Many have written about the changing news business, how the economics of inefficiency that characterized newspapers ad sales, which still are the lion's share of revenues, don't apply in a world of plenty; how anyone with a smartphone and camera can act as a reporter and draw eyeballs away from so-called mainstream sites; how publishers are hoping the iPad and the teeming apps ecosystem will somehow toss them a lifeline. Fewer, however, have addressed how the actual content is changing.
But we are in the midst of a transformative shift in the craft of journalism. Text-only stories, the kind your parents found in their morning newspapers and characterized by the classic inverted pyramid (most important stuff at the top, least important stuff at the bottom) could eventually go the way of 45-rpm records. The MP3 of journalism may be the "live blog," which relies on the merging of platforms and weaving of text with video, audio, external links to other articles (including those of rival news organizations), blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, and whatever other useful information is available. It doesn't matter if information originates from a New York Times article, a tweet from an eyewitness on the scene, or someone offering astute commentary and curating links, a video shot by a protester or produced by a team at CNN. Because in the live-blog format disparate platforms become irrelevant, and the walls between these separate silos of content simply dissolve.
Some impressive examples of live blogs include Reuters' coverage of Libya and the Guardian's treatment of the U.K. riots. They both offer immediacy, helped by constant updates in real time, and provide an abundance of information far beyond mere text on a page or screen. The live blog is an outgrowth of technology coverage and began with coverage of Steve Jobs' keynotes, when tech bloggers from Gizmodo, TechCrunch, and Engadget offered blow-by-blow accounts of what was said on stage coupled with instant (and sometimes witty) analysis. With the explosion in social media and the ubiquity of video and still cameras on smartphones, it has evolved further, and I'm not the only one who thinks it could presage the next great media form.
"I think the traditional article is dead," says Anthony DeRosa, Social Media Editor at Reuters. It "should be more like a live blog, because the traditional story format lacks a lot of evidence in the form of video/photos/tweets that help corroborate what a reporter is alluding to in [his] story. Why not just have it right there in the context of the article, the same way it is in a live blog?"
There's nothing new about technological forces reshaping media and art. Whether you're talking about journalism, painting, music, or cinema, none of them sprang from a strict metaphysical bundling of creative memes. They're often more influenced by prosaic pressures—the availability of materials, distribution, and marketing—than by the mystical and miraculous human need for self-expression.
Take that copy of USA Today left by your hotel room door. Have you ever wondered why a standard newspaper story is structured the way it is? It didn't just happen. It owes its form to the confluence of technology, distribution, formatting, and organization. Look at the short, punchy paragraphs, each often just a sentence long, far shorter than the paragraphs you read in magazines or books. Why did newspapers dating back to the late 19th century, and throughout the 20th and into the 21st, adopt that style? Newspaper broadsheets are divided into narrow columns so half a dozen stories can begin on the front page. (Tabloids are different, of course, but on the inside they're similarly structured.) The front page has to function not only as a conduit for news but market the newspaper by catching the eye of newsstand passersby—hence headlines, sometimes in screaming fonts. Magazine- or book-length paragraphs would end up squeezed into one long block of text and that would be hard to read.
Technology and economics also shaped the evolution of art. Starting in the early 19th century painting evolved with new hues like cobalt and cerulean blues, chromium green, then cheap synthetics such as rose madder, ultramarine, and zinc white, followed by the invention of the collapsible paint tube, which offered pre-mixed colors in a more portable form. It became cheaper and more accessible to greater numbers of people, increasing the pool of potential painters and ultimately helped spawn Impressionism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism.
We can play this game with music, too. Why were songs so short in the 1920s and '30s? A 78-rpm wax record could only hold that much music (read: data) on a side. With 45-rpm discs songs were stretched to three and four minutes. Then came the advent of the LP (for long-playing) record; suddenly musicians had more than 40 minutes (20 minutes per side) to work with, and songs got longer. In the 1980s, when compact discs hit the market, recording artists had an even larger canvas to work with—60 minutes or more of music—and that led to the inclusion of more tunes, including some clunkers. It took some getting used to. It also portends the end of the album as we know it, as consumers download only what they want.
And a similar dynamic is at work with cinema. The earliest movies were crude, short, silent, and shot in black and white. Then came feature-length black-and-white silent films with music soundtracks then "talkies" arrived with The Jazz Singer in 1927. While there were a few isolated movies shot in color before then, none were seen on the big screen until the mid-1930s, although it took Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz before it hit the big time. Now we see high definition and 3-D movies, and there's digital editing and special effects, and cinema continues to evolve.
Over the past 15 years we've seen a burst of websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Storify, YouTube, Flickr, Twitpic, and audio, all merging into a mishmash of media. Twitter has become a de facto wire service, with up-to-the-second news and commentary, while Facebook can amplify the information. People, whether they be trained reporters covering the action or protesters in the crowd, provide the video, images, and commentary. And often a single curator pulls it all in and makes sense of it. It's a bit like the old days, when a reporter would call in from the scene and an editor would write the piece.
It can take a while for traditional reporters to grok the live blog. "I'm trying to get more of our correspondents, the subject matter experts, involved in these live blogs we're doing, because I feel like they can really build context around the live blog," DeRosa says. "You look at what the Guardian does, what Al Jazeera does, what the New York Times does, it's not just reciting what they're seeing, but they do analysis and commentary. They do fact-checks during the debates, which I think is great, and they're sourcing some of the facts that people want checked out through Twitter and taking that through a hash tag."
And the craft of journalism only benefits as these separate platforms disintegrate and meld into one.
Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.
[Image: Flickr user agit-prop]