Category: Books

Infinite Reading List

I’m currently reading James Gleick’s 2011 book¬†The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood,¬†which tells the story of how information came to be, and came to be classified and organized. I’m just starting the book, but the chapter I read today, on the process of recording and organizing words and definitions into dictionaries, was fascinating.

A large part of Gleick’s explanation, at least in the early part of the book, has to do with how everything we think about through history is informed by our current circumstances. He likens it to trying to explain horses as four-legged automobiles without wheels. Words, he says, for much of human history were oral, not written, and it was only with the invention of the printing press that humans felt the need to create lists of words with standardized spellings and definitions.

In the chapter on dictionaries, Gleick notes that during the early production of what became the Oxford English Dictionary, the editors put out a call for readers to cover 16th and 17th century literature. At that point, they believed that the entirety of human literature was finite.

The modern editors face an infinite, ever-expanding amount of written knowledge. I can relate.

It seems like no matter how much I read, my reading list just keeps getting longer and longer. And now, with web tools like Pocket and Instapaper, I can quantify just how infinite my reading list is. I save long-form articles in Pocket, I use Chrome bookmarks to save websites that require more interaction or specific notes, I have a Google Doc Spreadsheet of books that I have saved from lists, book reviews, and interviews I see, I have a stack of paper magazines a foot high and a stack of virtual magazines on my iPad twice that size. And everyday, through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other sources, I discover new articles and websites that I never would have found before.

Sometimes, on particularly slow news days, a coworker and I joke that we’ve “read the whole internet,” and sometimes, especially when it comes to news of the day stories, it feels that way. But mostly, I feel like I’m buried under piles and piles of reading that I want to do, but may never get to. And each day, the piles get bigger.

The future(?) of Journalism

I just finished reading The Death and Life of American Journalism by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols and that, plus the fact that I’m getting a master’s degree in journalism has me thinking about the future of the journalism industry on a grander scale.

McChesney and Nichols propose a government-funded industry based on existing non-profit business structures or on a new business structure to be created by legislation. Even when the book was written, they understood the bile that a specific subset of conservatives hold for public broadcasting, but with the current budget negotiations, along with the release of tapes that showed the now former NPR fundraiser slamming conservatives, which led to the resignation of NPR’s CEO, it seems that the United States Congress may have even less taste for government funding of journalism than ever.

Aside from the small subsection of conservatives, governments from coast-to-coast are looking to cut budgets, not add to their long-term costs. It seems unlikely that a government-funded system would be a popular choice for Democrats or Republicans, at least at this point. And news organizations are slowly, but surely, losing staff and money.

So, just a year on from the publication of McChesney and Nichols’ book, what can be done about the state of the media.

I don’t buy the idea that online-only publications, as they stand today, are the answer. Their newsrooms are too small, they don’t have the international bureau structure of the major news organizations, and they also don’t have budgets that allow for the kind of investigative journalism that democracy calls for.

I also think the idea of online-only publications is indicative of a decidedly old-school way of looking at the media. The media brand is far more important to today’s news consumers than the platform.

I do think a non-profit news organization structure is going to be one of the answers for the future of news, but I agree with McChesney and Nichols that there may need to be a legislative restructuring of the not-for-profit business rules to allow newspapers to continue to publish editorials and endorsements of local candidates, an essential function of many papers.

In a 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to look only as far as the next big story. It is important to look for short-term and long-term solutions to what is a growing problem in the news industry. If the current system isn’t working (and it’s not), what next?

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