Essays

The Potential for Journalism in the Expanded Field

by Ben Valentine on October 1, 2012

Cropped image of an early printing press from Wikipedia.

BERKELEY, California — As more of us can afford publishing tools, which were historically only available to publishing houses, we have increasingly adopted them to share our stories and thoughts online. The invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s cheapened and quickened the arduous process of writing texts by hand. The cheaper the publishing, the cheaper the books, making information more accessible and creating an economic environment where more people could become publishers; all this in turn creates an increasingly diverse, cheap, and accessible flow of information to an increasingly wide audience. Before the printing press, books were rare and expensive; few possessed them and few could read them. The internet has expanded what the printing press started to an unprecedented degree.

… journalists are reporters as well as creators of culture.

This article will mention a handful of instances that I’ve seen as indicative of new forms of publishing. These are most likely not the original instances of these types of publishing online, nor is this a comprehensive list by any means; I welcome and encourage suggestions of earlier, better, and different instances that I did not cover. Obviously the internet holds a great deal of information, with many users adding more data by the second, and pretending that I found the best examples within that sea of information would not do the internet justice.

There are innumerable instances of journalists exploring creative means of sharing their articles, something like Hunter S. Thompson, who became famous for his inseparable role in the news he reported. As the forefather of Gonzo Journalism, a subcategory of New Journalism, Thompson believed that objectivity in journalism is a myth worth dismissing; journalists are  reporters as well as creators of culture.

Screen shot of Nick Briz’s interview with Todd Bailey on Art:21’s blog.

Examples of journalists making entirely new content doesn’t inherently mean lying or writing without a degree of objectivity. In a refreshingly contemporary blog post, an interview with Todd Bailey on Art:21’s blog (above), Nick Briz created a video that was part article, part video, part Skype conversation, and part internet browsing. Hyperallergic co-founder Hrag Vartanian, in a post covering the Tom Sachs show at the Park Avenue Armory this spring, relied on an animated GIF for coverage of the opening night more than his words. Photography and recording have been requisite tools for journalism for a long time; why not use the new tools available to us such as programming, web design, animation, video editing, and more to help express ourselves?

A recent Hyperallergic GIF demonstrating the experience of viewing Henry Brimmer’s “Gravity Matters Little” public art work in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the 2012 ArtPrize.

That being said, the tools for broadcasting information, whether they be simple text or a complex video, have been made freely available and are widely used. In a very real sense, everyone who puts information publicly online has become a kind of journalist. While updating your Facebook or Twitter as to the contents of your lunch might be considered boring to many, given a tool like Google Trends and the number of people willing to offer information for free, it begins to have real sociological relevance. In “Humanities in the Digital Age,”  Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker attests to the ability of new tools like Google Trends to provide scientifically accurate answers to questions traditionally relegated to the humanities.

Before the internet we complained about filling out a survey while today we freely offer more information than ever before. Of course, who owns that information, whether or not we have access to it, and what is done with it is key; unfortunately most of the information we give is owned by social networks like Facebook and sold to advertising agencies to influence (some may say manipulate) us. This is a real concern that threatens the advancements in communication technologies.

As the circle between news, reacting, publishing, and subsequent commenting becomes tighter and quicker, less emphasis is placed on a single article — it becomes more about the dialogue formed, of which the article is one piece but has no claim to the final say.

Having been a blogger for only three years, I have felt the effects of a closer relationship between reader and writer. The number of pageviews and shares of particular posts can speak to the popularity of a post — not to be considered shorthand for quality, but still important. Comments and suggestions from readers are fundamental aspect of the web 2.0 blogosphere, and I have had my ideas pushed, argued, proven wrong, and backed up by readers, hopefully creating better content from a broader range of sources. It is hard to control information if the most used platforms are publishing articles and comments from anyone who wants to weigh in.

Although many businesses seek to capture and control the data being dumped onto the web, there are those institutions that are opening their digital doors to us, expanding the borders of their practices to a broad audience online. On September 19, many art museums turned over their social media platforms to their curators for Ask a Curator Day. Not only does this blurring of old boundaries between professional and audience create a more engaged and aware audience, I’d venture to say that it strengthens the relationship between curator and audience. Curators should be held accountable by their audiences and aware of how audiences respond to their work; programs like Ask a Curator Day might tighten that relationship and shorten the response time.

Many institutions are reluctant to use social media as a tool, possibly unaware of the potential or afraid of the unstructured to respond to it. However, the potential within these platforms is increasingly hard to ignore. One example is a Reddit post exploring, through Twitter, a shooting in Toronto that resulted in two deaths and many injuries. As the story evolved, the original story from police intelligence was no match to the number of perspectives and information gleaned solely from Twitter. The initial investigative work by journalists was outperformed by everyone present, all of whom contributed to our body of knowledge via tweet.

Screen shot of my Tumblr Dashboard.

The idea of everyone being his own journalist demands a new type of digestion of content. We cannot place equal value on every tweet, just as most of us never confuse tabloids with the New York Times. Yet as we are constantly updated with a flood of new information, new modes for filtering, deciphering, and reading have emerged. Despite many users finding their news by visiting news sites directly, the number of users getting their news from Facebook and Twitter is on the rise. Tumblr and Facebook are increasingly experienced solely through a user’s dashboard (my Tumblr dashboard above), compiling all of the followed users’ new content chronologically into one place. Creating an environment of many voices right next to one another wears aways at previous structures of value placement that came with “legitimate” news sources. What that means is debatable: quantity and diversity of information has exponentially risen, while trust in that information and sustained attention has fallen.

One takeaway from this chaotic flood of data is the idea of a conversation. As the circle between news, reacting, publishing, and subsequent commenting becomes tighter and quicker, less emphasis is placed on a single article — it becomes more about the dialogue formed, of which the article is one piece but has no claim to the final say. In “Club Kids: The Social Life of Artists on Facebook,” Brad Troemel, Artie Vierkant, and Ben Vickers expound on how the internet has helped depreciate the value placed on a finite artwork, replacing it with a value on the conversations that arise around the work. The importance of a gallery show is still undeniably there, yet the conversation around an artwork increasingly becomes the method that launches a work into a show, a vital aspect of the work’s success and meaning. Troemel writes, “Posting work to the internet with no social network readily in place is synonymous with the riddle ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ For young artists on the internet the answer to the forest question is ‘no.’”

Screen shot of Ian Aleksander Adam’s art/essay with/about Man Bartlett and Fake Man Bartlett.

Artist Ian Aleksander Adams has turned his art practice largely into capturing hilarious and strange online interactions and posting them onto his Facebook and his Tumblr. Recently he rather vehemently critiqued a Twitter performance by Man Bartlett. The critique took the form of the documentation that arose from Adams’ engagement with Bartlett and others on Twitter, displayed solely as a very long screenshot (a section of which is pictured above).

If Adams and the “Club Kids” are onto something, and I believe they are, could the role of those behind the social media for large institutions been seen in a different light? Could we call Todd Florio of Creative Time, Jiajia Fei of the Guggenheim (Twitter page pictured below), and Jennifer Yin of the Asian Art Museum the social media journalists for their respective organizations? They share news from the museum, engage in dialogue, write updates, and more; they are micro-journalists, constantly writing mini-articles that, taken over time, build into a great deal of content. Of course, some could argue that their use of social media is more akin to PR or advertising. If a journalist is employed by the institution they wish to cover, quality is compromised, not to say scope of the dialogue. Maybe in this respect, the anonymous Museum Nerd is one form of social media journalist we should be looking to, though many have critiqued Museum Nerd for being a constant cheerleader of all things museum.

Screen shot of Guggenheim Museum’s Twitter.

Of the new types of articles and journals online today, one the most interesting, impressive, and revolutionary is Wikipedia. Wikipedia could never have become what it is today without massive global volunteering. Since launching in 2001, Wikipedia has amassed over 23 million articles, in 285 languages, with 100,000 active contributors. Within this short lifespan, Wikipedia has been scoffed at by teachers and professors, tampered with by kids, and slowly become a more and more useful tool for students until it was no longer any secret. Wikipedia is a good starting resource when researching almost any topic.

Wikipedia has taken the unique traits of the web as its method of operation. Anyone anywhere online can edit, delete, and create a new Wikipedia article (well, mostly); Wikipedia uses hyperlinks as a functional necessity; and it has taken peer review to a global scale. Wikipedia has few paid employees, and 100,000 active contributors are constantly bettering and expanding the largest encyclopedia ever. Clay Shirky notes in “Cognitive Surplus” that the amount of time spent creating and maintaining Wikipedia pales in comparison to the time Americans spend yearly watching TV. Amidst complaints that anyone can publish online and that the web is too messy, one must remember that a world in which everyone is contributing is a more empowered place for humans than the age of radio and television, and that amazingly comprehensive systems emerge from overwhelming diversity, like Wikipedia.

Which brings me to WikiLeaks, Wikipedia’s radical child. Unfortunately, a media frenzy has developed around Wikileaks, not as a system but surrounding its founder, Julian Assange. Whatever trouble Assange is in, WikiLeaks remains a remarkable 21st-century invention. Launched in 2006, WikiLeaks provides a platform to anonymously hand over sensitive, classified, and often damning content. Publishing videos of the US army shooting civilians, documents on Guantanamo Bay and corruption, and tons more. Using a crowdsourced  global network like Wikipedia but with anonymity, WikiLeaks has taken the Quaker phrase “speak truth to power” into the digital age.

I would argue the importance of places for anonymity online, while agreeing that citation online is definitely important. With so much content floating around on an equal playing field, the academic use of citation is necessary for good online journalism. Citation in the digital age manifested in the form of hyperlinks and made the complexity and subjectivity of knowledge more obvious. Who here has fallen down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, beginning with a question and quickly only exploring how complex your question really is? Wikipedia’s intense hyperlinking makes subjects more complex than we often believe them to be, which is more realistic and provides for more interesting questions and more accurate answers. In this way, Wikipedia is incredibly bad at focusing attention on one article but remarkably good at expanding our consciousness.

Some fairly mourn the loss of sustained attention when considering the hyperlink, and I think that is an important issue. Humans have been reading on paper for centuries, and the hyperlink presents a radical shift in how we read. If we cannot sustain attention and practice ignoring hyperlinks when necessary, the power of the hyperlink will be lost on a constantly wandering reader. A Wikipedia article’s constant contextualization and expansion of a subject is only as good insofar as we can actually remember and digest what we are reading. I propose that someone with more programmatic knowledge than I develop software to freeze hyperlinks until you have finished reading the article in its entirety, a more nuanced version of Self Control for the entire web.

If we are willing to agree that the expansion of knowledge is a good thing, as I believe it to be, then the printing press was a fantastic invention. It’s true, freeing up knowledge is not without consequences and in many ways is a very political act. Many believe that the printing press set off the fracturing of Christianity, doubtlessly leading to many bloody battles. The printing press helped create an environment where modern science could be practiced and tested, leading in some senses to modern warfare and nuclear weaponry, but also to an increase in the average lifespan and to many new comforts in life.

In “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” Shirky recounts that as the printing press grew in use, the scribes that relied on the old style of publishing bemoaned their job loss and the loss of their craft. Losing jobs is no laughing matter, and the proliferation of websites that increasingly offer services for free that used to cost money represents a hurdle. Sharing music, articles, movies, software, and more for free has registered as a loss of income for many businesses and a loss of jobs for many people. Although that is an issue we must face, I stand by my belief that knowledge should be free, that information should be accessible; ultimately, I believe that to be more important.

Image by Justin Metz from “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” article.

Similarly, amidst reactionary conversations about the internet destroying our brains — a strong example being the “Is The Web Driving Us Mad?” — we must retain our own sense of agency online. I used to check my Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter all. of. the. time, and then I downloaded Self Control. I used to rather mindlessly skim articles because of a time crunch and tell myself I had read them — now I save them into a bookmark to read them later with all of my attention available. It is important to recognize that social media sites do have an addictive quality, but also not forget that solutions and tricks for addiction are available. We can decide what we want from these platforms and use them accordingly.

One thing is for certain: the internet has forever changed publishing. Most of us have tools to publish videos, text, photographs, and recordings in our pockets, giving real meaning to the protest call “The Whole World Is Watching.” Many of us are attempting to push and explore the new territories created within this new mega-publishing landscape. As more of us use these new tools to publish, quality will fluctuate, problems will inevitably emerge, and lies will definitely spread. Yet as more of us choose to record our thoughts, there is more knowledge the whole world has to work with, and that is an empowering circumstance indeed.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/ahorwitz Andrew Horwitz

    Love to see this discussion! At Culturebot we’ve been talking about this for quite awhile and are making a performance based on some of these ideas that will premiere at On The Boards in Seattle on March 7, 2013.
    http://www.ontheboards.org/performances/everyones-critic
    We encourage readers to check out some of our essays exploring this topic and welcome cross-site dialogue! See links below:
    Re-framing the critic for the 21st Century
    http://www.culturebot.net/2012/09/13258/re-framing-the-critic-for-the-21st-century-dramaturgy-advocacy-and-engagement/

    New Critical Modelshttp://www.culturebot.net/2012/03/12883/culturebot-and-the-new-criticism/
    Dance Criticism (criticism vs. reviewing)http://www.culturebot.net/2012/07/13868/talking-about-dance-criticism-and-the-changing-world/

  • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

    My thoughts on this STILL aren’t fully worked out, but here’s a stab at some initial attempts: I think you make some great points here, particularly about the changing relationship between writer and reader and about the value of firsthand information coming via Twitter and other sources. That said, I have a number of issues with some of what you’re positing. I think my biggest one is that I don’t think you’ve clearly defined your terms. A journalist is not someone who simply tweets what they see or eat or whatever, because journalism is more than releasing first- or secondhand information into the world. Journalists research, report, interview, compile, analyze, craft, and write. People who run social media for museums, while often smart, funny, and lovely, are not journalists. Nor are they meant to be.
    And then, while I see the relevance of Wikipedia and WikiLeaks to this discussion—more the latter than the former, to be honest—WikiLeaks itself isn’t a journalistic enterprise. It’s an amazing, invaluable tool for journalists, but there’s a reason WikiLeaks was initially introduced and published through news organizations like the New York Times and the Guardian. Documents need people to read and make sense of them.
    One other thing that I think is important when we discuss publishing and the new tools is that just because information is online or crowd-sourced or crowd-compiled doesn’t mean it’s true. Part of the reason for having journalistic institutions to publish writers is so that those writers can be vetted and fact-checked. Blogs are wonderful for criticism and opinions, but if you want journalism that’s trustworthy, you need more of an apparatus in place. SO, I guess what I’m saying is that while I think the internet is definitely changing the face and flow of journalism, hopefully mostly for the better, there are merits to the old model that we need to make sure don’t get lost in the new. (My guess is you agree.)

    • http://benjaminvalentine.com/ Ben Valentine

      I think that when taken as a whole first hand tweets about anything can become news-worthy, and very accurate. If I miss a show or lecture, say #artstech, I will follow the hashtag to get a good sense of what is happening. Would I rely on only one person’s account in the event to represent it? No, but taken together, it starts becoming more meaningful.

      I think you are also applying a value to the term journalism, a more academic notion of journalism, that I want, but is not inherently there. There are bad journalists who do not research and analyze, who simply broadcast thoughts and feelings about events with little to no research. I think of journalists as people who make content that they believe to be true available to the public. There are newspapers and tv shows that have very obvious political motivations, but like those broadcasting information on Twitter for particular institutions have obvious institutional leanings, I think they are journalists, although biased ones.

      Wikileaks makes content available, it does not have the platform that the NYTimes has and mostly needs journalists to verify information, but it is a tool that uncovers content for others to see, often with large social and political implications, serving an important purpose of journalism in my mind, revealing truth.

      I guess that what I am hearing from you is that you have a very strict definition of a journalist, one that I like, but I think hasn’t been followed for sometime. Now that everyone can publish my desire to read unbiased content is harder, I would not deny that, yet the potential for more knowledge, more vantage points, faster information, hearing from more diverse voices is also there. Filtering is a growing problem that I don’t think we have resolved at all, but we can.

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