In all this, Schultz’s invocation was one of the few times the term “business model” was used—again, from what I heard, anyway—at the Sheraton Boston this weekend. And that’s to be expected; financial concerns weren’t relevant to the conference’s main concern of the craft and the crafting of narrative. Except: “business model,” the term and the concept, was there. The thing hovered, wraith-like, throughout the weekend’s panel discussions and speeches. As participants spoke eloquently about “moving people through journalism” and the flattening force of compelling narrative (another specter was Joseph Campbell)…there it was. Jon Lee Anderson spinning exciting, charismatic yarns about his adventures in Bolivia and Iraq. (But what about the business model?) Gwen Ifill discussing the connection between a politician’s biography and our national identity. (But what about the business model?) Jenn Crandall describing the supreme trust required between herself and her subjects in creating her remarkable onBeing project. (But what about the business model?)
The tension, in this sense, between theory and practice, between church and state, between the ideal (this is what good narrative should look like) and the pragmatic (this is what good narrative can look like) suggests that now is the right time to question our assumptions—assumptions so commonly accepted that they’ve moved toward cliche—about the transcendent “power of narrative.” (What, exactly, makes narrative powerful? What about it is necessary and fundamental, and what about it is incidental? How can we put its power to use in new journalistic forms?) As Benton said during a talk on Saturday, the Web is engendering “a new openness to the kinds of things that we can deem journalistically acceptable.”
It certainly is. And we journalists, whether we’re literary or hard-news in our sensibility, reject—or, worse, ignore—that new openness at our own peril. Just as we ignore our industry’s financial woes at our own peril. Picasso could have spent hours—days—years—watching and framing and feeling the quiet undulations of the night sky; none of it would have mattered had he been unable to afford paint.
Take, again, Schultz’s “it’s not you, it’s the business model” declaration…which became, in some sense, the de facto motto of the conference overall. It’s a good line, to be sure, both simple and inspirational (with the added virtue, as they say, of being generally true). But it’s also reductive. Journalism’s current woes are much more complicated, after all, than the loss of print-ad revenue. Our problems are bigger than our business model. “We’re part of the problem,” said Maria Carrillo, managing editor of the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot. “We’re telling stories the same old way.”
This is a time, then, not simply for reiterating time-tested journalistic values—although it is a time for that, too—but also for re-thinking those values. For reframing our assumptions about narrative. And for rewriting the story of journalism itself.