March 30, 2012

The Whole News Movement

I caught just a little bit of Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet, in Bob Edwards Weekend a couple of weeks back.  I followed up and listened to a talk he gives on Youtube.  Fascinating stuff.

Clay’s argument is that information overload is a problem, just like obesity is a problem, and he extends the metaphor to suss out the parallels. 

Michael Pollon, in books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, argues that we should “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”  We have a proven obesity epidemic in this country ~ decidedly NOT theoretical ~ and that’s because “pizza tastes better than broccoli” (Clay’s phrase).  Indeed, we are hardwired for the stuff that isn’t good for us; our physiology has not caught up with our environment evolutionarily.  The consolidation of Big Agriculture has caused the production of food with lots of calories but little nutritional value. Michael and others have started a slow-food whole-food movement.

Clay draws the parallel to information.  “Seek information, not comfort, and not too much.”  Or, alternately, “Read, not too much, mostly facts.”  Clay’s argument is this.  What big information producers want to put on the internet, and what we vote for every day with our clicks and our attention, is entertainment, affirmation, and fear.  (The average person takes in 11 hours a day of information, he says.)  “Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear they are right?  Who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed,” Clay says.  It isn’t news we’re getting ~ it’s opinion.  A prime example:  the headline “AP Poll: Economic Worries Pose New Snags for Obama” was changed by Fox News to be “AP: Obama has Big Problem with White Women.”  And it’s not just conservatives. 

Just like we’re voting for pizza rather than broccoli with our hard-earned dollars, we’re voting for opinion rather than news, rather than facts.  We’re not looking for high-quality investigative journalism.  So, as a consequence, more information is actually making us more ignorant and more polarized, just as more food is less nutritious and making us more unhealthy.  This information problem is not just in our heads ~ it affects our political and social decision making (for example, health care and social welfare), and so it has real and dire consequences.

What Clay argues for is a whole-news movement, a slow-news movement.  Don’t skim off the top for opinion and entertainment.  Just as there is a food pyramid and we should eat from the bottom, we should get to the bottom of our news, get the facts, go to the source, and journalists should “show their work” and broadcast the raw data of their work.

How to reach there, he says, is 1) “read my book The Information DietJ , 2) seek information, not comfort, and not too much, and 3) seek out, if you’re a reader, and show, if you’re a journalist, the raw data, 4) as a consumer, pay for good information and don’t rely on advertising to cover the bill for you (e.g., the iTunes and Netflix model), and 5) content is not a commodity to be sold by the highest bidder, and  make it nutritious.

Very interesting stuff!  The reader in me disagrees with his assertion of “don’t read as much,” but everything else I totally agreed with, on so many levels.  It’s like what I’ve been saying about literary fiction ~ the reason I like it is it tries to represent lived experience, with all its contradictions and subtleties.   I love long-form journalism and memoir for the same reason.  It dives deep and represents the real world.  I like point of view (therefore opinion, I suppose) but when it is reasoned, not when it is vituperous and divisive and reductive. 

I guess the way I think about it ~ I’m just realizing this ~ is that on one end of the spectrum, the long-form indepth one, is love, and on the other end, the short snappy opinionated one, is hate.  That’s what it comes down to for me.

It means, as a writer, you need to trust your audience.  I believe in you, my readers, and I think you’ll get this.  Not only that, you have to trust yourself and push yourself and REPRESENT, you know?  You can’t be lazy.  Make your stuff nutritious, for heaven’s sake.

Finally, Clay pointed out that at big content companies (Aol, e.g.) , they want cheap entertaining content, nothing more.  They don’t want to spend more than $80 on a piece of content.  That’s for EVERYTHING.  A writer’s share is, what, $5? $10? for 500 words?  I know this for a fact from trying to do freelance stuff.  Let’s say it takes you 5 hours to write a really good well-researched 500 word article.  That’s $1 an hour.  And people want to be writers so badly they do it for free. 

You know what this means?  All your blood, sweat, and tears are not worth a hill of beans.  YOU, the writer, aren’t worth anything.  So then why should you write good accurate nutritious content?   This devalues what we do on so many levels, and when writers accept these terms, they drag all the other writers down with them. 

I totally agree with Clay:  we need nutritious things on the internet.  Go forth!  Seek it out! And write it!

1 comment:

Pembroke Sinclair said...

I agree. We do need healthy information on the web. However, that takes TIME for people to create, to read, and to understand. Time most people claim not to have. For all of those writers/journalists who do go out of their way to get their facts straight, how many others sell fluff? And fluff is easier and less time consuming to produce and digest. Like unhealthy eating, we need to replace and restructure unhealthy reading/writing by targeting people's behaviors. People engage in both activities because it's easy and less time consuming, and people rarely like to change their schedules. Change those habits, and you can change how information is conveyed. All I can say is good luck!