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Journalism has become unstuck in time

Jay Rosen argues that news evolved to tell people about important events that happened in places they weren’t. But time can create distance as powerfully as space can.
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Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

For this month’s issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Jay Rosen has written the kind of incisive, wonderful essay that demands a response. Not the “Hey, you’re wrong!” response, but the “And another thing!” response. While Rosen’s essay, which revisits his 1999 book What are Journalists For?, answers the question of journalism’s purpose with reference to geography and place, I want to add a third leg to the journalism-space relationship. That leg is time.

The main problem journalism hopes to solve, Rosen argues, is the problem of what he calls “the awayness of things” — the fact that, in modern society, meaningful news occurs outside our immediate social circle. Things happen, and we don’t always know about them just by talking to the unpaid, amateur information sharers (friends, family, neighbors, etc) that float in and out of our lives. To solve this problem, journalism relies on the journalist, who, in Rosen’s words, tells us with authority “I’m here, you’re not, let me tell you about.”

The problem of journalism is thus a problem of space, and it is a problem deeply connected to the founding of the American nation. As Rosen writes:

In this sense, the American republic incorporated journalism from the beginning because it assumed a common identity over the 13 original states. There had never been a republic attempted over such an “extent of territory” (that was the phrase then). One of the answers the founders gave to doubters was that the press would freely circulate across the new nation, from center to margin and back, and thereby solve an unprecedented problem in awayness.

One of the current dilemmas of 21st-century journalism, then, is that a great many more people are “there” than used to be the case. They might be activists, ordinary citizens, part-time bloggers, and so on. And a lot of arguments have taken place trying to figure out which of these present-people count as actual journalists.

In grounding the problem of journalism in questions of space, Rosen is re-articulating a noble tradition within the study of communication more generally. Participants in this tradition are a motley lot, running the gamut from classical scholars like Eric Havelock, Jesuit philosophers like Walter Ong, sober economists like Harold Innis, print historian Elizabeth Eisenstein, the guru of the electronic age Marshall McLuhan, and James W. Carey, a mentor to both Rosen and me. Each of these thinkers, despite their other differences, was concerned with the relationship between space, technology, communication, and, as we will see, time.

The basic argument made by Carey, Ong, Innis, McLuhan, Eisenstein, Havelock, and Rosen can be oversimplified as follows: Changes in technology are related to (though they do not always cause) changes in how society relates to space and how it relates to time.

In his seminal essay on the telegraph, Carey gives us an example from the world of finance. The arrival of the telegraph, he argues, deeply wounded financial arbitrage and created futures trading. Why? Well, it was harder to make money buying corn for a low price in Illinois and selling it for a high price in Iowa when, after the emergence of the telegraph, everyone knew the price of corn in both places almost simultaneously. What they didn’t know, though, was what the price of corn would be three months from now. Thus, a financial system of arbitrage was gradually overtaken by a system based around the trading of futures.

Leave aside, for a moment, the questionable history and underlying technological determinism of the argument and treat Carey’s analysis as a useful thought experiment. Extending from this example, the problem of journalism thus becomes a problem of space, as Rosen argues. How do technological changes affect presence in particular places? What does it mean that so many people are “there” these days? And so forth.

But the problem of journalism is also, as Harold Innis put it, “a problem of time.” Think about how we get our news today: We dive in and out of Twitter, with its short bursts of immediate information. We click over to a rapidly updating New York Times Lede blog post, with its rolling updates and on the ground reports, complete with YouTube videos and embedded tweets. Eventually, that blog post becomes a full-fledged article, usually written by someone else. And finally, at another end of the spectrum, we peruse infographics that can sum up decades of data into a single image. All of these are journalism, in some fashion. But the kind of journalisms they are — what they are for — is arguably very different. They each deal with the problem of context in different ways.

In short, technology has created a modern situation where we occupy multiple time regimes simultaneously, and journalism is not free from the dilemmas posed becoming “unstuck in time.” While information optimists might argue that this explosion of time regimes is an unalloyed net benefit — people get to consume the news they want, when they want it! — information pessimists like Nicholas Carr argue that we’ve entered a darker future in which we’ve lost the ability to concentrate on anything more than the immediate present. (This is related to the arguments of another member of the communication school I discussed above, Neil Postman.) Optimism or pessimism aside, what’s clear is that our experience of time, particularly our experience of time as filtered through the media of journalism, has shifted radically over the past few decades.

In response to the question “What is journalism for?” Rosen provides an insightful answer: Journalism exists to solve the problem of “awayness.” But we can ask a second question: How does journalism solve the problem of “It happened far away, and also at another time”? When is news no longer what’s new but what matters?  And how do differences in the way journalism answers that question affect the ways we, as members of different communities and different publics, grapple with what it means to be effective citizens in a democracy?

Photo of the Vienna Clock Museum’s Augustinian Friar’s Astrological Clock Curious Expeditions used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • Tom Leckrone

    I appreciate the conclusion that journalism should strive to promote our ability to be “effective citizens in a democracy.” As the sense of the time and space that separates us shrinks, evidence that we are all connected is continuously compounded. Thank you for being a journalist who helps to contextualize and illustrate these connections, thus catalyzing more nuanced thinking demanded by all this flux in time and space!

  • davidbrake

    To my mind the availability the Internet offers of past news and features has the potential to address temporal issues too putting the eternal present into proper perspective – if journalists used their archives effectively.

  • RIPHollywood

    They don’t, or else they wouldn’t be so surprised every time a child star misbehaves, etc etc etc etc.