The web has been a boon for serious investigative writing
If I’ve learned one thing from watching the internet over two decades, it’s this: prediction is futile.
The reason is laughably simple: the network’s architecture and lack of central control effectively make it a global surprise-generation machine. And since its inception, it has enabled disruptive innovation at a blistering pace.
This doesn’t stop people making predictions, though. In fact, ever since the web went mainstream in 1993 there has been a constant stream of what computer scientist John Seely Brown calls “endism” – assertions that some new technology presages the termination of some revered practice, not to mention the end of civilisation as we know it. The prediction that online news means the death of newspapers, for example, is almost as old as the web. More recent examples include Wired’s announcement of the imminent death of the web at the hands of iPhone apps and Nicholas Carr’s assertion that ubiquitous networking heralds the end of contemplative reading.
The problem with endism is that it’s intrinsically simplistic. Of course, new technologies threaten some older things; the CD-Rom more or less wiped out the printed reference book and Wikipedia, in turn, has vapourised the market for disc-based encyclopedias. But the demand for reference information hasn’t disappeared. On the contrary: according to Alexa.com, Wikipedia is currently the seventh most popular website in the world. Far more people now look things up than ever did in the heyday of Encyclopedia Britannica. Our appetite for reference information has grown with the online supply.
This confusion of format with function also applies to the debate about the future of journalism. The newspaper industry, led by Rupert Murdoch, likes to portray the web as a mortal threat to journalism.
The implicit assumption behind this charge is that the only way for journalism to thrive is by squirting its inked output on to processed wood pulp. That was true once, but it isn’t now. Print is just one way of publishing the fruits of journalists’ labours; the web is another; iPhone apps are a third. And there may be more to come as the internet continues to work its disruptive magic. So any intelligent discussion about the future needs to make the distinction between a particular format (print) and the function (journalism) that society needs to nurture. And it’s the function that really matters. [emphasis mine]
Sceptics about the future of online journalism have traditionally fallen back on two main arguments. The first is that online revenues are insufficient to support serious journalism. The second is a derivation of Nicholas Carr’s thesis – that habitual use of the internet discourages serious reading, so there’s little point in publishing long-form journalism online. This has led magazine publishers like Condé Nast and the Economist, which specialise in serious or longer-form journalism, to conclude that their digital future lies in iPad apps, which supposedly offer a more “immersive” reading experience.
Well, perhaps they do. But it would be a mistake to write off the web as a medium for serious, long-form journalism. There’s a vast quantity of high-quality narrative journalism on it. The Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson recently came up with an ingenious way of alerting people to this resource. He set up a Twitter account @IfYouOnly with the motto “If you only read one thing today, make it this”. His aim: to highlight and link to a single piece of gripping, powerful and memorable writing each weekday.
“Ah, yes,” say the sceptics, “but where’s the business model to support such expensive writing?” And here’s an interesting development. The online magazine Slate decided to allocate resources to encourage some journalists to produce long, long pieces – for example Tim Noah’s analysis of why there hasn’t been another 9/11-type attack. These pieces have attracted astonishing levels of reader attention, with page views in the 3-4 million range. And the editor of the New York Times magazine has made the same discovery. “Contrary to conventional wisdom,” he says, “it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic.”
Finally, there’s the objection that people don’t like reading long pieces on screen. Well, technology has an answer to that, too.
There’s a free service called Instapaper. It puts a “read later” button on your browser toolbar. Next time you come on a long-form piece that looks interesting, hit the button – and then read it later on your computer, phone, iPad or Kindle.
Who said the web was dead?
Source: The Guardian