Farewell to the tyranny of reporters

Stephen Strauss

Stephen StraussWhen I give lectures about the future of journalism, recently I have been making reference to the weakening, if not the entire overthrow, of what I term The Dictatorship of the Writer. What I mean is simply that in the pre-Internet past reporters and writers of various sorts would nose about a subject and after a certain amount of research decide it was time to write. They then ordered the information they had uncovered in a way they thought was best. This was the lede. This was the significant anecdote. This was the quotation that went in, this that which never was seen again.

In essence, the writer decided for the reader how they would learn about a subject. Yes, there were often editors who made suggestions about how the writers’ efforts should be ordered. So maybe it is best to talk about the Dictatorship of the Writer and the Editor. But what didn’t happen was readers opining: I don’t like how you organized this piece. You left this out and forget to mention that and most importantly took what people told you and presented it in a way a reasonable person wouldn’t have agreed with.

In the old print/radio/television world there wasn’t much else you could do. Space and time was limited and so many things had to be left out, ignored or radically reconfigured. In ways that I don’t think we truly appreciated, the media – or rather the limitations of the media – was the message.

One of the most magisterial things the Internet is doing is undermining the previous writer/editor dictatorship. Suddenly, what used to be effectively a one-sided conversation in which the writer did all the talking has been turned into an agora in which a piece is dissected and often reconstructed by the readers – and if we ever get there, listeners and viewers too.

The reorganization occurs in a number of ways.  Hyperlinks embedded in an article means a reader can decide to branch off from the main piece and read something someone else has written related to the subject. Suddenly a piece doesn’t have a defined beginning, middle and end; it has a beginning and then readers decide where it and they will go. In a way which never existed before they own the narrative.

Another part of the overthrow of the writer/editor dictatorship is that on the Internet comments flow in to where the piece is mounted – comments that deflect if not actually deform the original piece. Suddenly people aren’t talking about what the writer said but about what they think about things he or she might have said but didn’t. A piece isn’t complete until all the comments are read.

Another part of the change is the increasing realization that we can show what was hidden before. Instead of an interpretation of what someone meant, a writer can include a link that says effectively: “Here is the background material I used. Here is me interviewing the subject on a podcast or a video and here is precisely what he/she said. Here is the raw material out of which I constructed my dialectic, and you can decide whether I got the argument right or wrong based not on the power of my rhetoric but on the facts at hand.”

This means suddenly the writer/editor is not longer an information dictator. This means people can go to the sources and decide for themselves what a truthful organization of the material would look like.

And finally, the rise of democratic information agglomeration sites like Digg.com etc. means that readers, not editors, can decide what is a front page story. The guess and golly of “we think this is what readers might be interested in” is replaced by readers telling one another what they actually think is interesting.

In toto, this is a major reconfiguration in not only journalism/writing but in what we think reality is. Suddenly reality isn’t what we are told it must be by some expert writer/editor but what we decide for ourselves it is.

Suddenly reading online becomes a democracy.

I am not going to say there aren’t deep issues and discomfiture with this changeover to a readers’ democracy – most specifically with questions of authenticity – but I will say that this is an information revolution that is not just coming, but in many ways is already here.

Strauss wrote articles, columns and editorials about science and technology for The Globe and Mail for more than 20 years and at CBC.ca for four.  He has also
authored four books, several book chapters, and for his efforts received
numerous awards.