul into a spiritual void. I stopped smoking crack ten years ago–it got a little out of hand– but I have come to terms with blogging. It’s healthy as long as I don’t allow it to totally consume me.
Maybe we can view Twitter in the same way, while managing to avoid an abstinence only rehab.
UPDATE: For the record, crack certainly isn’t for everyone. And yes, I’m being a bit facetious here.