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The ‘slow journalism’ meme

February 11, 2011

Updated August 20 and October 23, 2011 with new title, links and details

First of all, an apology for the silence. All hell has been breaking loose in the world, not least on the editing-curating-redacting front, but I didn’t have a moment to spare.

I am stirred into blog action by a request from two students in Denmark, who want to write a thesis on ‘slow journalism’ and who have read a Prospect article with that name, published four years previously, in which I had written:

There is a concept in marketing called “the end of the middle”. Because of technological advances, the idea goes, people can now get goods and services of reasonable quality at the cheap end of the market. As a result, the middle of the market loses share, because they are only prepared to pay more if they get something truly luxurious or special at the top end. Hence, for example, the growth of organics and the “slow food” movement. Does this concept apply to the information market? We get basic news on tap, on air and online, cheap as chips. In the middle is traditional print journalism, the sector that is arguably suffering a loss of readership. At the luxury end, there should be a flourishing market for essays, reportage and other non-fiction writing that takes its time to find things out we would not otherwise know, notice stories that others miss, and communicate it all to the highest standards. In other words, slow journalism.

So it was funny to hear that an outfit called the Slow Journalism Company, based in London, had launched a quarterly magazine called Delayed Gratification, whose raison d’etre is based on this precise reasoning. I heard the magazine’s founders on Radio 4 this Wednesday [February 9] and went to check out the project, which I discovered was first reported at the end of 2010. Linking slow-jo to the curating meme, they say: ‘Slow Journalism measures news in months not minutes, returning to stories after the dust has settled. The Slow Journalism Company offers an antidote to throwaway media and makes a virtue of being the last to breaking news. Its publications are beautiful, collectible and designed to be treasured.’

On their website, they don’t seem to point to any previous mentions of the term. Perhaps they perceive it as one of those zeitgeisty things that spring from more than one source. An interesting discussion site has looked into the slow journalism meme without reaching any firm conclusions. On the Social CMO blog, noting the new magazine, contributor Molly Flatt kindly made the link to my earlier article. Back in 2007, The Bloghorn also cited the Prospect article, using it to draw an interesting analogy with cartooning and the Tech Lunch blogger Paul Anderson concurred that ‘a long lunch and a slowly digested read of a thoughtful essay is surely one recipe for the good life’.

At the time the Prospect article was published at the start of 2007, I thought I had coined the term myself. Old emails record that I used the ‘slow journalism’ formulation a couple of times in 2005 and 2006, and I remember uttering the words in a discussion with the journalist John Lloyd during that period. I also took it on an outing in May 2006, at a conference on literary journalism. This gave shape to a proposal to Prospect during 2006. So when the Guardian journalist David Leigh used ‘slow journalism’ in an article appearing in November 2007, I wrote staking my claim, sparking off an interesting debate.

In a helpful reply another colleague, Tony Harcup, identified more sightings of the term, including in a book by Lloyd. I had not been aware of that mention, and was left reflecting on the alchemy of ideas that takes place when two people talk, which can make ownership a difficult concept. Just for the record, however, I expanded on my own use. Happily we all agreed: the important thing is not who ‘invented’ the term, but the success of high quality journalism whatever it is called. I’m pleased to have contributed to the conversation in some way.

For what it’s worth, I think I can claim originality in the use of the marketing analogy, the ‘end of the middle’, to make an explicit connection between slow journalism and a discussion about potential future markets and business models.

The question of ownership in the digital realm is famously complicated. On one hand, mashable culture tends to separate words from their original author and celebrate that fact. On the other, the etiquette of linking has parallels with academic referencing and its concern for sourcing. To some extent the gap is bridged by the rules of Creative Commons, but this is not universally accepted. I hope to return to the topic in future.

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