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The luxury of thought – slow journalism part 2

August 21, 2011

An earlier post provided some background to the ‘slow journalism’ meme. My contribution to meme-hood back in 2007 (see story #3) was to make the link between slow-jo and the marketing concept of the ‘end of the middle’. Because people can now get reasonable goods and services cheaply, the idea goes, they are only prepared to pay more if they get something truly luxurious or special (hence the growth of organics and the slow food movement) and the middle of the market loses share. This is known as ‘the end of the middle’. In the information market, we get basic news on tap while traditional print journalism is suffering in the middle; might we therefore expect a flourishing market for journalism that offers something luxurious and distinctive?

The answer appears to be a qualified ‘yes’, and I describe developments in ‘Slow journalism in the digital fast lane’, due to appear in a forthcoming collection of essays about literary journalism (eds Richard Keeble and John Tulloch). There have been successes and some interesting twists, such as a possible ‘end of the middle’ within blogging itself, as the short-text-plus-link migrates to social media, leaving the blogosphere for mostly longer texts. I note tensions as well, arising from a tacit idealism about authenticity and a bias against judgment, selection and reflection.

The collation of excerpts, below, is an attempt to round up more references to this trend, defined in the broadest sense, and look at the different ways it is used. The examples below are listed in date order. A couple of themes emerge.

One is the apparent hunger that we feel for more time – time to think, and figure out what matters. I feel this hunger myself, and hope that the current changes to higher education will not remove one of few places left where thinking is encouraged.

Another is the tendency to adopt meme-like language. For example, a hot debate right now concerns the news article as the ‘smallest unit’ of journalism, breaking up and reassembling itself in new forms. As the digital culture scholar Lelia Green noted at a London conference this June, the term ‘meme’ itself – a genetic analogy that refers to the ‘smallest possible element’ in culture – could just as easily be called a trope or an idea. But clearly the meme metaphor has legs (ha ha).

James Surowiecki, ‘Soft in the middle’, The New Yorker March 29, 2010
The iPad and similar products ‘don’t target the amorphous blob of consumers who make up the middle of the market. […] In many businesses, high- and low-end producers are taking more and more of the market […] While the high and low ends are thriving, the middle of the market is in trouble.’

Slow Science Academy, Manifesto 2010
‘We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time. Don’t get us wrong – we do say yes to the accelerated science of the early 21st century [but] science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at, right now. […] Society should give scientists the time they need, but more importantly, scientists must take their time.’

The man who fell asleep, blog post about ‘Social media and digital narcissism’, October 13, 2010
‘The way I use Twitter, there’s no time or space for ideas to develop in my mind. Bang! One idea! Bang! Another idea. No editing, no thinking, just a constant stream. In some ways this is no bad thing […] Twitter is a brilliant place for me to spit out a hundred different ideas a day. Of course, the problem is that it stops me doing other things: it prevents me playing the long game. Why bother crafting away in silence, waiting weeks or months for feedback and approval, when I can get hundreds of messages a day, all about ME, ME, ME. […] I no longer process information – I merely consume it.’

Andrew Sullivan, ‘What Bloggers Miss’, The Atlantic, February 21, 2011
‘We are caught up in the winds that blow every which way. And in the hullabaloo the thinking man is driven to ponder where he is being blown and to long desperately for some quiet place where he can reason undisturbed and take inventory. It may be that I exaggerate the need for occasional sanctuary, but I do not think so – at least speaking for myself, since it has always taken me longer than the average person to think things out.’  – Quotation from Alone by Richard E. Byrd (The Adventure Library, 1996 [1938])

Standpoint, ‘About us‘, February 28, 2011
‘In a market swamped by the journalistic equivalent of fast food, Standpoint hopes to offer the discerning reader a feast of great writing – properly edited and presented in an elegant design that makes even longer pieces a pleasure to read.’

Peter Jackson, ‘When Reading is a Pleasure’, In Publishing, March/April 2011
‘No one in publishing could seriously expect people to pay for online news, any more than they would pay for bottled oxygen, […] If news has to equate with the provision of free parking outside the store, newspapers have a much stronger case for charging customers to come inside and linger over the fruits of costly investment in eminent editors, special correspondents and investigative journalists.’

Paul Bradshaw, ‘Five predictions for journalism in 25 years’, Online Journalism Blog, March 3, 2011
‘Number 2: Prices will head in opposite directions. Publishers will distinguish their offer from free titles by ‘converting the newspaper from tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping to a luxury product, where you are buying access to an exclusive club as much as the content itself.’

Babbage, ‘Journalistic nuclear physics’, The Economist, March 14, 2011
‘One theme [of SXSW] over the past couple of years has been the attempt to blast what is currently the atomic unit of journalism, the article or ‘story’, into its constituent quarks, and reassemble them as something else. [The search is on for] ways to give more context when you’re not limited by the container of the news story.’ For long magazine articles, on the other hand, the ‘elegant complete package is the whole point of the exercise’.

Emily Wilson, ‘Planning to be better’, The Guardian, May 9, 2011
The Swedish paper Svenska Dagbladet now divides its newsroom into two streams: the ‘fast’ stream that ‘covers events that cannot be controlled, like tsunamis’ and the ‘slow’ stream, which concentrates on ‘agenda-setting’ journalism such as homegrown investigations.

Jeff Jarvis, ‘The article as luxury or byproduct’, Buzzmachine, May 28, 2011
‘There’s the choice: Some news events […] are better told in process. Some need summing up as articles. That is an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps.’

Jonathan Glick, Suilia, ‘The news article is breaking up’, Business Insider, June 1, 2011
News and analysis are getting a divorce. ‘Within the next ten years, long-form writers will accept that their readers have seen the facts of the story live as it happened, probably elsewhere. The longer content that succeeds in that environment will be pieces that provide the most value as backgrounders, news analyses, and commentary.’

Jaron Lanier, ‘You are not a gadget’, Penguin 2011 (paperback edition, page ix)
‘I asked the audience not to tweet or blog while I was talking. Not out of respect for me, but out of respect for themselves. If something I said was memorable enough to be worthy of a tweet or blog post later on […]that meant what I said would have had the time to be weighed, judged and filtered by someone’s brain. Instead of just being a passive relay for me, I went on, what was tweeted, blogged, or posted on a Facebook wall would then be you. Giving yourself the time and space to think and feel is crucial to your existence. […] You have to find a way to be yourself before you can share yourself.’

Katherine Travers, ‘Back to the future (of print journalism)’, Editors Weblog, August 18, 2011
John Bracken of the Knight Foundation for journalism created a flutter on Twitter when he told a conference that ‘print is the new vinyl’ – a reference to the current renaissance for records. Explaining it later, he said he wanted to emphasize ‘the value of the tactile object in a world where digitization makes the acquisition of both music and information a rather intangible experience.’

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