A recent piece on the end of paper newspapers, in this case the New Orleans’-based Times-Picayune, which got me thinking about the relationship between form and medium. One of the arguments of the piece is that the move to e-only news means a shift in content too: from long-form investigative journalism that takes a long time to produce and comes in the form of very long pieces (or a series of pieces) to lots of click-driven short forms, updated more quickly. As the piece’s author John McQuaid writes:
But what’s the nature of this new enterprise? While the local controversy has focused on the loss of daily publication, something more disquieting has been overlooked: Advance’s Internet strategy has never been about journalism or news. It’s about clicks.[...] They present news in a rolling blog format, as it is fed to them, without regard to its importance or community interest. In this framework, news is primarily a click-generating engine, featuring movie listings, weather forecasts, or the doings of the Kardashians.
The obvious concern that this piece and many others like it raises is who is going to sponsor the time it takes to research and write long pieces? Journalism in this case is like the canary in the mine: the same question could apply to universities who are increasingly being pressured to produce more timely results at the expense of exploratory research, whether in the sciences or the humanities. While there will always be exceptions to the rule — the New Yorker‘s, a few academic presses that still produce very long books — for the most part everything seems to be getting shorter.
What this assumption overlooks of course is what we might call the aggregate effect. If all of the parts are getting shorter, what about the sum? Is an article “written” by many citizen-journalists from many locations in lots of little parts less than the single, long-form piece? I started thinking about this when looking at a slide presentation by Matt McAlister. The graphics were very telling of the kind of journalism portended by open platforms rather than offices and cubicles.
Of course we don’t have enough examples yet to really make informed judgments about this shift. Can these new open and aggregated forms of micro-journalism supersede Pulitzer-Prize-winning work? We may love this kind of long-form journalism in theory, but has anyone ever tried to study its actual impact in the policy or political arena (say, a metric between award-winning work and some measurable policy outcome?) That would help us decide which form is better at making political change, which after all, I think, is one of the primary goals of journalism.
All of this goes too for academic research, something closer to my own heart. We should be asking ourselves how smaller, more disciplinarily nimble forms of research can be aggregated to approximate what used to be called “the book,” that classic long form technology (not as substitute, but as complement).
What are the atoms of academic publishing and what are the tools that can make them assume significant form?