St. Petersburg Times writer Thomas French and his editor at the paper, Mike Wilson, whom I met in the hotel lobby for breakfast during the Nieman conference, made a similar point. They noted that a clear symptom of the encroachment of Found Media on Lost Media is the new penchant for posting lists of “most e-mailed” stories on traditional news and magazine Web sites. While the stories that make the list are often maligned by traditional journalists as being marshmallow-light, many are neither irrelevant nor sensationalist—not just about cat suicide or the most popular camcorder. French pointed out that what tends to bind the most e-mailed stories together is that they are interesting. (Michael Hirschorn in the December issue of The Atlantic makes the same point.) That reporters and editors are paying so much attention to what pieces make the most e-mailed list is one collision of Lost and Found Media that is productive. To French, the articles on these “most popular” lists suggest that strong storytelling will ultimately win out. After all, stories have always been necessary, French said. Look at the cave drawings. Look at the Bible.
A quarter of a century ago, George W. S. Trow, the essayist and media critic, imagined that television would unravel existing contexts and confound people’s minds, that the great figures and aesthetics of his day had been sapped of their deserved authority. By 1981, the year that Within the Context of No Context was published, it was all already over, he wrote. But I wonder if perhaps the real dawn of contextlessness was not when television was the invading medium. After all, TV emanated from a box and, in sense, stayed in its box; it certainly did not engulf other media the way the Web has.
On the train back home, I thought back to when I was an aspiring writer. My torn suede jackets and savoir faire couldn’t hide a sometimes overwrought dream to be a renowned literary journalist. I was inspired by countless novels and memoirs about women coming to New York to become writers. I wanted to be the critic for the radical magazine in the short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit,” impressing strangers on a train with my review copy of an “important” new book. But I was not yet that woman: I was twenty-one, and it was 1993, the year of the slacker, and I spent my days in public parks, reading Frances FitzGerald and Jessica Mitford as if they were the Talmud. I had no idea then that within a decade and a half, the stakes and structures of journalism would significantly change.
The Found Media future will be one with millions of counterpublics, all commenting, connecting, and curating information from their interest-and-identity-bound niches. Thankfully, “imagined communities” still exist within Found Media and, often enough, they are likely to be international. Readers are connected not by the fact that they dwell in a particular township or city but by their identities, tastes, hobbies, and predilections—and language specific to each community. The future may be crowd-sourced. It may be amateur. The glamour of the magazine star may disappear—mystique could accrue ever more to gossip bloggers with boundary problems. People might be writing for free à la HuffPost, the fact of their own face and commentary appearing on their computer screens the only payment they expect. Indeed, we may return more to the “for love not money” journalism of writers of the earlier part of the twentieth century. Generally, the future may be nonprofit-funded, although to imagine that this method will fund more than a few ventures is hard, at least in the short term.
For better or worse, we in Lost Media must look to the Found Media and try to learn or steal what we can from it. And perhaps some of the conventions of traditional newspaper and magazine writing that can make it rigid and bland will fade into the background. Maybe some of the best qualities of the blogs—directness and informality—will positively infect us.
Needless to say, things can seem gloomy. The always-hard-to-finance journalism that resembles literature as much as it does craft or commerce—as Nabokov wrote of great fiction, a combination of “magic, story, lesson”—is just as difficult to pay for and to achieve, but even fewer readers seek it out. Fewer Found Media-ites have the support to report in the name of social justice, or to expose wrongdoing—the two best aspects of traditional journalism. Will Lost Media’s methods of “making the world a better place”—reporting on ruinous working conditions or rooting out the dirty bank accounts of worthies-gone-wild—be left only to the lucky few? One hopes that the people looking so hard for the new economic models for this kind of journalism find them soon.