What’s the Future of Journalism?

It wasn’t that long ago that I knew exactly where to go for reliable information about the world, and how to stay in touch with my friends. At least I felt like I had a good system in place to help me keep up with things.

If I wanted great reporting and a healthy dose of world news, my go-to was, and often still is, The New York Times. For business news, I usually read BusinessWeek, Fortune, and Forbes. For tech it was usually C/Net, Fast Company, WIRED, and The Register, plus any number of online sites returned after a simple Google search. If I needed information about a company and wanted “the unvarnished truth,” I would go search the company’s SEC filings in the EDGAR online database.

Now I get most of my information online, including what my family and friends are up to. I still read the New York Times most days—it’s just that I do it on my Kindle. And I spend a lot of time on Flipboard and Twitter in the morning to catch up on the news and share things that I find interesting.

I think the good news is that I now have access to many more sources of information using just a few very powerful tools. In addition to all the mainstream publications, I can now get first-hand accounts of events from people all over the world, which is truly one of the great triumphs of the internet.

The downside is that much of what I track online can be somewhat predictable and self serving. Because the choices I make when I “follow” an individual or a publication can simply end up validating a point of view that  I already have. I like what they have to say because I agree with them. But let’s face it, you don’t learn a lot if you only hang out with people who agree with you all the time.

That’s why I think one of the biggest misconceptions an online publisher can make about the people I “follow” has to do with the idea that I want to read everything they do or say online. Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t.

Take Flipboard for example. I absolutely love this app. It has enhanced my morning news experience by blending updates from my social media contacts with my favorite mainstream journalism pubs. So I can see Instagram pics and tweets alongside articles from the New York Times or Scientific American. And because Flipboard allows you to create your own custom magazines online using a visually stunning interface, it makes my morning news jog just that much more fun.

But when Flipboard changed its Cover Stories last January to present more content based on what I engaged with (i.e., clicked on) I ended up being a little disappointed with the change. Because when that change happened, I noticed that clicking on a tweet by an individual would cause that person to show up in my news stream every morning in a very prominent way.

I actually preferred the chaotic mix of content they used before. Now it seems like they are lining up more predictable silos of content based on what I’ve clicked on in the past, and that’s turning my newsfeed into more of a narrowband content funnel. And when it comes to news, I actually want to see all the stuff that I wasn’t looking for too.

One Size Does Not Fit All

We have so many choices today in terms of the content we consume. And even if the lines are starting to blur between news, entertainment, and advertising, there is one truth in all of this that I think will stand the test of time–one size does not fit all. People have definite preferences when it comes to how they want to get their information.

Video is by far one of the most engaging and popular mediums out there. You can just sit back and enjoy and learn a lot in the process. I love videos that add to a story, or let you watch an interesting conversation at an event that you missed. But my first choice when it comes to content is almost always to read something. And so as a reader,  I get concerned when I see content reduced to “snackables” and “click-bait.” It’s just not my thing. At least it’s not the way I want to spend my time online.

In the pursuit of traffic, outrageous headlines are starting to invade more mainstream sites too. I think it is all part of a great experiment in which online publishers are trying to figure out how to increase visitors, quantify their reach, and pay for their editorial staffs. But as Jim Bankoff, founder and CEO of Vox Media warned at the recent International Symposium of Online Journalism, “chasing page views is a race to the bottom.”

Still, I am encouraged by the dialog that is beginning to surface with some high-profile bloggers and editors. Just last week, Facebook director of product Mike Hudack stirred the pot with the rant heard ‘round the world.

“Evening newscasts are jokes, and copycat television newsmagazines have turned into tabloids — “OK” rather than Time. 60 Minutes lives on, suffering only the occasional scandal. More young Americans get their news from The Daily Show than from Brokaw’s replacement. Can you even name Brokaw’s replacement? I don’t think I can.” — Mike Hudack

It generated a lot of feedback and started a conversation that needed to happen. The media is changing rapidly as we introduce new technology and tools. And whether that change has a positive or negative affect on journalism and the sharing of information is really up to us.

I guess my love-hate relationship with some of the popular online tools is just a sign of the times. Yes, I want to know what’s going on in the world and with my friends and family. And no, I don’t like the idea of trading my personal information with a business in order to have access to that information.

So while I love the tools, I’m not necessarily happy with the deal. And I am growing increasingly weary of the way businesses think they can just change a popular system without warning, or make their terms so hard to understand that you need to ask a lawyer what it actually means.

On the plus side, I am encouraged to learn about a new tool like Medium, which was just featured in the New York Times. It’s a simple and elegant blogging platform that was started by the serial entrepreneur Evan Williams. The platform is easy to use and it serves up content by famous authors as well as writers like you and me. And in a kind of retro shout-out to Marshall McLuhan, I think Williams is reminding us that the medium is still the message.

We now have a whole new generation of journalists who have either just entered the field, or are gearing up to study and participate in what is one of the most exciting careers I can think of. It’s changing so rapidly that I can’t even imagine what journalism will look like when my nephew graduates from college. But with all the innovation and experimentation going on today, I remain optimistic that it can be better than ever. As long as we don’t become complacent with what we are being served, and as long as we get to choose where and how we get our information. Because it’s really a personal choice.

Like life itself, it’s all a bit messy and wonderful. But you’ve got to pay attention and you’ve got to stay involved.

— DJ

 

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The I Ching, Supercomputers, and C. G. Jung

The I Ching: Then and Now

The I Ching has survived many interpretations and centuries of scholarly debate. Originally written as a book of “oracles,” there was a kind of magic associated with its use for purposes of divination.

In the introduction to his classic translation from 1924, Richard Wilhelm describes how difficult it was to extricate the text from the realm of the supernatural. He says once the Book of Changes became established as a book of divination and magic in the time of Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, the entire school of magicians (fang shih) of the Ch’in and Han dynasties made it their prey. It was not until Wang Pi [A.D. 226-249] wrote about the meaning of the Book of Changes as a book of wisdom, not as a book of divination, that the yin-yang school of magic was displaced.

Writers continue to be intrigued by the I Ching. Damien Walters just wrote an interesting article in The Guardian that makes the case that the I Ching can be tied to the binary code used by supercomputers today. In that piece he explains how Gottfried Wilhem von Liebniz, a philosopher and mathematician from the 1600s, found inspiration for “a new, purer arithmetic than our common decimal system” by reading the I Ching.

Walters claims that Liebniz’s new binary arithmetic was inspired by the binary poles of reality represented as Yin and Yang. He says the ancient text had such an influence on Liebniz, that he wrote an article about the new arithmetic with the title, “Explanation of the binary which uses only the characters 1 and 0, with some remarks on its usefulness, and on the light it throws on the ancient Chinese figures of Fu Xi“.

According to Walters, in the philosophy of the I Ching, reality is not entirely real. It is something more like a dream or an illusion. “This dream of reality arises from the binaries of Yin and Yang, as they play out their infinite combinations. It’s not surprising then, from the I Ching’s perspective, that anything in the dream of reality can be represented as a model of its binary constituents, in a string of 1s and 0s, processed by a computer.”

In closing, Walters asks, “When scientific thinkers ask whether computers can create ‘virtual realities’ or ‘artificial intelligence,’ they are missing the point. Of course we can create ever deeper and more complex layers of the dream of reality to get lost in. The real question is, can we wake up from the dream we’re in already?”

C. G. Jung

I prefer the analysis that C. G. Jung provided in the 1949 forward to the Whilhem/Baynes translation of the I Ching. He explained that the way that the I Ching looks upon reality seems to disfavor our Western “causalistic procedures.” Because when we focus our attention on a moment in time, our observations seem to be more about chance, than about a clearly defined result of concurring causal processes.

Jung said that the while the Western mind carefully sifts, weighs, selects, classifies, and isolates, the Chinese picture of the moment encompasses everything down to the minutest nonsensical detail, because all of the ingredients make up the observed moment.

“So when we throw the three coins, or count the 49 yarrow stalks, these chance details enter into the picture of the moment of observation and form a part of it—a part that is insignificant to us, yet most meaningful to the Chinese mind,” said Jung.

Jung also said that the I Ching is not easy to approach: “Like a part of nature, it waits to be discovered. If offers neither facts nor power, but for lovers of self-knowledge, of wisdom—if there be such—it seems to be the right book. To one person, its spirit appears as clear as the day; to another, shadowy as twilight; to a third, dark as night. He who is not pleased by it does not have to use it, and he who is against it is not obliged to find it true. Let it go forth into the world for the benefit of those who can discern its meaning.”

Wilhelm’s remarkable life is chronicled in a new documentary film, Wisdom of Changes: Richard Wilhelm & The I Ching. Written and directed by Bettina Wilhelm (his granddaughter), it was screened at a March 2014 conference held at the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco.

— DJ

First Lines

I have a story to tell and I am caught in a kind of continuous loop that has the whole thing trapped in my rearview mirror–just sitting there, waiting for the highway to open up. And I don’t feel like I can move forward until I get that first line right.

The first line is the writer’s North Star, guiding the storyline that will follow. For the first line to do its job well, it needs to create the right scenery and lighting for the characters to step onto the stage. It has a lot to do with mood.

First lines can be emotional, or curious, or just plain odd. Enough so that we feel compelled to read on. Some writers use the first line to introduce a story by expressing an obvious truth. Others use the first line to create a mystery. Many writers use the first line to describe a paradox. And while these seem to be popular approaches, there is really no practical limit to the different ways a story can begin.

Great first lines have the ability to evoke a complete story in your head, even before you have a chance to read the next sentence. I think that’s because we humans are natural storytellers. Whether we are relating our own experience through a series of interior thoughts and actions, or listening to someone else’s imaginings, we want to be entertained, surprised, and inspired by our stories. Because stories are one of the primary ways we connect with one another to understand our world.

“As a reader, we join the writer by bringing our own curiosity, imagination, and desires to the words on the page. Writers know this. That’s why they care so much about the first line. Because all it takes is a stunning first line and we are hooked.”

So I decided to turn my mental traffic jam into a learning exercise by studying how great writers start their books. Searching for clues, I started going down a list of great books and recording their first lines.

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. — The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. — Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

I recall with utter clarity the first great shock of my life.  — Trinity, by Leon Uris

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…— A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Snowman wakes before dawn. — Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was ever only room for three players. — Imajica, by Clive Barker

124 was spiteful. — Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. — A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. — The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It was love at first sight. — Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

I often dream about the Dolphin Hotel. — Dance, Dance, Dance, by Haruki Murakami

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. — The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys. — Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. — Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Call me Ishmael. — Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. — Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. — The Trial, by Franz Kafka

While I was thinking about all of this, I had the idea that it would be a fun writing exercise to use one of these first lines to start a new story that goes its own way.

Meanwhile, I need to stop procrastinating and come up with the first line for my story.

–DJ