How 13 years of online “bits-conditioning” turned me into an aggregation machine. But what I really need to do is write ‘articles’
CUNY Professor Jeff Jarvis caused a stir within journalism circles when he first floated the idea that the “article” should no longer be considered the goal of journalism, rather, “as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process.”
I disagreed with Jarvis’ premise at the time. I’m a tenure-track journalism professor who grew up on the print side of the industry. How could a news organization effectively inform the public if it didn’t write “articles?”
But after 13 years of what I’m calling digital “bits-conditioning,” I’ve decided Jarvis may be right.
The way I input and output information nowadays is in small, incremental pieces. Just like a developing news story, I can’t help but think in “bits.”
Blame my old job. For more than a decade, I wrangled a mountain of bits as an online news editor for Connecticut’s largest news organization, The Hartford Courant. The position required me to deconstruct my journalistic brain. Instead of stringing information and ideas together into linear narratives like I did as a print reporter at the beginning of my career, I diced up the news into digestible chunks.
I coded and formatted bits for the web. I searched for bits to connect to other bits, a process now referred to as “curation.” I posted, emailed, updated and texted bits using myriad devices and content management systems. There were headlines and hyperlinks, blurbs and blog posts, photos, graphics, captions, audio clips and user-generated content.
When social media exploded in the late-2000s, it brought a news-bit avalanche: YouTube clips, Facebook updates, Flickr photos and that 140-bit black hole of time and space known as Twitter.
My habits of information gathering, processing and delivery couldn’t help being reprogrammed by the rhythm of online news production and my mobile phone, which was always buzzing and never more than 3 feet away from my person. Limitless discovery was mine, all mine.
I’m downright greedy now about news and information and the ease with which I can access and share it with an audience. I’m more informed than ever. Anytime my brain detects the slightest pattern or relationship, I’m instinctively reaching for a device and searching for information to confirm a connection. Then I bookmark, pin or tweet the idea before moving on to the next shiny, endorphin-inducing bit.
My journalist synapses are constantly firing off. A story never ends. The archives keep growing. How can anyone stop to write an “article” when every topic has more bits to add?
Among my journalism industry peers, this incremental news-bit-wrangling has a name: “Atomization.” The mobile-only news start-up Circa is among those commercially exploring “bits-conditioned” news audiences who prefer to get information in continually updated fragments.
Unfortunately, the gradual atomization of my brain has caused a bits blockage. It hinders this newbie assistant journalism professor from writing traditional linear “articles.” And while articles may be evolving into a “value-added luxury” in the world of journalism, they aren’t in academia. Success in higher education is still contingent upon the “publish or perish” standard. (And I don’t think my Twitter feed counts.)
“We binge on instant knowledge, but we are learning the hazards,” warned The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos in his January 2013 essay, “On Slow Journalism.”
I’ve clearly binged for too long. Forcing myself to sew the shards of information together again has not been easy. Articles may not be what click-happy general news audiences want, but it is what academia demands.
First priority: Turn. Off. Twitter.
CONFESSION: I just took a break from writing this post to search YouTube for the “Squirrel!” clip from the 2009 Disney/Pixar film “Up.”
A bit of help, please?