time and news

I abused the backdate function of WordPress quite a lot on my old blog and I intend to continue. That is, the date on a post is not necessarily the day I pushed the “send” button, but more likely the day I took the notes for the post or started writing. It’s part of shedding the addiction to speed, which I believe we need to do.

Years ago I wrote a story about the Xavier Society for the Blind in New York City, which produced Catholic books on tape. It also printed a weekly Braille summary of the New York Times for the deaf-blind. The subscribers were reading week-old news, which seems like an oxymoron but isn’t really. Browsing those dot-punched folios for them would have been the equivalent of reading a randomly aged newspaper for me – something I often do for the pleasure of accumulating knowledge or feeling time travel by. Any news that hasn’t been falsified by later events is still current and anything that has is historical data.

At the other extreme, I worked for a wire service that pushes the limits of speed writing, trying to get everything out in seconds or minutes for the the financial markets, perhaps the only sector that can act on any bit of news immediately [1]. Now everyone can play that game with blogs and Twitter, the headline desk of the Internet. Everybody gets to race the clock and there’s no central desk to set a newsworthiness bar or prevent duplication of labor. The editorial function is transferred to the overloaded reader.

Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying explores the consequences of speed mania and channel multiplication for journalism, via tales of hoodwinking topic-hungry bloggers to write about trends fabricated by marketers to boost brands (sometimes through reverse psychology). It’s difficult to bring myself to cite it because he claims authorship of many such hoaxes, constructing himself as the ultimate unreliable source. Yet the rubbish story examples ring true with wild goose chases I’ve watched on the tech blogs. If your skepticism is flagging about what you read on Wikipedia and other brand-name information websites (“Oh what the hell, it’s probably true”), this will restore it.

Holiday is at his most credible when describing the economics of the blog market and the pressure on writers to post, which he compares to the competition of the 19th-century penny press (he calls it “yellow press”) when news became available to mass audiences and writers were paid by volume. Against that noise, the New York Times deliberately carved out a niche for itself in thoroughly reported, verified and thoughtful, if slower, news coverage – meeting this goal better in some decades than others, I can say after surveying its entire print run in my PhD thesis. Nevertheless, that’s the kind of spirit we need now.

[1] Except for public safety, traffic and weather, it’s hard to think of news that the average citizen can use right away. At the same time, publishing a first take as soon as verified is the best practice in order to counter prior restraint and keep the reflexes sharp. That’s true even in a monopoly market and I’m not arguing with it; but I am arguing for taking more time to research, fact-check and contextualize, and letting opinion and features simmer a while longer.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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