Thursday, January 14, 2016

New Improved News

I keep six honest serving-men,
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When,
And How and Where and Who.
Rudyard Kipling

I found a book I’m excited about; maybe, if I can avoid important spoilers, I could entice you to try it.

I’ve always respected Alain de Botton ever since I read his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. De Botton, who lives in London, has written eleven books, according to the listing inside his latest, but I suspect his latest book is the first one he’s ever dedicated to his mother: The News subtitled A User’s Manual. In this, perhaps his most important book, De Botton has produced original concepts for how we can improve our news media.

While I am reading his work, De Botton reminds me of the university student newspaper volunteers I knew back in the day: We were not afraid to think in big radical ways. Relaxing in the newspaper lounge, gazing dreamily at the ceiling, and then excitedly challenging each other, we were tackling root questions about “the meaning of life” as freely as poets do. Earlier in the day, over at our staff desks, we would be head down and focused, “just the facts, Ma’am.” (Quoting Detective Friday from Dragnet) There we wrote as plainly as a policeman penning an arrest report. The News, I am pleased to note, is written by a man who understands traditional media. Clearly De Botton has thought long and deep about media, enough to come up with some poetical phrases.  

The news has been around a long time. That’s old news. What’s new these days is people saying we live in a media age. We live, they would say, in a new improved technological age, with more media than ever before. With a Cable News Network, and plenty of new “social news” streams including Facebook, Twitter and Flicker. (For photographs) Such a changing world. But perhaps, at root, there’s been no change in our thinking. In De Botton’s new book, where “The definition of the news has deliberately been left vague,” De Botton professes to believe we could vastly improve our news. I’m glad I found his book, but—

—At one level, I find De Botton offensive. I like my news “the way it is,” and since I’m a former newspaper reporter, to me the daily newspapers are “the way,” setting the standard for other media. And it’s a dismal standard. In my days as a student reporter we didn’t talk about the people’s “diminishing attention span,” not back then, but we did say people were “busy.” And so it was expected the news would be gray. We would put the five W’s up in the first paragraph or so, throw in a plain quote, and write on. Our fellow students, in the food court or on the bus, could be seen skipping from one article’s lead paragraph to the next, skip skip skip, flipping the page every half minute.  That was OK. These students were adults, and as serious journalists we made the news boring for their own good. De Botton would understand.

De Botton looks deeply and says that “boring” has many causes, such as: Boring is when we read “news” but we have no place in our heads to hang it. As I would put it: nobody plows through an entire book of “really fun” factoids in one sitting: where would you hang them? Another cause: Boring is when the news being presented is plucked out of context, and so we don’t care—we don’t know these people. In fact, De Botton notes, we are far more interested in the speakers in the Roman forum in a Shakespeare play than watching a (translated) televised “up to minute, live!” session of the legislature in Rome. I have to chuckle as De Botton presents two photographs, of stage and parliament, to illustrate his point.

“Getting to know” ordinary people overseas, in their ordinary context, is being overlooked. De Botton points out that as long as journalists present little of the ordinary days of “foreigners” we will have little regard for foreign news. Even the newsy events overseas will have no context, no place to “hang.” As he was publicizing his book, being interviewed on CBC radio, I heard De Botton say the Ukraine situation was going on the front page in Britain, but it was going unread, while much further away, here in Canada, we read the articles and we cared: We have a large Ukrainian population.

Boring is because—let me stop here, that’s enough. My point is that De Botton has thought about “boring” and “media.” If he were a fish he would know we are in water, just as he sees keenly the media surrounding us. Not me, I take how “it’s supposed to be” for granted, or rather, thanks to De Botton, as I did until “yesterday.” He analyses—who else would look to the historical roots of news? It seems that in the 1870’s Faubert was noting media idiocies  that sound curiously modern. De Botton ponders.

Unlike Alain de Botton, if I was to ponder, say, the effect of individuals getting “only the news they want” through a tablet screen, and setting their computer to personalize their news feeds, like how recent Internet advertising is being “personalized,” targeted at individuals, then I would at most come up with a lame thought like, “Sure, they’re getting the news they want, but they’re missing the surprise article in the left hand corner.” Alain De Botton thinks further ahead: What are the effects over time? De Botton, of course, expresses things better than I can in a mere sound-bite summary paragraph, as he points out that Marie would have set her devices for news about who wore what fashionable dress at the ball, and then she would have missed out for years the news about regions where people were starving, right up until Queen Antoinette saw the guillotine. Another man, who would never say folks below the equator should just eat cake, might use his noble preoccupation with starvation and butchery in the south to avoid thinking about desperate people at home.

Thinking, simple thinking, is something that De Botton does not believe folks should avoid, not long term, although he knows how hard it is:

(Page 253) “It is never easy to be introspective. There are countless difficult truths lurking within us that investigation threatens to dislodge. It is when we are incubating particularly awkward but potentially vital ideas that we tend to feel most desperate to avoid looking inside. And that is when the news grabs us.”

If it’s true that our attention span is shortening, if, with all our devices, we are swimming into an age of distraction, has anybody noticed the water? Does anybody care? De Botton cares:

(Page 254) “We need long train journeys…We need plane journeys when we have a window seat and nothing else to focus on for two or three hours but the tops of clouds and the constant presence, only meters away in the inconceivable cold, of a Rolls-Royce engine, slung under the broad ash-grey wing, its discipline and bravery helping to propel our own vagabond thoughts.”

De Botton holds up a vision of what the news could be, and yet he’s practical too. He starts each chapter with a list of typical media “headlines.” (Or tweets) that he can refer to. What keeps his vision from being too offensive to me is he grounds his book in everyday common reality. He doesn’t come off as a crazy crank, as he knows full well how we all consume our news, because he too consumes it just as we do, as he makes plain:

(page 122) “It would seem bizarre to interrupt the reading of an article in order to contemplate an accompanying image for as long as we might study a painting in a museum — say, thirty second or more — and with an expectation of … We have lost any sense of photography’s potential as an information-bearing medium… properly introducing us to a planet that we keep conceitedly and recklessly assuming that we know rather well already.”

De Botton thinks things through, reasons things out, and comes up with media goals I wouldn’t have thought of. Consider your latest (insert your incident here) “—gate” scandal. Someone’s been caught. De Botton sees that journalists, and the public too, like to gleefully say, “Gotcha!” but then he looks further: Is the goal to remove a person from public life, or to make society better? These are not, he points out, identical goals.

In my local city newspaper, culture is presented behind the sports section, in the women’s section—now called the lifestyle section. Culture, then, is seemingly “not very important” to my neighbors. Thinking of daily newspapers, I eagerly expected De Botton to come out with some original theories as to how the media could present Politics, World News and Economics. And he does, but then I was surprised to read he even has intriguing things to say about Culture. Rather than blab De Botton’s speculations on “important things,” before other readers have a chance to see his book, let me merely note his chapter on Cultures. There I find subchapters with some intriguing lines. For example:

A second-to-last-section in Envy ends with the line, “They would present the stories of successful people principally as case studies that we could understand and practically emulate rather than simply, as at present, either admire blankly or resent.”

Admiration, complete with photos of celebrities, has a second-to-last section that ends with, “In the ideal news service of the future, every celebrity story would at heart be a piece of education: an invitation to learn from an admirable person about how to became a slightly better version of oneself.”

In Fame, complete with photos of Greek heroes, Catholic saints, and a photograph captioned “Emma Watson buys strawberries” the second-to-last section ends with, “This analysis has a side benefit of providing us with a litmus test for how good a job we may be doing parenting our own children: we have only to ask whether they have any wish whatsoever to become famous.”

If De Botton thinks news could change, then at least in our culture there’s precedent. Sometimes old stale media, such as novels, can be shaken up, if we are willing to ignore tradition and think about the users. As a boy, long before audio books were offending purists, I chuckled at how the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books must have offended English teachers. Not only did they condense fine novels, but they added colorful pictures! I suspect RD simply followed their market research.

I like how Be Botton’s book is more small than big—I like small. If others working in the media read his book and share his vision then they can try out their own ways to improve the news. And we consumers can try to train our palate for something more satisfying than a bubbling rush of facts that won’t linger on the tongue.

De Botton has not tried to micro-manage, he has not written a pompous manual of how-to. Not at all.

As managers know, before tidy clear objectives there must be untidy goals. As engineers know, there’s nothing so practical as a good theory. Alain de Botton has proposed many theories for improving the news, derived from digging down to expose the roots of human motivations. I hope people will read it. It remains for all users, media consumers and makers alike, to be up to the challenge of exciting, new improved news.

Sean Crawford

~I must confess, I still have a compulsion to be too concise, by compacting too much information in sentences that are too long. It’s the old journalist in me. Better to screw up my nerve to waste words for a worthy cause, for readers who aren’t in a hurry to skip skip skip. Readers who, come to think of it, don’t crave links to skip off to.

~Happily, my next post has a way more fun writing style than this one.

~I disparage linking in my essay No Links is Good Links, archived July 2012. It’s the post where I explain I will state my archive location, but I won’t link to it. I’m not saying my older essays are pearls, I’m just saying I won’t make links to grease the way for swine.
By the way, that essay is one of my “best,” one of my “top ten” of all time, according to my (visitor) hit count.

~Update—I just found a glimpse at how what users want, "where they are at," is not the traditional objective serious news: Here's a link to how a new innocent TV news program was doomed to fail.

~Update—Here's an example of a news story, about Nevada pulling away from solar energy, that would be infuriating to anyone (like me) who believes in formal objective reporting. Yet I think the story works, and I think De Botton would approve.

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