Monday, May 11, 2009

The Trouble with Newspapers

Howard Kurtz's column in Monday's Washington Post offers up yet another elegiac analysis of the recent collapse of the newspaper business, and I suppose I should feel sad too. After all, I got my start as a newspaper reporter, though I didn't stay in the business very long, and my time as a reporter remains vivid to me. Newspapers taught me to write clearly, to value objectivity, and to cast a skeptical eye on the passing parade. 

Clearly, they're dying. A friend of mine who works for NPR sent me a link urging me to join the "Save the Newspapers" group on Facebook. As far as I can tell, neither of us joined. A few months later I read that NPR was trying to save money by canceling most of its newspaper subscriptions. So much for the good guys doing the right thing.

Maybe it's time to put aside nostalgia and comment on the emperor's outfit.

Truth be told, most newspapers just plain suck. I'm not mainly talking about the quality of the journalism: they just produce a lousy product. The only reason they've been around so long is that they've had an audience held captive by the technology of print. Now, the audience is no longer captive, and newspapers are going out of business in a hurry. The only way to stop the collapse, as I see it, it to come up with a better product.

How do they suck? Let me count the ways.

Delivery—How much do you really enjoy walking out the front door on a rainy morning to pick up a soggy newspaper in a plastic bag lying in a pool of water at the end of the driveway? Even in good weather it's inconvenient to get your paper. When I was a kid, we trained our dog, Hambone, to fetch the paper in the morning, but once the papers got fat and they started wrapping them in plastic it proved beyond his ability. It was the beginning of the end.

Most newspapers scrimp on delivery: they contract it out to a carrier who drives through the neighborhood in the early morning, slinging papers into people's yards. Our carrier installed a newspaper box next to the mailbox, but he never used it—it was too much trouble for him, and he preferred aiming for the puddle. If you weren't paying for such a service, you would call it littering. How hard would it be to put a dry, ready-to read paper on the doorstep or doorknob, where people could get it in the morning? If newspapers actually put some money into the delivery service—hiring somebody who would stay in the job, rather than independent contractors, and putting the carrier in a uniform like the mail carrier or UPS guy, rather than allowing themselves to be represented by a greasy, chainsmoking sociopath in an old Chevy van, it might make a difference.

Junk—Somewhere along the line, newspapers ceased being a vehicle for news and started becoming a junk mail delivery system. I'm sure I sound like Andy Rooney in saying so, but the invention of advertising inserts, though doubtless profitable in the short term, ultimately harms newspapers as a product. The inserts are invariably of different sizes and textures, designed to fall out of the newspaper like blow-in cards fall out of a magazine. To read the paper, one must strip out all the junk. Once a week, on Sunday, this may not be too much to ask, but most of the time the ratio of junk to news is pretty high. 

If, like me, you recycle your trash, the sheer volume of wasted paper in a newspaper begins to strike you when you stack a week's worth of papers in the recycle box. When one begins to regard the newspaper not as something to read, but rather as something to sort and recycle, it seems a less vital part of the morning ritual. 

Format and Design—Should newspapers become more like magazines? Printing technology no longer holds them back from producing a more compact and readable format quickly. While there's something to be said for the pleasures of picking through large sheets of newsprint, looking for nuggets, most newspapers are poorly designed. If the point-and-click world has taught us one thing, it's impatience. Newspapers need to be more skimmable, easier to hold in the hand, and designed with a less random structure. One ought to be able to page through them quickly, identify which articles deserve careful reading and which can be skipped, and then find the desired articles quickly.

Voice—Now we begin to get to the journalistic issues. For many years, newspapers have had a corporate voice. It's dull. Sure, individual reporters may have bylines, but the main impression of a newspaper is that of an aggregate of voices, none very distinctive. Editorials tend to be anonymous and corporate. Op-eds, which feature distinctive voices, often attract more readers. The editor's touch is visible mostly in the headlines and the selection of stories, not in their writing. 

But recently we've come to expect a more personal kind of news, and newspapers need to adapt. When one looks at the best blogs, like Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, what distinguishes them is an authorial voice. Marshall is presently trying to build up the reporting staff at his TPM site, and professes to want to de-emphasize the blog that serves as its public face. My prediction is that he won't be able to. People read the blog to see what he has to say, much as they used to listen to a radio personality like Paul Harvey; his staff's good reporting gives him interesting stuff to write about, but my guess is that few readers go to TPM to read Zachary Roth or Moe Tkacik. They want to see what Josh has to say.

When a writer at a newspaper develops a distinctive voice, he or she often gets promoted to the job of "columnist." That's fine, but it's still just one voice, writing two or three times a week. And the columnist still has to go out and find stories. Perhaps newspapers need to move more toward the magazine model here too, where the story is reported by a number of staffers, but it is written by an editor who imparts to it style, attitude, and a distinctive voice. 

Well, enough of this for now. I'll probably have more to say later. Maybe if I had a staff . . . .

Monday, May 4, 2009

Spin: A Consumer's Guide

Trying to define "spin" is rather like trying to define obscenity, in Justice Potter Stewart's famous evasion: we may have a difficult time saying exactly what it is, but we're sure we know it when we see it.

We're "spun" all the time, of course—in politics, in advertising, in the language of business and organizations, and on television—we're constantly barraged by messages aimed at influencing us. It's hard to be oblivious to it. Perhaps that's why, for the past two years, dozens of undergraduates have enrolled in my course, "Spin: A Consumer's Guide," as a way of coming to terms with all the messages directed their way. Along the way, I have seen them wrestle with what, exactly, we're talking about when we talk about spin. They're all convinced that they know what it is, but trying to get them to actually nail down a convincing definition always ends up raising as many questions as it answers.

For example, is spin really any different from rhetoric, the classical art of persuasion? Stanley Fish doesn't think so. Writing in his New York Times blog, he savages a book on spin by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Brooks Jackson, arguing that "spin – the pronouncing on things from an interested angle – is . . . the very content of thinking and judging." In other words, he argues, each of us spins our own world into existence whenever we think about it and whenever we try to communicate our vision of that world, so it's a delusion to think that you can neatly separate "spin" from "fact" or "truth."

In a sense, Fish is right. It's impossible to avoid spinning.

To see why, consider the metaphor of a major-league baseball pitcher, with a variety of pitches in his arsenal. If he imparts topspin on the ball as he releases it, the result is a sinkerball that drops suddenly as it approaches the batter. If he imparts underspin to the ball it tends to sail, or seem to rise as it nears the batter—a rising fastball. Curveballs, screwballs, and sliders result from different kinds of side-spin. All of them are meant to be difficult to hit.

Ah, but what happens when the pitcher throws a knuckleball—a pitch with no spin at all? That's hard to hit too, as it behaves unpredictably, and dances around as the winds affect it. So no spin can be just as "deceptive" as extreme spin. In fact, the only way to make a pitched ball easy to hit is to impart to it a gently predictable rotation that steadies it against the breeze but doesn't make it dive or rise. In other words, you have to spin it to make it easy to hit. To bring the metaphor back to language, you could say that clear communication requires effort and artifice—effort and artifice that, by definition, produces spin.

Okay, so far Fish is right. But, as you can probably sense, he begs the real question.

To return to our baseball metaphor, when a pitcher throws you a curveball, or a slider, or a high hard one that rises out of the strike zone, his intention is to make you swing and miss. Spin, in the popular sense that we're used to thinking about, similarly seeks to make us miss something. That's what I'll be writing about here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Morality and the herd mentality

David Brooks took an interesting break from writing about politics this week to consider the way in which we make moral judgments. Rather than careful, rational deliberations, he writes, moral judgments
are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.
These snap moral judgments, he says, have come to be seen as a product of our evolution—over the ages we have evolved to be "successful cooperators" in addition to being inveterate competitors. Ultimately, the cooperative group has often proven more competitive than the fierce individualist. (Take that, Ayn Rand!) Thus, our moral sense grows out of our need to cooperate with one another, and has become a response as much a part of our inner selves as the instincts to breathe, eat, and procreate.

Brooks has been reading Steven Quartz, whose studies of cognition challenge some of the ways that we traditionally look at moral decision-making. If he's right, this cuts two ways. As Brooks sees it, it's a warm and fuzzy bit of evidence that our gut reactions are as likely to be generous and moral as they are to be selfish. That's a comforting thought. On the other hand, it's one of the ways that we get sucked in by irrational appeals. Our moral sense gets offended easily, and a skilled spin doctor can often shape an argument in ways that evoke moral outrage when a calmer, more rational look at the issue might lead us to a different conclusion.

It's one thing to instinctively want to do the right thing. But we can't always trust our instincts about what's right. Sometimes, when all the other members of the herd are about the run off a cliff, it's worth taking a minute to consider whether they've chosen the best direction.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Rotating hedgehogs

Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times earlier this week gets at one of the basic functions of spin—turning off our bullshit detectors. He's talking about our tendency to accept "expertise" at face value:

[An] actor was introduced as “Dr. Myron L. Fox” (no such real person existed) and was described as an eminent authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior. He then delivered a lecture on “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education” — except that by design it had no point and was completely devoid of substance. However, it was warmly delivered and full of jokes and interesting neologisms.

Afterward, those in attendance were given questionnaires and asked to rate “Dr. Fox.” They were mostly impressed. “Excellent presentation, enjoyed listening,” wrote one. Another protested: “Too intellectual a presentation.”
Kristof reminds us of Philip Tetlock's book, Expert Political Judgment, which argues that the more reliable expert forecasters are the so-called "foxes" in Sir Isiah Berlin's fox/hedgehog dichotomy, who adopt a more flexible, less dogmatic attitude toward evidence. But even their predictions don't do much better than flipping a coin in terms of accuracy. (Kevin Drum is not impressed by the distinction.)

Here's the thing: Statistics, expert testimony, punditry—they're all thrown at us so fast that we don't have time to evaluate them. As we've moved to a public culture that takes place in real time, on television in particular, our gut reactions take over. One of the signal virtues of the blogosphere is that it offers a culture of second-guessing and fact-checking that even newspapers can't match.

At least, I predict that's how it will be until written blogs are superseded by video blogs, and the whole cycle starts again. But you know how it is with predictions.

Starting over . . .

After letting this blog lie fallow for a year, I'm going to give it another try. Look for periodic entries as I try to get some ideas together for a book about "spin."