Get Together, Newsmakers

Human contact still matters

ATHENS, GREECE—Over the last seven years I’ve written for nearly forty news publications on four continents, and only once have I spoken to or met any of the editors with whom I’ve worked. My editor at CJR and I have collaborated on about 14,000 words over the last year, yet I wouldn’t recognize him if he were beside me on a train. Everything we’ve done together has been through e-mail.

I don’t celebrate this disembodied dynamic; while I am blessed by the mobility the digital age permits, I would love to sit down regularly with my CJR editor, drink coffee, and swap journo stories. I’m sure one day I will, and I’ll be better for it. Some of my most instructive moments while working as a journalist have come while discussing global events and their coverage with other reporters in person. One of my 2011 resolutions is to try to do this more often.

The greatest advantage of global journalism—the ability to effortlessly file from isolated global locations—is also its greatest shortcoming. Journalists around the world can complete more and more of their work in isolation, while seldom coming into contact with their peers.

While journalism can be a highly social enterprise, it often is not, and it is constantly becoming less so. Television networks that once sent teams of reporters overseas to cover summits and wars now send a single journalist with a satellite phone and a tiny camera. Newspapers that once dispatched three reporters to compile data for an investigative story now assign one. Some local news organizations in the U.S. have employed writers in India to sit at home and watch feeds of city council or court proceedings, and produce 350-word synopses.

“The modernism of the 1920s exhibited so much cultural innovation in such a short period of time because the writers, poets, artists, and architects were all rubbing shoulders at the same cafes,” Steven Johnson wrote in the book Where Good Ideas Come From. “They weren’t off on separate islands, teaching creative writing seminars or doing design reviews. That physical proximity made the space rich.”

I don’t know about you, but despite my increasing reliance on technology, my most revelatory, ah-hah moments still happen in the shower, while on a walk, or during a conversation with others, not while I’m trashing my back and metacarpals in front of my computer screen. (I should admit that during my evening walks, however, my iPod is always belting newscasts into my brain, so it is true that my endorphins are being both naturally and digitally ignited).

I’m not a Luddite; in fact, as a reporter of international news I’ve had to adopt Flip video cameras, Kindles, iTouches and the like earlier than most. But I get more ideas by talking with journalists and my students in person than I do from grazing Twitter feeds.

In his 2010 book I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works, the New York Times tech blogger Nick Bilton wrote that he “[doesn’t] see any lines between real-life friendships that involve talking or looking someone in the eye and virtual ones in which the communication is through e-mail or text messages.” Although Bilton was, I believe, trying to make the point that he sees little problem with our increasing reliance on digital relationships in lieu of human contact, I simply can’t agree with his statement.

Even the likes of tech bloggers, as well as computer engineers, software programmers, and online gaming pros regularly attend conferences with their professional contemporaries to physically mingle, exchange ideas, and build camaraderie. Bilton himself wrote about a tech conference he attended in San Jose, California on behalf of The New York Times’s R&D unit, at which he gave an in-person interview to Wired, one of the world’s leading tech periodicals.

If, as Bilton claims, this could be done just as efficiently through computer bytes, why would the much more expensive production of a physical conference be of any use? The answer is that despite all of our success at making physical proximity matter less, it still does. Google knows this; its offices are mostly unwalled, collaborative spaces. Apple executives still meet in conference rooms from time to time, not necessarily via iPad cams.

The same force drives the phenomenon of Tweet-ups: the need for technological connections to be supplemented by human contact. As wondrous new tech devices allow us journalists to do more on our own, we need to be more vigilant about getting together with other newspeople for a beer and a brainstorm. We’ll all return to our desks with more to offer.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , ,