Commentary: Saving the Media, NGOs

Posted on May 19, 2011

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Reading an interview with travel writer Paul Thoreaux yesterday, I noticed that he had a few fair and disparaging comments to make about blogs and bloggers (which ought to be kept in mind while reading this post):

“You could say blog-like, but I think ‘blog-like’ is a disparaging term. I loathe blogs when I look at them. Blogs look to me illiterate, they look hasty, like someone babbling. To me writing is a considered act. It’s something which is a great labor of thought and consideration. A blog doesn’t seem to have any literary merit at all. It’s a chatty account of things that have happened to that particular person.”

The irony here is that, although I respect Thoreaux, find him, as many travel writers, to be much chattier and more egocentric than they believe they are. C’est la vie.

But the critique of blogs as inane opinion vents does bring up some of those serious questions about the future of media. The Atlantic ran a bit of a straightforward piece comparing U.S./NATO and Taliban press accounts of recent war actions the other day. I think it’s fair to say that U.S. and NATO accounts are converging upon the truth of events given the independent and robust press in the west and the nature of the news as it emerges, and I can only doubt the Taliban’s press, produced as it is by an organization with a more obviously vested interest in the outcomes and an incentive to produce propaganda. But in a society ravaged by war and exposed to poor press standards, imagine how much harder it must be to achieve media literacy.

In countries with a press tradition we have some ability to separate the grains of truth and news from opinion and entertainment, the ability to tell the limits and intersections between blogs, reporting, commentary, etc. But as we blur the lines and then mass produce unfiltered and ambiguous content, how will that precedent and model impact the press that we see arising in countries trying to build themselves back up?

I’m a firm believer in the necessity of a strong press for a strong marketplace of ideas and venue for dialogue. So what does it mean for the future of politics and society in developing nations, and in America a few generations out, if this is the best we can do as far as news in the new media age?

I’ve taken some solace in a new model of journalism that was mentioned in this article yesterday. Basically the model advocates maintaining the delineations between different types of media and writing and the revival and protection of vital types of writing by use of an “alacartical” style of marketing. It’s worth considering.

My thoughts, for what they’re worth, on the alacartical model of journalism. It’s a nice idea, and I recently got turned onto The Atavist, a cool example of the model keeping longform journalism alive. But the type of content one can market as alacarticals is limited, meaning you run the risk of marginalizing a good chunk of news in pursuit of profits, creating niche news companies and relegating the rest to the rip-tide of misinformation that is the blogosphere (this blog included).

It may be best to have publications operating on something like the trade publication model—trade publications will never suffer because their specialized content is unique enough to validate their existence and necessitate subscriptions by readers (note to friends seeking internships, these are good places to start out as you can get some first-hand working experience, good recommendations, and great clips, and still get paid, unlike many other gigs). Publications take niches and specializes to justify subscriptions by a few to fuel a core of profits, while the rest of their mainstream content is filled by stories filed by competing write writers.

The wire stories maintain high standards as multiple wire groups are encouraged to cover the same content areas and fight for republishing in major outlets (with their specialization). This puts the wires in competition with bloggers and such entities. The publications use the wire stories and blogs as comparison points for readers, interlinking the two, as part of an implicit media literacy education, while making enough money to cover both off of advertisements (with reprints of their specialized content and a core subscription base [online or print] subsidizing that content).

Then there’s the alacartical element, using novel and well-reported specialized writing marketed through the primary publication, but through a series of innovative and cross-platform avenues, to keep afloat part of the site. So that’s the case, a mixture of reliance on competitive wires for some news, subscriptions for specialized content sections, per-article purchases of specialized content and high-quality writing, and intense advertisement on all sections operating as a three-direction profit-making strategy to keep news alive.

It’s risky in terms of what it could devolve into (and it’s also a very cursory sketch—I could develop a more complete model and some game theory behind it, but this is a blog post after all). But the promise to restore the idea of specialization among writers, to create firm subscription bases, and to incentivize competitive reporting, investigative reporting, source protection, etc. … well those are some gains that, in my mind, justify the risks of experimentation with such a model.

ProPublica is a good example of a baseline for such wire/specialization services. It’s not what I’m envisioning here, but it’s a damn fine idea for a site and a slight glimpse of the future: mixed models of subscriptions for purists and specialized consumers, revving up ad revenue and exposure experiments, alacartical programs, and dependency on a few competitive and overlapping wire services that keep a low overhead by acting mainly though the aether (seeing the office space Newsweek thought it required a few months ago made me weep for the stupidity of the media and understand the collapse of that company) and are thus affordable and sustainable.

Also from Thoreaux

On an unrelated note, Thoreaux’s interview also had some bitter things to say about humanitarian work:

“For example, everyone loved John Steinbeck’s book Travels With Charley. Turns out he didn’t travel alone, his wife kept meeting him, yet she was never mentioned in the book. Steinbeck didn’t go to all the places he mentioned, nor did he meet all the people he said he met. In other words, Travels With Charley is fiction, or at least half-fiction. As for Three Cups of Tea, I think that philanthropists and humanitarians are even less forthcoming about what they do. I guess this guy did build a couple of schools in Afghanistan, but a self-promoting humanitarian is not someone I have a great deal of trust or belief in. I lived for six years in Africa and I’ve been to Africa numerous times since then. People build schools for their own reasons—not to improve a country.”

He makes a good point. The irony of humanitarian work is that generally the self-promotional and sexy, high profile aid work gets all the attention and money. But that sort of aid is hardly beneficial; it just makes people with money feel like they’ve had a visible impact and helps them sleep at night.

Truth is that the least pathologically narcissistic projects tend to be the most useful, but the least attractive projects, and thus the least covered and least funded projects. It’s linked into this phenomenon I think.

Obviously I’m not a big fan of entrepreneurial aid and non-profits and the big names behind them. I think it’s killing the silent technocracy of aid, smothering the useful bits of knowledge and true altruism under banal ramblings and self-promotions. (Sidebar: I’ve worked with such shitty folks who receive limitless praise and attention from others—looking at you, unnamed man I know who works with orphans in Sri Lanka). Ego and glitz steal resources from other NGOs, damage the playing field, and wreck actually some negative influences on the nations they ostensibly aim to help.

This is why I cringe when people coo at the educational reform and teaching I will be doing in Nairobi. I don’t see what I’m doing as inherently respectable; I see it as dangerous. It can be patriarchal, patronizing, and damaging in the long term. A good part of why I’m going is to make sure that the organization I’m working with is and/or can become an agent for actual good, a sustainable source of non-self-glorifying technocratic benefit, and not just an avenue by which a board of advisors can sleep with themselves in their gated communities in Kampala and Nairobi.

Doubt aid. That’s the best thing you can do for the world.

End note: Read all the Thoreaux interview—he makes some interesting comments relating to the thoughts on nomadism I had a few days ago.

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