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Bollinger's Windbags Won't Do Much Without the Young
By Jon Katz
It's tough to imagine two more puffed-up or self-referential institutions than journalism and academe, and when they come together to discuss their own meaning, importance and role in the 21st century, the nation's natural gas supply predictably expands. Both love nothing more than to convene grim panels on Whither the Future sought-after panelists are a cottage industry all their own. Perhaps it's no accident that neither journalism nor the university has changed much as an institution, in comparison to changes in the surrounding world.
The flap over Columbia's new dean and direction therefore misses the point. Journalism's urgent need isn't in the choice between craft or scholarship. It needs help with relevance, and the courage to undertake real change and reform.
Yes, the Columbia Journalism School needs to change. So do the newspapers, magazines and TV stations hiring its graduates. But if you want to study change, go find some aging hackers to help you. They'll do better than Columbia's new blue-ribbon panel. The hackers changed information more in a few years than all the J-Schools and media organizations combined over generations. Our ongoing Information Revolution has come about in spite of the institutions of journalism, never because of them.
So get ready for task force rhetoric and very few new or even useful ideas. Media people are always dreadful at covering or understanding themselves. Journalism is often the last to know when something crucial is happening to it. Much of the public wrangling over Lee Bollinger's initiative seems to me foolish and pompous. There is no innate conflict between scholarship and craft. That's a debate that has no significance whatsoever beyond the narrow very narrow enclosures that are fussing about it.
The challenge for media and for the academic study of media has been the same for a generation now, and both media and academe have failed to meet it. Journalism has become irrelevant to younger Americans, and marginalized by those vibrant and ascending new information cultures computer gaming, movies, music, graphic design, software, popular culture, the Net and the Web. A generation without a common information structure is by definition alienated. This has profound consequences for any democratic society, almost all of them bad. It's had ugly implications for the future of journalism, too.
From my odd perspective I've taken a sabbatical from media criticism to write about dogs many of the people who reside at the Columbia Journalism School don't seem to get it at all. From his public statements, there's no sign that Bollinger does either. It is probably a good thing for him that the public is unrepresented on his huge panel. Harry and Martha from Dubuque could only shake their heads in wonder at what these people are arguing about. Their kids have probably stopped wondering.
The flight of the young has become central for our understanding of what journalism is or needs to be. The young drive our new information culture. They invented and understand new forms of media especially the Net and the Web. They know that software is the new content, driving enormous change in the creation and distribution of ideas and information.
They understand, too, the extraordinary power and meaning of interactivity, and how it is redefining narrative and story-telling. Scholars like Janet Murray of MIT (author of Hamlet On the Holodeck) grasped this years ago. But journalism doesn't get it, and has resisted the idea fiercely. Newspapers, newsmagazines and TV networks haven't radically changed form or content in half a century, despite their aging audiences, and growing competition from new media sources. They are allergic to interactivity. Increasingly, it appears they are incapable of it.
They don't want to share authority. So their online sites have failed to attract significant new audiences of the young, or even to develop creative new content. (The major news sites are about as two-way and interactive as cement posts). They have missed the significance of software on intellectual property, content, corporatism and politics. The open source movement is the most radical, democratic and interesting idea to come out of media in a half-century, and few people in journalism even know what it is. The deep-thinking armada Bollinger has assembled includes exactly one person from the new media culture (Omar Wasow), and none of its most innovative or respected thinkers. That says quite a bit about the degree of change we can expect.
Are new media still important, or even new, in the post dot.com era? Yes. The hype phase is over; the revolution is just cranking up. Gaming has surpassed movies in revenue, and become the most transformative and influential form of entertainment, stimulation and intellectual development for tens of millions of younger and older Americans. Any real understanding of media is impossible without the study of emerging cultures like this one. The powerful dynamic spawned by the free music movement (people using media to go around The Media) is only beginning to make itself felt. An entire generation has grown up out of sight or mind of most parents, journalists, or teachers with free access to almost all of the archived text and culture in the world. For better or worse, they are never going back to traditional, top-down (read New York Times) models of information distribution.
Scholars like Stanford's Lawrence Lessig (see his Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace) understand that software has revolutionized our notions of content, intellectual property, free expression and copyright. What could be more central to future journalists or to the evolution of the First Amendment? How many J-schools teach much or anything about these issues? For that matter, how many papers cover them?
Lee Bollinger's newly announced panel of gasbags, usual suspects, talking heads, writers, TV stars, media academics and critics has some very talented people. It also reeks of Business-As-Usual. It is poorly equipped to address this elemental question of relevance.
And it doesn't add up to a radical reassessment of the future of journalism. So we'll have the stubborn appearance of doing something, while everybody knows nothing will really get done.
It's telling that true media revolutionaries like Louis Rosetto, the founder and ex-editor of Wired Magazine, weren't selected. Rosetto, perhaps the single best creative mind to come out the past generation of media creators, stunned and horrified the Eastern media establishment (whose members overwhelmingly dominate Bollinger's panel) by grasping that new media have to see the world from the point-of-view of the intuitive, interactive young minds that are now shaping it. His creation, Wired, defined a new culture before most journalists or J-school professors even knew it was here.
Rosetto saw that he could reach the young the people journalism was then trashing as dumb and addicted through graphic design, argument, attitude. He also believed in real interactivity, not just the appearance of it (e-mail us, as if we care about what you think!). Rosetto got it: interactivity is a new relationship between people, especially the young, and their media. It means real power-sharing between media and information consumers, a new and genuine post-Ombudsman partnership between user and vendor of information. He understood that technology had become the most powerful force in American, even global life, something inherently threatening to the hoary journalistic grip on information Today nearly ever ascending form of media is interactive. This is, literally, the future. And it's not going to be on the table in the J-School gas-a-thon.
That kind of reassessment would be far too threatening. More than anything, it would mean turning power over to the people who really understand media in the 21st century: kids raised in the interactive culture. They're the authority on it. They know how to move through it, swing with it The odd thing is that scholars like Lessig have been onto this for years. Journalists are still trying to catch up.
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