Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Götterdämmerung is both twilight and a dawn

In common understanding, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) is thought of as synoymous with apocalypse: a scene of utter destruction, unrelieved by hope or nuance. Yet in Nordic lore and in Wager's opera, that twilight is balanced by a dawn: as the gods pass from the scene, another race is born and emerges for its time in history's sunlight: human beings.

The concluding opera in Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung’s most prominent moment is indeed the fall of Valhalla, a magnificent combination of musical score and stagecraft. Depending on the director, it usually features tumbling towers, clouds of smoke and rumbling peals of music. Yet as the thunder of Act Three, Scene Three recedes, the last three minutes of the 15-hour cycle are filled with ineffably beautiful music announcing the dawn of a new age.

Is this a metaphor for the passing of godlike networks and newspapers from a lost Valhalla? For the birth of a new kind of news? In some ways, yes, it is.

A McClatchy board member asked a couple of years ago what I thought the biggest change in news introduced by the internet had been. Many answers came to mind: our shift to a 24/7 news cycle, perhaps, or the introduction of powerful new tools like video and database presentation. But I settled on another: the complete erosion of the gatekeeper model.

As we saw things not many years ago, the editor was a gatekeeper, entrusted by the paper and the community with filtering genuine news from trashy sensationalism, with balancing the harm that might befall a suspect’s family with the community good of identifying him.

We took it seriously, and for more than a dozen years in Anchorage, I tried to be the best and most honest gatekeeper I could. We put things in the paper that powerful people didn’t want there, and once in a while I kept out things that staffers thought were ready to print.

Well, so what? However well (or poorly) we might have performed, those days are gone. Nowadays editors can stand at the gate if they want, but the fences are down and all the people are standing over yonder.

Of course good taste and good judgment remain important value-added ingredients we bring to the presentation of news, both printed and digital. But the notion that we have any fundamental control over what gets said or debated is already badly dated.

Far from mourning that fact, we ought to embrace it and explore the opportunities it brings. Rather than either chasing the lowest in popular taste or hiding out in an ivory tower, we can engage in genuine conversation with our audiences, learning what they think, sharing what they know and ultimately creating information that will be far more valuable and satisfying for them.

I started thinking anew about this while listening to an NPR report on crowd sourcing of innovation and design this morning. Of particular note was a sneaker company that asks customers to submit designs that are then voted on online. Winning designs get manufactured; the designer gets $1,000 and one percent of the sales revenue. The practice not only reduces design costs; it also serves as marketing for the products.

I’m not ready to let readers vote on what should be on page one tomorrow, but I can’t see any reason why we don’t ask them to weigh in later on the choices we did make. Would it be interesting to know that X% of your readers thought something you put on a-11 belonged on a-1? What about listing 10 possible story assignments and asking readers to help decide which get covered first? Why couldn’t some reporters blog the process of reporting and writing a story, detailing what questions they need answered, taking advice and later telling readers in real-time about their progress (or obstacles) in learning answers?

Yes, things are changing. Towers are tumbling, new rules emerging and old promises being broken. As an old dog, I often wish it wasn’t so. But I believe in journalism, and I believe a new dawn’s coming for those who see this through.


Kurt Greenbaum said...

Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes! I wish I had a more coherent comment. I just want you to know that I agree with your point. The gatekeeper model, if it ever existed, is dead. And the sooner we get that through our heads and adapt to it, the better. Thanks for your blog.

-30- said...

Howard, beware the butt-crack!

Howard may get the ref... but for other readers, let me explain:

As an avid, amateur photographer I enjoy uploading photos to Flickr. After a recent trip I uploaded a set that included some of the family, some "artsy" shots, a couple of wildlife shots and a "joke" shot of some woman wearing "low-rise" pants sitting in front of us in a crowd.

Like the proverbial plumber, there she was showing way too much of the scariest part of the human anatomy for the world to see. I though it was somewhat funny so I shot it and later uploaded it with the set.

Enter the vaunted crowd-sourcing: With no effort whatsoever on my part (to the best of my knowledge there are no "butt crack" groups on Flickr - no I didn't look, nor should you), that shot is well on track to be one of my highest trafficked shots and has the most comments and is considered by Flickr's voodoo to be the most "interesting" of all my shots.

A butt-crack shot is my most interesting shot?!? Now the crowd could be right on this but suddenly I'm not so ready for the gatekeepers to go away just yet.

Anonymous said...

Howard, if you have time to lean, you have time to clean, brother. It's time to grab a broom and cut the chit-chat.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know what someone at was thinking when they ran this item under "top stories" -- "Mickey Rooney Heartbroken at Racism Charges from 1961 Film Role". Who cares? Seems a little more was happening this weekend than that.

This is why it's known as "", or as the joke goes, "Sacbee, where you get yesterday's news today".

Anonymous said...

I notice the art you used was copyrighted. Did you get permission to use it. I run into this many days. The art to illustrate the horrors of illegal file sharing? Grab something from the internet.

PS: It's yesterday's news tomorrow.

Howard said...

I linked the image to the original book jacket on Amazon, where it could be purchased. I think that avoids any charge of appropriation. Generally speaking authors and illustrators appreciate exposure, rather than resisting.