The media apocalypse series: a calm Tina Brown visits an anxious j-school

Columbia School of Journalism’s weekly Delacorte Lecture, which brings in magazine luminaries during the spring semester, is increasingly turning into the media apocalypse series.  Last night, Tina Brown, the controversial former editor of The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Talk Magazine came to discuss her new webzine, The Daily Beast and to take up the unrelenting narrative of the 2008-09 j-school year that the media as we know it is imploding.

Like many other speakers who have visited the school this year, she assured us that our class will live long and prosper in this new environment because of our youth and web savvy.  Brown also made some fair points that the laments over the demise of the best aspects of old media are overblown.  Sure, television networks have shuttered foreign bureaus, but when they were up and running, their main function was to send reporters to the crisis spot to do “stand-ups against palm trees.”  She nevertheless assured her audience she is still committed to those old standards of putting out a publication with unique story angles and quality writing.

It must be the apocalypse if Tina Brown, who I had long held responsible for corrupting the New Yorker–not that I even read the magazine pre-Brown, as I was 9-years-old–starts making sense.  It was not even so much about what she was saying but what she was doing–or more, that Brown was doing at all.

In these calamitous times, it is tempting to want to sit and predict the future and find a successful model to weather it.  Brown certainly offered her prescriptions last night: be a business journalist and go to India where a new and incredibly lively English media market is emerging.  I have heard these before many times and can think of counter-arguments to both: what will happen to the business press now that there are far fewer people in finance?  And India’s media will probably experience contractions with this economy.  Moreover, I met a grad student at a mixer afterwords who was a former journalist himself and said the writing in the Indian press was awful, contrary to Brown’s lavish praise of publications like Tehelka.  In today’s climate, bureaus with abundant media jobs offer jobs that are drudge-work by a journalist’s standards.  I can’t imagine that Indian media that are trying to lure young English-speaking Americans are any different.   What often goes unsaid in the fretting about all of the outsourcing to India is that they are getting the worst of our jobs.  (Read Katherine Boo’s The Best Job in Town from the July 5, 2004, New Yorker if you can get your hands on it).

But I digress.  There is no successful model.  We just gotta to do what we gotta do, to paraphrase a Nina Simone song, rather than figure out what the successful journalist of the future will look like.  Will s/he be a Flash maven?  A camera-toting, freelancing, globetrotting adventurer?  Will s/he bring back the glory days of Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer?

During the Q&A, a woman who many in the audience clearly thought was insane stood up to urge the students to “hook up” instead of spend time trying to figure out what the future will look like.  Even though Tina humorously responded that the people in this school probably don’t need to worry about failing to hook up enough, I thought that woman had a point.  We’re too caught up here in worrying about the great Unkown to a degree that is almost absurd.  I mean, don’t we all make fun of psychics?

The great thing and the problem with academic institutions like the Columbia j-school is they engage in a lot of this soul-searching.  To quote a line that Vice President Nixon once posed to President Eisenhower, “General, there comes a time in matters like this when you need to either shit or get off the pot!”.”

Steve Harvey gives dating advice??

I have seen many absurd things on the subway, but I think this one takes the cake.  A woman was standing reading a book titled, I kid you not Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Thing About Love, Relationships, and Commitment by Steve Harvey.  Yes, Steve Harvey, comedian, talk show host, bad sitcom star deigns to give you relationship advice.  I can’t object to this book’s content, in particular, because there is no way I will ever read it, but Steve is supposedly on his third marriage, so the book is kind of as preposterous as the weight-loss advice book from Dr. Phil.

Here is some relationship advice to men, because women bear a disproportionate amount of it, and yet men need it a lot more.

  • Do not think a woman is into you just because she is nice to you.  How often does a man mistake simple, everday politeness for signs of interest?  Hone your intuition, gentlemen.
  • Ask questions and be interested in the answer.  As a journalist type and a private person, I am definitely on the asking side of the equation with most people, but it is bewildering to me when a fellow who is supposedly interested does not ask a single question about me.  How could you not want to know about someone you would like to spend more time with?  It’s very suspect, I think.
  • Don’t be evasive.  If you’re “just not that into her” tell her if she asks. Not doing so makes you seem pretty craven.

I’ll think of more later, but I am guessing this is a little better than Steve Harvey.  And I’m not even on my first marriage.

I could have written this

Today’s letter to Cary Tennis of Salon’s advice column:

[E]very time I sit down at the computer to work, I start compulsively reading the election coverage online, sometimes spending two hours or more on variations on the same five articles. I am ashamed of my lack of self-control in this area.

Part of Cary’s answer:

Now, it’s true, as a tactical matter, I often have to turn off my browser. I have to sit in silence. I have to find places and techniques. But the main thing is to find the deep emotional or spiritual hunger that fuels our creativity.

So it’s psychological.  I believe it.  The letter writers have more straight-forward suggestions.  One said:

This letter has a one-sentence answer.

Go to a coffee shop with no free wi-fi.

And a good point from another:

Writing is a long process, surfing the web is instant gratification… the crack cocaine of communication.

Another writer makes a more draconian suggestion: download software that will prevent you from visiting your favorite time-sucking websites.

I think my reason for procrastinating online is that I like being connected to people, and writing on a word processor with my browswer closed or in a notebook away from my computer altogether takes me away from that.

But there is some fun in testing your own offline endurance, and maybe those of us who need it ought to challenge ourselves to disconnect more.  I believe this is true for most people who write regularly in a web environment.  We publish online too much, and we do not write enough of substance.  So on that note, I’m going to end this post.

Bad writing in academics

In my undying frustration with the use of jargon and overly-complicated writing–which is rampant, in academia, though not limited to it–it warms my heart to read a well-written polemic like this:

The notion that difficult and demanding styles of writing are politically revolutionary—and that “plain” writing is hidebound and reactionary—is not just dubious, but tiresomely familiar. A variation on Ezra Pound’s modernist credo Make It New, it has been offered by every pretender to artistic and philosophical originality this century. The desire to “question common sense” is merely the self-congratulation of someone whose “sense” is different, but no less “common.” Although Butler wishes to disrupt “the workings of capitalism,” the effect of her writing is exactly the opposite. Its effect is to safeguard the power and privilege of academic capitalists—among whom she is one of the great robber barons.

“Whose ‘sense’ is different but no less “‘common’”–now that is good writing!


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