December 5, 2008
The Perfect Wrong Analogy for Digital Reporting
I already have a love/hate relationship with this analogy from Virginia Heffernan:
Does anyone still believe that the forms of movies, television, magazines and newspapers might exist independently of their rapidly changing modes of distribution? The thought has become unsustainable. Take magazine writing. In school or on the job, magazine writers never learn anything so broad as to “tell great stories” or “make arresting images.” You don’t study the ancient art of storytelling. You learn to produce certain numbers and styles and forms of words and images. You learn to be succinct when a publication loses ad pages. You learn to dilate when an “article” is understood mostly as a delivery vehicle for pictures of a sexy celebrity. The words stack up under certain kinds of headlines that also adhere to strict conventions as to size and tone, and eventually they appear alongside certain kinds of photos and illustrations with certain kinds of captions on pages of certain dimensions that are often shared with advertisements. Just as shooting film for a Hollywood movie is never just filming and acting in a TV ad is never just acting, writing for a magazine is never just writing.
Yes! I mean, wait — No!
Let me explain. I think that what Heffernan says is totally true. I also think that the sooner we recognize that specific forms we’ve inherited in analog media are contingent, tailored to the goals and necessities of their form and function, the better. Especially if we can also become just as fluent in reading/writing for new forms and functions, and keep that creative destruction going.
But! — If our analogies for the emerging forms are all drawn from existing forms that most serious journalists, professionals, intellectuals, and artists don’t really like, because they feel that they’re forms of shallow, unprofessional, hackwork, then it’s going to be really hard for a lot of folks to see how these new media can actually be a good thing.