To stop my mind from wandering

In strolling through the Web this morning I found a posting by freelance science writer David Cohn talking about science journalism and followed it back to his blog where he talked about another one of my faves, media literacy.

It might not be apparent from reading my published output but I am a science writer by training and approach: how does it work, what are its pivot points, what metaphors communicate the gist of the science. Those questions can guide any curious and attentive observer to heart of issues in politics, business and culture as well as science. Alas, professional newswriting has been hijacked and repeatedly raped by the sports-writer’s mentality which makes everything a horse race, every story a he-said, she-said, feeds into the cynicism that drives all too many journalists into drinking, drugging or public relations.

 But I digress. Cohn’s posting, Science Journalism and the Web 2.0, mentioned that Scientific American magazine had established a community site — evidence of the evolution of media from the pontification toward participation. Great idea. Especially for technical communities whose associations arise from their shared interest. A bit tougher, I think, to graft onto the geographic communities served by incumbent media. Local communities have identifies and participatory habits that, however poor or infrequently used; they lack the single cohesive interest of the specialty community. Eventually I expect newsgatherers will figure out how to more tightly involve the single moms and the soccer moms, white collar and blue collar dads, in community discourse.

Cohn’s science musings made me follow the digital breadcrumbs to his blog, Dididave, where today’s hot-off-the-presses posting was titled: My Work at NewsTrust.Net – Media Literacy 2.0. In it he explores the concept of voting on stories to rank them for interest or accuracy or any other criteria. Cohn focuses on his work with an experimental non-profit along the lines of Digg and Reddit. (I am truly not clear on what are the differences other than that the latter were garage-launched and on a commerical trajectory while the former is grant-launched and would presumably being developing open source tools and lesson plans for wannabe community builders.)

Cohn strikes what I consider to be the sober middle ground behind the technogical optimists who get starry eyed about the vox populatteness of content ranking and the pessimists who fear the hoi polloization of the body politic when he writes:

“Allowing people to vote on content is fantastic, as long as we remember that journalism is not just a consumer product. The media, although changing, still plays an integral role in our democracy and it should not be treated like ‘Digg bait.’ “

Hear, hear. Noble sentiments and I do not doubt Cohn believes them, but in real world people would rather read about Hot Tubs than Hot Zones. So in this pay-per-click, eyeball-grabbing world, the inexorable momentum of current Web media, like the mass media they seek to supplant, will be driven by lowest common denominator news judgment. If anything Web media will be even more demogogic simply by virtue of youth. It took decades for newspaper and broadcast barons to get guilt-tripped into committing investigative or public service journalism. Now their economic support is crumbling and with it their commitment to costly, trouble-making journalism. And if Web media have put their profits into original works of  journalism or public policy, I’ve missed it.

Which brings me back to the specialty community of Scientific American, which I imagine as the prototype for how 21st century journalism will be done: media outlets of varying specialties will gather around themselves flocks of interested and literate contributors; these constellations of speciality zines and communities will feed into the mass media — and here I include the mega-portals as well as the dead-tree and broadcast types — whose editors will select from these specialty offerings a buffet of our world today.

At least that’s my hope.