The Role of the Reader in Way New Journalism

The folks at Wired magazine (and many others) have pushed the idea (under the buzzphrase “way new” journalism) that digital media will drastically change the way that journalism operates; while I don’t disagree with this in general, I’m skeptical about how far-reaching these changes will be. This piece was written (in early 1995) to express some of my doubts, and was originally published on the HotWired forums:

I’m interested in hearing people’s thoughts on the role of the “reader” in the hypothesized “way new journalism” (which I guess will soon be subsumed into the “way new media”).

One school of thought seems to be that we’ll all be producers of media content, that the barrier between the journalist and the audience will be breached. (That’s why I put “reader” in quotes above, because some might dispute that that term will mean the same thing as it used to.)

Personally I find this a little hard to believe. I suspect that in the WNJ there will still be a fairly clear distinction between people who do journalism for a living and people who don’t; I might write stuff and charge people to download it, but that doesn’t mean that I’d necessarily identify myself as a journalist/writer and feel my primary kinship to be with that group.

Also, in any given context (even in a hypothetical world where there are only individual producers and no media institutions like magazines, newspapers, etc.) there will still be a power imbalance between the writer and the reader. Newer media like HotWired may blur that imbalance somewhat but do not eliminate it; I may be allowed to contribute my thoughts and feedback with minimal editing and censorship, but it’s still Wired Ventures Ltd.’s forum and not mine.

Following on from that last thought, given that there’s a power imbalance between writer and reader that can’t be eliminated, how is the reader being “used” in the WNJ, and what do they get out of it?

At a recent conference I met a writer for the computer industry trade press who’d also used HotWired; he commented that the Internet and other online services were fostering a lot more informal communications between computer journalists and their readers/subjects in the computer companies they wrote about. I can see where this might be great for the journalist (beats reading corporate press releases and talking to tight-lipped spokespeople) but what does it do for me?

In the old days I was simply an anonymous reader, but now my position is more complicated. What I say and write in an online forum like HotWired can potentially end up as source material for others’ stories, whether that be for good or ill as far as I’m concerned. Also, my (unpaid) presence on HotWired combined with those of others potentially makes HotWired a more interesting service than it might otherwise be, thus more attractive to advertisers, and thus more profitable for Wired Ventures Ltd. Traditional readers turned “way new” audience may thus find themselves in the same tangled relationship with journalists heretofore reserved mainly for politicians, movie stars, and other celebrities.

So why would I (the “reader”) participate? For ego gratification (just as people want to be on TV), to help sell myself in a world where employer/employee bonds have loosened and I’m changing (at least in spirit) into an independent contractor, and finally, just for the sheer fun of writing. For me at least, the bargain is worth it.

There seems to be a natural progression here: in traditional journalism the journalist is our teacher, and we sit quietly in our chairs and listen as teacher tells us what we need to know. With the “new journalism” the journalist is our college professor, telling us racy stories and confiding in us about how the world works. With “way new journalism” we’re now graduate students, writing our own dissertations and (possibly) getting our names in the journals, but also helping make the reputations of our graduate advisors. A few of us may end up professors ourselves, but most of us will go out and do something else for a living.

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