September, 2009

Sep 09

Thoughts on FOCAS 2009 & Journalism

This is my 2nd post about the Aspen Institute event on the future of journalism — more on what went on & some thoughts I have. It’s long overdue, and is a follow-on post to this earlier post.

Here’s my punchline: I leave Aspen with no doubt that there is a crisis for traditional metro newspapers, and many will not survive. But I have to say that beyond some nostalgia, that doesn’t make me feel very bad, because I also leave with the sense that while there’s much change ahead for journalism as a profession and an industry, there’s no crisis. There’s significant innovation happening and new opportunities opening up for talented & dedicated people to find.

So I guess I leave Aspen optimistic, and much more optimistic than I expected to be.

The Format

There were about 50 people, give or take, which I understand is relatively large for an Aspen Institute event. The morning sessions were about 3 hours or so, with all of us around a (very large) table (picture above), moderated by Charlie Firestone — he’s an exceptional moderator, great at figuring out when to let everyone go into depth and when to move on. After lunch each day we had smaller breakout sessions, facilitated by various leaders (my 2 were led by Jeff Jarvis of CUNY and Sue Gardner of Wikimedia) — those went a couple of hours and then the leaderes worked on a synthesis and summary to present to the whole group the next day.

I talked with a few people who had been to events like this before, and I guess this felt a little bit on the large side, but with pretty great engagement and participation by some really outstanding people.

I will note that it was not a particularly diverse group — white men over 40 dominated — but there were a number of women that participated, and a few other non-white-men. But with a subject like this — and in particular with it’s relevance to how democracy works (or doesn’t work) — I think we’d all be best served with more diversity of thought & background.

Some Things That We’ve Talked About

We started the sessions Monday by talking about the Knight Commission on the Needs of Communities in a Democracy — Marissa, who’s co-chair, gave an update on their progress and some thoughts about what may be in the report when they issue it later this year. It’s going to be a report worth reading, and highlights both concerns about where journalism may be failing us as a democracy and some potential solutions.

That’s framed a lot of our discussions this week — the idea that democracies need certain services, some provided by journalists, to succeed and thrive. And John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, started with a definition: that journalism provides the information needed [for people] to be free and self-governing. (from The Elements of Journalism, by Kovach and Rosenstiel)

I struggle with the focus on American journalism, for what it’s worth. I don’t know that that’s the right way to think about the characteristics that are important for an engaged citizenry — because, clearly, there are other places in the world today where certain aspects of informing citizens are being much better served than here in the US. Still, I think that Scott Lewis (CEO of said it best (I’m paraphrasing): “We’re not really here to talk about saving newspapers or journalists’ jobs — but there are some beautiful parts of the history of journalism in America, and we’re here to talk about which those are and how to preserve the most beautiful and necessary in a time of change.”

Scott’s got it right, I think. It’s not really about “saving” or “preserving” institutions — it should be about figuring out what we need in a modern world, what’s possible with technology, and what characteristics and skills and ethics should be non-negotiable.

One thing that I found particularly interesting is that there’s not much concern at all about national & international publications — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Financial Times, to name a few. The consensus is that those institutions, while under pressure and experimenting, will figure out how to survive. The most concern was about local papers, really, and about the loss of investigative journalism. And I think the basic assumption that most people here are making is that most metro newspapers will not be able to survive, at least not without change that will make them unrecognizable.

That, too, seems right to me, and I have to say that I’m not too sorry about this development. Local papers were always geographically-based monopolies — vertical integrations of information that had high barriers to entry due to the cost of printing & distribution & ad sales. It seems okay to me that they’ll go away, by and large (because I think you’ll get what you most need in different ways — classifieds by things like CraigsList, sports news from any number of places, local event information from hyper-local blogs, and investigative reporting from a couple of new classes of org that I’ll talk about below). It’s sad when newspapers disappear, for sure — many of these are 50 or 100 year institutions that have served their public well — but I think that in the overall scheme of things, this is not such a terrible problem.

The breakup of these vertically integrated companies will mean that there’s a much more complicated creation chain that will happen, and that we’ll get our news and information in increasingly unique (to each of us) ways. I’m most hopeful that this will allow smaller, more focused organizations to contribute however they’re best able to contribute. I think that will mean a mix of non-profit and for-profit, a mix of big & small, a mix of points-of-view, purposes, and ways of working. I think there is no doubt that this will be a hugely chaotic time as we evolve into what’s next, and I think it will be some time while we all learn how to read again (understanding point-of-view, and the way that stories are constructed), but eventually we’ll be in a better place than ever.

I’m encouraged by the work of many of the attendees, but in particular these: Voice of San Diego, the Center for Investigative Research, and Pro Publica.

Sep 09

How to Build a Dinosaur, by Jack Horner

I met Jack Horner a few weeks ago, at Adventures of the Mind, and completely enjoyed my time talking with him. He’s best known as the dino-tech-advisor expert for the Jurassic Park movies, but his day job is as a professor at Montana State University and as head of the Museum of the Rockies — his focus, of course, is paleontology.

I got to hear him talk with a big group of high schoolers — and to get them to think through in a reasoned way how we could tell how social & smart certain dinosaurs were from the fossil record — a line of thinking that he pioneered decades ago, and which ultimately lent credibility to the idea that birds are essentially avian dinosaurs.

The really fun thing when you talk with Dr. Horner, other than the fact that he’s extremely iconoclastic, is that within a couple of minutes, you can tell that he can actually see the dinosaurs in his mind’s eye — that for him, they’re very alive and active. He’d like that to be true for everyone and he’d like to see that vision made more real:

Well, paleontologists may deal with the long dead. But at the heart of all the digging and preparation of skeletons and museum displays is the attempt to reconstruct the past, to re-create moments in the history of life. What we would really love to do, if we could, is bring ’em back alive.

Anyway, the book starts out by explaining some basics of the archaeological timeline, and some specifics about the geography that Horner works in — Montana. It talks about his first finds of giant T. Rex fossils, and then an accidental discovery — once when they had to break a T. Rex femur in order to transport it, they found remnants of blood cells inside the bone — and then they started pulling on the thread.

That led them to the main story in this book, the shift from paleontology as mostly digging & reconstruction to including sophisticated genetic analysis:

It became clear to some of us in paleontology that it was time for a change in the way we did our work. We didn’t need to give up the satisfying summer fieldwork, the digging up of the past, but we did need to add new tools. And we needed to go beyond the dissecting microscope, through which we could see fine details of bone structure. We needed to get down to the level of molecules in fossils—and in living things. By the 1980s molecular biologists were already using differences in genes in living creatures to calculate rates of evolution and to date events in evolution. They had developed a new stream of evidence to compete with or supplement the fossils weathering out of the earth.

That, of course, changes everything. Much of the book is about the parallels between how fetuses develop and how evolution happens — because it’s often genetic markers turning on and off that determine whether things like tails develop.

And the big insight of that type of analysis is that if you can change how embryos develop, you can, in a way, turn back the evolutionary clock — you can do things like grow chickens with teeth (which has been done). Horner wants to do a few more things, including growing a chicken with a tail — because it harkens back to what non-avian dinosaurs must have developed like. He says this:

What I like about the idea of using a chicken that developed into a dinosaur as evidence of the reality of evolution is that it is more than an idea. It is an experimental result. And it calls out for questions. What is it? How did you do it? Is it a circus freak or a trick? What does it mean? Without staking out a position or starting a war of words, the animal would prompt a discussion that would have to end up with the mechanisms of evolution and its footprint in the genes of living animals. Even more than a fossil, it would cry out for explanation.

It’s an amazing idea, and one that we seem to be heading towards. I’ll leave the ethical & scientific discussion to Horner — there’s much of that in the book and you can decide for yourself — and just say that the whole idea is incredible. It seems clear to me that we’ll see this sort of work in our lifetimes, and it will undoubtedly raise a whole raft of new questions. Here’s how Horner ends (which is more of a beginning, really):

That would be the most satisfying lecture I could possible give. I don’t like providing answers. I never have. I like questions. I like asking them, trying to figure out answers, trying to figure out what we are really asking, and what new questions come up. For this event I won’t have to prepare any speech at all. My entire prepared text will consist of one simple question, from which everything else will follow. I’ll walk to the edge of the stage, point to the creature on the leash, look at the audience, and say, “Can anyone here tell me what this is? ”

Sep 09

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

Sort of a post-modern Harry Potter — set in current day New York — about a kid who grew up with fantasy books (sort of thinly-veiled Narnia), but pretty soon gets pulled into a Hogwarts-style school for magic, somewhere in Upstate NY. Like a lot of the novels I’ve been blogging about lately — my multiple-travel-weeks-stash-of-pulp-sci-fi — this one is a fine book to pass the time, but ultimately not that much fun and definitely not very memorable. High concept is great; execution is a little boring.

Sep 09

The Sheriff of Yrnameer, by Michael Rubens

Sort of a fun, Hitchhiker’s Guide type of book — a space opera comedy — written by one of the Daily Show writers. A solid effort, but not my favorite of these books. (Although I liked it better than the Terry Pratchett taht I’ve read.)

Sep 09

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

Russo’s one of my favorite writers, but I found this one a slog. A little too New England-y for me, and a little slow. I’ll still pick up Russo’s next book, but this one wasn’t too great.

[can you tell I’ve been traveling a lot? many books…]