Lost Media, Found Media

Snapshots from the future of writing

If there were an ashram for people who worship contemplative long-form journalism, it would be the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. This March, at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, hundreds of journalists, authors, students, and aspirants came for the weekend event. Seated on metal chairs in large conference rooms, we learned about muscular storytelling (the Q-shaped narrative structure—who knew?). We sipped cups of coffee and ate bagels and heard about reporting history through letters and public documents and how to evoke empathy for our subjects, particularly our most marginal ones. As we listened to reporters discussing great feats—exposing Walter Reed’s fetid living quarters for wounded soldiers, for instance—we also renewed our pride in our profession. In short, the conference exemplified the best of the older media models, the ones that have so recently fallen into economic turmoil.

Yet even at the weekend’s strongest lectures on interview techniques or the long-form profile, we couldn’t ignore the digital elephant in the room. We all knew as writers that the kinds of pieces we were discussing require months of work to be both deep and refined, and that we were all hard-pressed for the time and the money to do that. It was always hard for nonfiction writers, but something seems to have changed. For those of us who believed in the value of the journalism and literary nonfiction of the past, we had become like the people at the ashram after the guru has died.

Right now, journalism is more or less divided into two camps, which I will call Lost Media and Found Media. I went to the Nieman conference partially because I wanted to see how the forces creating this new division are affecting and afflicting the Lost Media world that I love best, not on the institutional level, but for reporters and writers themselves. This world includes people who write for all the newspapers and magazines that are currently struggling with layoffs, speedups, hiring freezes, buyouts, the death or shrinkage of film- and book-review sections, limits on expensive investigative work, the erasure of foreign bureaus, and the general narrowing of institutional ambition. It includes freelance writers competing with hordes of ever-younger competitors willing to write and publish online for free, the fade-out of established journalistic career paths, and, perhaps most crucially, a muddled sense of the meritorious, as blogs level and scramble the value and status of print publications, and of professional writers. The glamour and influence once associated with a magazine elite seem to have faded, becoming a sort of pastiche of winsome articles about yearning and boxers and dinners at Elaine’s.

Found Media-ites, meanwhile, are the bloggers, the contributors to Huffington Post-type sites that aggregate blogs, as well as other work that somebody else paid for, and the new nonprofits and pay-per-article schemes that aim to save journalism from 20 percent profit-margin demands. Although these elements are often disparate, together they compose the new media landscape. In economic terms, I mean all the outlets for nonfiction writing that seem to be thriving in the new era or striving to fill niches that Lost Media is giving up in a new order. Stylistically, Found Media tends to feel spontaneous, almost accidental. It’s a domain dominated by the young, where writers get points not for following traditions or burnishing them but for amateur and hybrid vigor, for creating their own venues and their own genres. It is about public expression and community—not quite John Dewey’s Great Community, which the critic Eric Alterman alluded to in a recent New Yorker article on newspapers, but rather a fractured form of Dewey’s ideal: call it Great Communities.

To be a Found Media journalist or pundit, one need not be elite, expert, or trained; one must simply produce punchy intellectual property that is in conversation with groups of other citizens. Found Media-ites don’t tend to go to editors for approval, but rather to their readers and to their blog community. In many cases, they disdain the old models, particularly newspapers, which they see as having calcified over the decades, and, according to generally youthful Found Media logic, in deep need of a re-think, using all of youth’s advantages: time and the ability to instantly summon a crowd. For Found Media’s young journalists and bloggers, the attitude toward our craft tends not to be one of mourning for the ashram gone. Rather, it is of not needing a guru at all.

This year, the Nieman Conference tried to accommodate all this newness. There were seminars on homepages, blogging, nonlinear storyboarding, and the journalist-as-entrepreneur. The speaker on blogging, Joshua Benton, a reporter from The Dallas Morning News, tried to vault across the chasm between the narrative nonfiction the conference attendees loved and the RSS feeds all around them. Benton argued, quite compellingly, that narrative journalists and bloggers were both “subversive forces in the American newsroom.” He didn’t quite get at the fact that the former, professionals, were once remunerated, and the latter usually aren’t.

Most of the conference’s attendees were business-card-carrying members of Lost Media. This meant that despite their ashramic euphoria, attendees, when they left the seminars, often fell into disconsolate conversations about the fate of journalism. A former San Francisco Chronicle Magazine staff member shook her head and asked me rhetorically, “What will happen to us? None of the people I knew when I started is still at the Chronicle.” One conference speaker championed the need for us to become better reporters—to develop further what she called “the art of listening” to subjects—in a time when bloggers merely recycle the small scraps of original reporting from Lost Media, creating a landscape of “derivative information.” Over Thai food after one day of Nieman seminars, a group of nonfiction authors fretted about where, whether offline or online, they could now publish graceful long-form stories about serious things—stories that sometimes change the world—and actually get paid decent wages. Such work takes money and time and, yes, training in order to get the painstaking reporting right. What will happen to such work in the future?

There are people and institutions working to make the reporting of the past possible to locate within Found Media. Some of these efforts pick off a piece of what newspapers used to do but are beginning to drop. For example, some time early next year, Charles Sennott, a well-regarded former foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe (which no longer has a foreign staff), and Phil Balboni, founder of New England Cable News, are launching Global News Enterprises, a Web site dedicated to foreign news, using stringers. That effort is backed by Hearst and Comcast, but others are nonprofit models. The most famous of those so far is ProPublica, an independent newsroom funded by philanthropy that aspires to “produce investigative journalism in the public interest.” Its president and editor in chief is Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

As Steiger sees it, the young journalists or commentators or information organizers of Found Media have helped create “an enormously robust opinion sphere” but have left “a growing gap between that and the actual accumulation of information, the sort of information you get and write about after you conceptualize and meditate.” As a corrective, ProPublica aims to synthesize new platforms and older methods with “enough funding to do digging,” as Steiger puts it. Hopefully, the outlet and others like it will inspire Lost Media management types to find more well-lit paths out of the chaos all around them, as they transition into the digital age.

The young found media types I spoke with tend to focus more on invention than destruction. They were, for the most part, unflaggingly upbeat. Jessica Valenti, for instance, the twenty-nine-year-old founder and editor in chief of the popular feminist blog Feministing, which aggregates news items ranging from feminist responses to the presidential campaign to condom manufacturers’ responses to a new study of young women and STDs. The news hits are all interspersed with tart, partisan, intelligent, and sometimes raw commentary and opinion. Whatever Feministing is—blog, think tank, digest, “women’s” pages, feminist magazine—it’s a fine example of the new media as an improvement over the old. Unlike the “Hers” sections of yore—women’s magazines, or even Ms. Magazine—Feministing is not shaped by the fear of being offensive or “unrelatable” for “the average female reader.” In this way, like some other feminist blogs, it is head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media. “I don’t see a lot of nostalgia from young feminists for the time when things were a lot worse,” said Valenti, who is tall with black Veronica bangs, and speaks a decibel or two louder than you do. “I studied journalism a bit but I didn’t find my voice until I had a completely open forum in the blogs.”

Like Valenti, my younger journalist friends and colleagues imagine a kaleidoscopic future where the hoarier codes of journalism are put to rest: goodbye inverted pyramid, hello a nearly reckless immediacy; goodbye measured commentary, hello pungent or radical or vulgar commentary. Yet beyond style, the new reality is that there is no clear, long-term career plan for Found Media-ites—or even for most of the rest of us. We’re in the sort of moment in history that some people will say they were glad to witness, but only twenty years hence.

Found Media-ite David Cohn, twenty-six, started on the traditional path when he attended Columbia’s journalism school. He began to see himself as a journalistic entrepreneur rather than a writer, however. Technology, Cohn said, is about organizing information. “Telling a story is not enough anymore,” he says. While journalists have always organized information, what Cohn and others like him mean by this is a different way of thinking about what we do—rubbing off some of our collective grandiosity and seeing ourselves more simply, as workers who gather and filter data.

Another potential Found Media model is the reader-funded journalism initiatives like MyDD.com: in 2006, readers donated money so the site’s writers could afford to cover a congressional race. A more likely scheme is the one used by Federated Media Publishing, a company that helps independent journalists and other writers monetize their Web sites by selling advertising for them and splitting the revenue. These are the sort of businesses and models that, in Cohn’s eyes, Lost Media people should start to consider. As Cohn puts it, Found Media people are wondering, “Why are we not changing things” in the newspaper and magazine industry while “older journalists are blaming market forces” for decline. In fact, in my interviews, the younger the writers were, the less bewildered they seemed—an inversion of the usual state of things. I asked ProPublica’s Steiger why almost all the Found Media-ites were young. Was it just the ability to master technology? “The environment right now is much better for young people than for people in their fifties and sixties,” he said. “It is also better for the young than for people in their forties and thirties. Young people can survive on starvation wages.” But what of the sustainability of these nascent young careers over the long run? After all, the collapse of economic models for journalism affects Lost Media and Found Media folk alike. Valenti, for instance, while thankful for the attention all of her cheap labor gets her, wonders when she’ll get a decent check for her efforts. Although Feministing makes some money through ad sales, she hasn’t yet wound up at New York magazine, where many of the best and/or most aggressive New York-area bloggers seem to go to cash in their maverick chits for establishment checks. She has, however, leapfrogged to being an author who gets book contracts and writes for magazines that her relatives have heard about, and is paying her bills by consulting for various organizations on blogging. In a paradox familiar to the stars of Found Media, she gets called to be on The Colbert Report, yet she still writes out of her kitchen in Astoria, Queens.

Of course, not all younger writers have let go and learned to love the blogs. Kiyoshi Martinez is twenty-three years old and the founder of AngryJournalist.com, a Web site for irked and neglected reporters to vent anonymously. Despite his youth, Martinez has already given up reporting to write press releases for the Illinois Senate Republican staff—a young man embittered by the newspaper business before he has reached the natural age of bitterness (forty, by my lights). “My generation is now inheriting a lot of problems created by those before them who didn’t realize how the Internet would change editorial content, sales, and marketing,” he told me in a phone interview, while driving past cornfields in Illinois. Martinez has tapped an empire of irate journalists, who post things like: “I’m angry that newspaper owners who routinely expected at least 20 percent margins (7 percent is the average for U.S. companies) are now crying about real competition and are dumbing down and slashing to compete.” Welcome to Lost Media, at its darkest and most hostile.

My friend and colleague Abby Ellin, forty, an author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, also expressed dismay about the situation of Lost Media, starting with a reference to how publishers fawn over bloggers. Ellin was referring to the spate of misery-inducing book sales by bloggers of late, like the guy who founded the goofy Web site Stuff White People Like and subsequently landed a book contract on the subject for a rumored $300,000—although his publisher’s publicist has denied this figure without elaborating whether the deal was higher or lower. (And what, according to the book, do white people like?: “Whole Foods, Wes Anderson movies, graduate school, kitchen gadgets, Barack Obama, Apple products….”) It’s the kind of thing that makes earnest old-school authors like Ellin, whose book, Teenage Waistland, about the obesity epidemic, wonder about their life choices. As Ellin puts it, even though she is “fairly established,” she believes the articles and books she writes just aren’t “enough” anymore. It’s a jumbled zone for us to decode: “high”- or middle-brow journalism culture, like fancy journals or the newsweeklies, now often hire or utilize “low” culture, like unaffiliated bloggers, to take on the latter’s appearance of relevance and popularity. In fact, there are so many recombinant strains of expression that are now called “journalism” that, as Ellin tells me, it’s hard to know what is in one’s self-interest and what is laudable and what is possible and what is important. “Should I go to business school because everyone’s a writer now?” Ellin asks, her voice rising. “With all the blogs, I am a dime a dozen and I feel totally ubiquitous.”

Beneath the immediate professional anxiety, what profoundly troubles the people of Lost Media is that we feel as if we are on the brink of losing our “imagined communities,” the term Benedict Anderson used to describe publics that came to be through the common, general, circulation-enhancing “national print-languages.”

Found Media, on the other hand, tends to be unafraid and assured. Its avatars believe in creative destruction and distributed networks. They believe we must get with their verve-filled program right now. Still, while listening to some of their koans, I must admit that I expected to hear at least a few notes of loss. Weren’t any of them mourning the days when journalists might be revered or even when there was a drinks cart at Time magazine for the late shift? But they weren’t, partially because none of them could remember the time when you were served a bourbon while you were coming up with a headline, or even a time when you were promised retirement funds.

Robert S. Boynton, the director of the magazine writing program at New York University’s Department of Journalism, wrote in an e-mail that his students’ stake in the old system is “minimal,” so “they are less upset by its demise….We do our students a tremendous disservice when we promote the myth of a golden age, when everyone was a budding Joan Didion and every magazine was Esquire under Harold Hayes,” says Boynton. “The world of magazines has always been small and competitive, impoverished and uncertain.”

Another thing that protects the Found Media-ites from nostalgia is that they often don’t elevate the great writers of the past as those of my generation did. Cohn names Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, as an inspiration; he mentions Adrian Holovaty, a twenty-seven-year-old journalist and programmer who got Internet-famous for mashing up Google maps of Chicago with crime statistics reported by the Chicago Police Department to create a crime map. “I don’t have the Watergate fantasy,” Cohn said, distinguishing himself from his elders. His heroes, he said, are less journalists than those who “conceive of the changing role of the journalist.”

But Boynton, editor of The New New Journalism, argues that the young population of Found Media does honor some key values from the past. The parts of the old system “that they do hold dear—story, character, ideas, reporting—are the ones that will be most valued in the future.”

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.

Still, somewhere there’s a young woman reading books written in the golden age of literary nonfiction, in a public park. When that young woman puts her book down, she may blog something honest or incisive about it—or, at the very least, attention-getting—that strangers will stumble upon and then fans may find. She is not yet worried about making a grown-up salary. After all, she can rest assured that she is part of Found Media, and moving forward on the continuum of the new, new, new journalism. 

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Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.