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Jon Katz, page 2

If they took up this issue of re-connecting with the young, it would mean real change in areas like these:

Graphics. Change would mean bringing a new graphic sensibility to the presentation of information, not just color pictures with white space around them. The young, raised on the Net, Web, movies and games, see graphics as a statement and a language, a context and signal. It's their environment. They grew up in a universe of vibrant, dramatic and powerful color, animation and imagery. It its early days, Wired understood this better than anyone in the media-- before or since. Most of us found Wired's graphics jarring, even incomprehensible. Kids, who generally avoid conventional print as if it were eye poison, devoured the magazine, page by page, word by word, idea by idea. Graphics are a critical means by which newspapers and magazines can signal real change, and put their ideas and stories into a modern context. The graphics of contemporary media are still dull, ugly and unexciting. They practically shriek "reactionary."

Opinion. Reconnecting to the young would also mean returning point-of-view to journalism. The interactive generation has grown up with unprecedented freedom to speak individually, and through a vast network of sites, mailing lists, chat rooms, blogs and pages. The interactive young are sometimes obnoxious, hostile, even incoherent. But they surely are free, much freer than most journalists working for Disney or AOL Time-Warner, or even the New York Times and Washington Post. Journalism's bland, corporatist notions of objectivity (the true purpose of which is to make information inoffensive, rather than balanced) have removed contemporary media from the center of debate on civic and social issues and isolated it from younger generations. Informed subjectivity--researched, substantiated point-of-view--would permit journalists to make balanced arguments, but free them from the role of social stenographers, bring them back to their opinionated roots. They would also give younger consumers a real reason to pay attention, and join the action. In most media, opinion remains ghettoized, confined to a couple of boring op-ed pages, accessible to a narrow range of pundits and "experts."

Civics. Survey after survey shows the young are defining themselves in new ways politically. They resist the suffocating and oppressive labels of "left" and "right," of "liberal" and "conservative." They are truly post-political, in that their politics are more pragmatic, rational and libertarian and less ideological and dogmatic. Yet journalism only recognizes two points of view, and "balances" almost every issue in terms of two sides, a "left" and a "right." This is unthinking and discordant. It's also out of touch with the young, whose access to so much media and information has given them broader notions of how to think than the people running most op-ed pages or Washington Talk Shows.

Writing. Good, provocative writing has been leeched out of mainstream media. How many great contemporary columnists can you name? How many original thinkers on TV? How many new and exciting ideas come out of what we call The Media? Free thinkers don't even bother applying to journalistic institutions. They head for the Web or Hollywood. Original writing and thought has been leeched out of journalism, driven to the margins, or exiled to book publishing, a few magazines, or academe. Neither Tom Paine nor H.L. Mencken could get a job at any newspaper in America today. The interactive young are intensely idea-driven, contrary to popular stereotype. And they could use some educational context for their ideas — experience, history, ethics, things journalism and journalism education could bring them, not readily available online or via computer games.
Culture. Journalism's failure to cover culture well is one of its most conspicuous blunders. Culture is narrowly defined by many journalists and journalism educators. Popular culture is the universal language of the young, their truly common experience, and almost certainly the way to reach and excite them. Much of their time is taken up with comparing notes on music, movies and computing. Yet culture is either labeled "entertainment," banned to the back pages or covered poorly.

An entire generation has grown up — out of sight or mind of most parents, journalists, or teachers — with free access to almost all of the archived text and culture in the world. For better or worse, they are never going back.

Technology. Even post 09-ll, technology is the biggest story in the world, from globalization to the spread of networked computing to the liberation of information across traditional boundaries and geographic lines. From the human genome project to AI, there is no bigger story, no single story that more directly affects the young, (or the rest of the planet) and no story more poorly or sporadically covered by journalism. Technology has liberated the young from the dogma and intellectual control of parents, clergy and educators. It is their ideology and experience. When technology is given the same kind of priority that shrieking heads are in Washington, the young will take notice.

Interactivity. Interactivity is the biggest new idea in media, and perhaps the least understood. Interactivity isn't about letting readers e-mail you. It has, for perhaps the first time in human history, altered and to some degree equalized the relationship between the creators and receivers of information. The young are almost thoughtlessly given radical interactive tools — computers, browsers, TV switchers, digital replay machines, even cell phones and pagers. From their earliest years, they learn to control information, and are given access to much of the information in the world.

But they are taught almost nothing about how to consider this new reality, or the challenges to values, ethics and history that comes along. Interactivity is the most difficult challenge for journalism, because it means real sharing of power, a genuine two-way conversation between a news organization and its readers. It means readers and viewers and news organizations that interact, change one another, form agendas together, blur the rigid boundaries that once separated one from another.

Interactivity is evident in any successful website, from L.L. Bean to Slashdot. So far, no news organization (or journalism school, for that matter) has been willing to incorporate it into an editorial consciousness. But the young now have ready access in their homes, bedrooms, libraries and schools to the most interactive culture that has ever existed. They don't really need journalism to access it, and if the great debate about the future of media and journalism education doesn't move onto more meaningful ground than boot camp vs. book learning, it will truly be too late. It perhaps already is.

If journalism were interactive, for example, the country might have been spared the potentially disastrous Monica Lewinsky debacle. If Washington reporters were really in touch with viewers and readers they would have known that the story reporters through was legitimate and worthy of pursuit was generating a different reaction beyond the Beltway: indifference, unease and revulsion. When Kenneth Starr released his long-awaited report online, it was downloaded more than 50 million times in less than one day. The public, having gotten a look at the government's case, never paid much attention again. Journalists lurched ahead for months. Instead of pundits yelling at one another in Washington studios, reporters might have been able to have a true sense of what Americans were feeling. That would have been news, would it not?

And what the public was feeling was not — and rarely is these days — what journalists are feeling. Among the interactive young, the story was always seen as something of a joke between reporters and politicians.

For the record, my journalism school of the 21 st century wouldn't worry about the debate between craft and scholarship. Of course you'd want both. Why wouldn't you? But my school would contain some new departments and specialties:

  • Software: the new content.
  • Graphics: the new visual context
  • Text and Print: the coherence media
  • Gaming: the new entertainment consciousness.
  • Popular culture: the universal language of the young.
  • Civil Society: how media can interact for public benefit with civic issues,
    politics and policy debates, both domestic and international.
  • Open Society: managing information, expanding on the potential of the
    open source movement, creating a more open society, advancing and preserving
    the free movement of ideas and arguments.
  • Individualism: Teaching journalists how to think and speak freely in the
    homogenized, objectified media of the Corporate Republic.

Jon Katz is a media critic and author. He has worked for CBS News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. He has written for Rolling Stone, Wired, and the websites Hotwired and Slashdot. (He also taught journalism at NYU for three years in the late 80¹s.) He has written eleven books, including Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho, and most recently, A Dog Year: Twelve Months, Four Dogs and Me. His next book, The New Work of Dogs: Tending to Life, Love and Family In A Changing World, will be published by Random House/Villard in May, 2003. He can be e-mailed at jonkatz3@comcast.net or at jonkatz@slashdot.org

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