The choice before us

Every week during spring and summer, J-Source will feature an article from the spring and summer issues of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Have you picked up your copies yet? Here’s spring issue editor Katherine Laidlaw‘s editor note, in case you need another reason:

For 96 hours last summer, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t look at anyone. I couldn’t make any sudden movements or cry or dance or read. I was writing a story about a silent meditation retreat in upstate New York, and I was in hell. One rogue text message aside, I repressed my desire to communicate with the 54 other strangers engaged in walking meditation around me for five excruciating days. Forbidden from making eye contact with one another, we coexisted in silence without artificial stimulation—no computers, no books, no phones, no music, no mirrors—holding the common belief that this retreat would help us rediscover ourselves.

One hour in, the novelty wore off and panic hit. But after spending two days wishing I was somewhere—anywhere—else, I started to notice subtle changes in the way we walked, meditated, prepared food for each other. We didn’t tap out Morse code on the walls or send smoke signals from the rolling hills of the sprawling retreat grounds (complete with token babbling brook). But we did find ways to send each other simple messages. Notes pinned to a bulletin board. Hands brushed against each other as tea passed from person to person. Hallway doors propped open a few extra moments for someone plodding behind. No words exchanged. Same instincts, different forms of communication.

Just as we adjusted, so too does journalism. Familiar with disorientation, the industry has moved on to experimentation—the panic is passing. Determination i setting in; a renewed sense that form doesn’t stay constant, but the instinct to chase a good story, and then tell it, does.

Newspapers are no longer the paper and ink you read in bed on Saturday mornings. They’re news organizations, expected to excel at everything: breaking news, features, analysis and commentary, video, audio, Twitter, Facebook, mobile devices. When the historically staid Globe and Mail‘s website celebrates Valentine’s Day by linking to readers’ schamltzy “romantic destination” pictures on its Flickr group, you know the paper’s in uncharted territory—testing out new ways to get readers hooked again. (The worry here is not just that no one’s found a way to make online news profitable, it’s the depth we risk losing by spreading information over so many platforms.)

Several of the stories in this issue explore ideas propelling us forward. Canada’s three most important broadsheets are rapidly redefining their identities, narrowing their focuses but pushing boundaries. And whether it’s using live-blogs to give people a sense of ownership in the news process, or combining shoe-leather reporting with new media to accurately chronicle a tragedy, journalists are seeking new voices and developing new ways to use them.

In silent meditation, when stripped of the familiar ways of expressing ourselves, we found alternatives. Journalism isn’t quite Zen camp, of course, and the stakes are much higher. But we do have a choice. We can continue to cover our own industry’s demise—or build something new.

-Katherine Laidlaw