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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.’

Bank notes

August 19, 2011

Nick Cohen wrote an interesting comment in last Sunday’s Observer about the current Euro currency crisis:

The notion that you could have a central bank without a central government to control it and impose a uniform interest rate on divergent economies is [now] ridiculed everywhere. [But previously] In the minds of European politicians, opponents of European federalism were not mistaken or confused but wicked […] there were no debates where challenges might be made, and, more seriously, no contingency plans.

This set off memories about reporting from Prague on the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1992, where a hard currency lesson was being learned in reverse. If they weren’t going to have a common, central government and – most importantly – a common economic policy – then all the logic pointed to separate currencies, and soon. I wrote:

Czech and Slovak leaders have promised to share the present crown as long as possible. But the smart money is on an early split, and the state bank has already commissioned a new set of exclusively Czech banknotes, ready for summer delivery. If crisis hits before the crisp new notes are ready, the authorities are prepared. If the money speculators move in, or if Prague and Bratislava diverge too strongly on economic policy, they will put a special Czech stamp on old notes and change over the entire currency within two days.

If you are interested in reading more, check out Story #2 on the new Archive page. By the way, the banknote above is 100 Crowns in the old money, from the days of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, complete with triumphant worker and peasant.

The road to Berlin / the road to Moscow

August 13, 2011


Earlier this year, I went to a friend’s wedding in Warsaw. I had spent many years reporting from Central Europe, and like others, became fascinated by the echoes of the past in the region. This footbridge across Poland’s main east-west motorway brought home the geopolitics of Poland, a flat country with no natural defences, caught between two great powers. Now it is peaceful in that part of Europe, but our world feels very troubled again.

Failure Files on tour

April 20, 2011

Last month I trailed the forthcoming publication of The Failure Files (Triarchy Press), the product of an RSA Fellowship project, which includes a short chapter by myself exploring the importance of failure to learning and the creative process.

The book is now out, complete with its own @gloryoffailure Twitter feed, and a series of public events are being held to encourage debate around its themes. I will be one of the speakers at the London event, on Tuesday May 24 at the House of St Barnabas in Soho. (I think that counts as the most linked post, proportionately speaking, in this entire blog)

Non-fiction on the tube

April 2, 2011

We all talk about wanting to raise awareness of the genre, but I don’t think this is what we had in mind.


Thinking on my feet

March 28, 2011


I went to Cambridge on Friday with a visiting friend, who wanted to see the windows of Kings College Chapel. On the way from the train station, I bought new shoes to replace the winter boots. A small exhibition inside the chapel described the life of John Argentein, a 15th century academic, and the teaching methods of his time. One was the ‘disputation’, defined as the ‘art of thinking on one’s feet’. It sounded like something we could still use.

Knowing what you don’t know

March 13, 2011

The Failure Files is scheduled for publication on 29 March, by Triarchy Press. I have contributed a short chapter, exploring the importance of failure to learning and the creative process. Friends can buy a copy online now at a pre-publication discount of £17.50 (list price £20), and if you enter the promo code FF20 you get an extra 20% off. Here is a sample from the chapter:

‘All writing that aims for originality and beauty has failure at its core. In true stories as well as fictional ones, creativity is about acting as a shaping consciousness. There is beauty in the story’s shape alone, but even more beauty and pleasure if the story leaves spaces for the imagination, and asks questions about what the writer does and does not know. Perhaps we should abandon the language of policymaking, social constructivism and ‘best practice’, and look instead to the language of poetics, which derives from the Greek root poiein, ‘to make’, giving us permission to attend to the process rather than the finished object. Thus a single word holds within itself a whole world of incompleteness, and hence imagination.’

Among other things, the essay explains the purpose of the critical reflection essay, a key element of practice-based disciplines in higher education. Such an essay allows the process behind practice to be made explicit and documented, separately from the creative work itself. It helps to square professional thinking and the scholarly demand for a demonstration of ‘research-equivalent’ activity. It is also a way of acknowledging the inevitability and value of failure as an aspect of discovery, and as a way of engaging critically with others.

Write a book and get a degree

March 5, 2011

Creative Writing at Roehampton University

I know higher education is expensive, and about to get more so. But it does provide soul food, a chance to learn new things and often, a real career boost.

For people who are thinking of working on a book, an MA in Creative Writing is a real boon. As well as giving you the chance to think, it provides a structure, and deadlines, and a supportive atmosphere, and feedback on the work in progress – that kind of sustained professional help is hard to find, and makes a huge difference. And the pride from achieving an MA is immense.

There is endless snobbery about whether you can ‘teach’ good writing but I have never understood this; the painter or musician is not generally scorned for undertaking formal study. Of course the spark of creativity must come from within, but people can and do learn from others. To teach writing is to acknowledge the labour, and the conscious desire, involved in discovering one’s material and crafting it to produce particular effects. Creativity depends not just on inspiration, but also on extensive experience and apprenticeship.

*Warning: shameless plug follows*

I have a vested interest, as I teach on a creative writing programme, and applications are open now for the Masters degree next year. But I also think it matters, and I like the degree that we put together at Roehampton; a lot of thought has gone into the curriculum, which offers some unusual options, and into the way it is delivered. For one thing, we think we are the only ones in the UK to offer an MRes, which focuses on a single, longer work, and one of the few to include Creative Nonfiction, which covers reportage, memoir, travel writing, biography and the lyric essay.

Next summer, we are rolling out a new module in Teaching Creative Writing, and another in Publishing and Editing. The aim is to give writers an awareness of the rapidly changing publishing landscape. And perhaps publishers can benefit as well, because a creative writing degree helps to see text as part of a process, not just a final, finished product.

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.

Guardian calls for more editing of books

October 31, 2010

Much enjoyment in these quarters of the fuss generated on Friday when Guardian literary editor Claire Armistead, talking about the longlist for the paper’s “First Book Prize”, called on publishers to invest more in the editing of their books.

Armistead tweeted that she had ‘discovered some wonderful books’ but added that she was ‘frustrated by the standard of editing’.

Hardly controversial, really. We find ourselves saying this all the time, in the Prospect Reading Group, and I hear it  routinely from authors. But it set off a big fuss, even making the national news magazine programmes. Which is probably a good thing, considering how little this subject is discussed outside specialist circles.

She stood by her comment, adding later: ‘There were an awful lot of incredibly talented and energetic writers, who were not being reined in the way you would expect, and that is the job of an editor. The editor’s job is to point out where they’re going off track… what I felt is that editors are not intervening.’

There is so much misunderstanding of what editing consists of, it’s hard to know where to start. Many complaints about falling publishing standards are really about proofreading, not editing as such; or about copy editing alone, and not developmental editing or or commissioning. And bad editing is taken to stand for the rest. But don’t get me started.