Thursday, January 05, 2006 | Based on information published by The New York Times this week, the business of journalism has come full circle.
The Times reports (Jan. 2 edition) that subjects of stories in both print and broadcast news media are using their Web sites to publish every scrap of information about the story: interviews, phone transcripts, email exchanges, pages of notes, etc.
Predictably, the subject didn’t like the story, even if there were no errors in it, and invites readers to look at all the material and decide if the story was fair or not.
That’s fine, but for most stories, there will be a huge volume of material to read, and most people, outside of media professionals, academics and critics, won’t take the time.
Which is exactly why journalism became a business in the first place. A couple of thousand years ago, the world had become such an eventful place that people didn’t have the time or resources to gather the news for themselves. An industry was born, whose workers collected, digested, organized and distributed news to the public, the same way brake shops eventually were born to fix brakes for those people who didn’t have the time or equipment to do it themselves.
Even then, consuming the early media took time. The ancient reporters still collected more information for a story than they would ever use, but they used far more information than we do now. Before the mid-1880s, they wrote all their stories in the narrative style, which is organized chronologically, includes many details (for interest), develops slowly (for drama) and puts the climax (what happened) at the end.
The narrative style is still alive and well. It is the style in which novels, plays and screenplays are written. The old-timey journalists liked it, too, but in 1844, something happened that would revolutionize journalism. Samuel F.B. Morse introduced telegraph technology into the commerce of communications.
Before 1844, information could travel no faster than a courier on horseback, or in a railway car, or on a steamship. With Morse, overnight, it became possible to move information through a wire at nearly the speed of light.
Telegraphy was not researched, or developed, or introduced, with the newspaper industry in mind. But newspapers quickly adapted the technology to their needs. By 1848, they were using it to transmit news of the Mexican-American War back to their offices. President Polk first heard of the American victory at Veracruz not from his generals, but from a newspaper editor.
In 1861, the biggest story of the 19th century broke out: the Civil War. Hundreds of reporters were in the field, collecting information and returning to press tents to write their stories, all in the long, detailed narrative style, with who won at the end. They lined up at the telegraph shack, controlled by the military, to send their stories back. But each story took so long to send that waiting reporters complained. The military began kicking reporters out of the shack before their stories were half-sent.
The reporters learned quickly to turn their stories over: climax at the top, edit details, arrange in logical order. The classic inverted pyramid. Even if they got kicked out after five minutes, the reporters knew they had sent the most important information first. They knew all the details couldn’t get in, so they learned to edit details, keeping the most important to put into the story, and saving the others (reporters never throw anything away) for the less-important feature or color stories.
Then they arranged the story in logical order of importance, so that no matter when they got kicked out, they knew that the lost part of the story was always less important than what had been sent, no matter where the “cut” was.
The Civil War ended in 1865, and the inverted pyramid was no longer necessary. But it survives to this day for one reason: the public liked it. No longer obligated to read all 100 inches to find out what happened, they happily discovered they could read the first five or six paragraphs and have the heart of the story, with no need to read on unless they wanted to. The inverted pyramid made readers their own editors.
Since 1861, journalists have worked hard to develop and use the values and principles needed to analyze volumes – sometimes huge volumes – of information and organize it into a story that the reader can understand, and believe. Pressures of competition have created all kinds of trouble for the industry, and doubts among its consumers, but the inverted pyramid remains the way that journalism is done. Dismantling the pyramid and presenting the raw information for readers may be interesting for 30 minutes or so, but that kind of blogging will never become an industry. They all need an editor – desperately – and the reader just isn’t going to take on the job.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com.