Today's Press-Related Links

A loss that provokes discussion of the purpose and future of journalism


I am still mainly off the grid but wanted to note these items:

1) How things should not work, part 1. I knew Michael Hastings slightly and liked him a lot. As with most people who either knew or knew-of him, I was shocked and saddened to learn of his sudden death at age 33. He was still growing as a writer. The loss to his family and friends is obvious; the loss to the public is the stories, revelations, and sensibility we will not have from him, as his growth went on. Condolences to his family and colleagues.

If you would like to read one thing that puts Michael Hastings's death (and life) in a larger perspective, I suggest "Enough with the news-reader apps - it's time to support media that really matters," by Hamish McKenzie, in Pandodaily. He contrasts two news items that crossed his screen at about the same time: one about the Hastings crash, and another announcing $40 million funding for a news-aggregator app. You'll see the powerful and important conclusion he draws from the contrast.*

2) How things do work, part 2. I highly recommend Isaac Chotiner's excellent interview, in the New Republic, with the editors of Politico, John Harris and Jim Vandehei. Plus this followup by David Karol at The Monkey Cage. The best interviewers encourage or lure their subjects to reveal and express themselves in ways they might not have intended; Chotiner has done that. A lot of the story of modern Washington journalism can be wrung from these two items.

3) Home notes. (a) The latest issue of the Atlantic is out! My contribution is a brief but heartfelt item on what I was doing a year ago at about this time, on the other side of the world (where the photo at top was taken). And if you were to subscribe, you would see in the actual print issue a photo not included on line. It is of the moment I describe in the beginning of the piece, when I faced a classic journalistic dilemma: whether to let my wife know that a wallaby was sneaking up behind her to steal her food -- or whether instead I should just keep the camera going and let the drama unfold.

3 (b) The issue also contains a short article by this same Deborah Fallows, who fortunately survived the wallaby attack. It concerns what linguists know, or suspect, about how the process of language-acquisition may change, when so many of the people spending time with babies and toddlers are talking not to the child in front of them but to someone else on a smart phone.

3 (c) While I'm at it, Deb will also be doing an online chat this afternoon with Sandra Tsing Loh, well known to Atlantic readers and many others, on various aspects of Chinese language, based on Deb's book Dreaming in Chinese. It will be 5pm-6pm EDT today, details here.
* OK, this will give you an idea of the case McKenzie is making, as he considers the latest well-funded aggregator startup:
Finding content on the Web is not a serious problem. It's a leisure problem - as in, it's only really applicable to someone who has too much leisure time. If someone ever comes to me to say, "Oh, I can't find anything decent to read on the Internet while I'm killing time waiting for my Uber," I'm just going to slap them.

And this is where the contrast to Hastings is so painfully evident. Hastings was doing work that, in part because of digital media, is becoming less financially viable by the day (even though he was employed by BuzzFeed, a digital media startup). His brand of hard-hitting, deeply researched investigative journalism is proving increasingly difficult to sustain for media companies that are now more used to cutting budgets than they are to investing in quality reporting. But that's a problem that tech is not doing much to solve.

Instead, because software people think in terms of efficiencies and scalability, we get this surfeit of applications that deal in repackaging other people's content in a highly personalized and streamlined fashion. The concerns that are given most attention are distribution and discovery, not the promotion of civic-minded independent journalism, and certainly not any way to make it a more profitable enterprise. ..While these news aggregation companies often claim to democratize media and improve access to information, they simultaneously eschew the real problem inherent in today's media business: monetization.

I am not suggesting that the dwindling fortunes of the media business is the tech industry's issue to solve. But if the likes of Rockmelt and its well-funded ilk are serious about solving difficult "change the world"-type problems, they ought to look at reporters like Michael Hastings and ask themselves, "How can we support work like that?"