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American Journalism Review
Techs vs. Lits  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features :    FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   July/August 1995

Techs vs. Lits   

The gulf between journalists who embrace technological change and those who fear its consequences seems wide. But the industry's new leaders would do well to utilize the strengths of both camps.

By Ron Javers
Ron Javers, former editor in chief of Town & Country and Philadelphia magazines, teaches journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University.     

The fear is almost palpable in many newspaper newsrooms, magazine editorial offices and book publishing houses, all the traditional homes of a technology so ancient and enduring that we hardly think of it as a technology at all these days: print.

In every newspaper, magazine or book publishing office I have entered over the last decade I have observed a cleavage, a clear split between what were in the early years of that decade a happy few – those I will call the Techs – and a worried many – those I will call the Lits. Over the years the balance shifted, as worried Lits, those who opposed and even ridiculed technological change, became grudging Techs, those who embraced such change but still secretly feared that the brave new digital world would be a world of muddled meaning and lost context, a place where the humanizing and consoling gifts of literature would be lost forever.

And so the threatened Lits and the threatening Techs stared at each other from behind the little gray boxes that seemed to sprout like rabbits in the work world, as companies discovered the time and money that could be saved with desktop publishing. The respective attitudes of the two sides might be summed up in two quotes I came across.

Speaking for the Lits, Richard Cohen, the Washington Post syndicated columnist, wrote, "I confess right off to a touch of Luddism. I see the future tailored to the young and dexterous, a generation unafraid of touching a button to order a shirt and instead winding up with a shipment of pork bellies. All this talk of new gizmos and, worse, of a newspaper that will come out of your television set, leaves me a bit unsettled."

On the Tech side, ABC's Ted Koppel observed with his trademark unflappability: "I think the benefits of the new technologies, the changes in our culture, are going to be enormous... Interactive television puts the control back in the hands of the consumer... People will be in a position to do their own programming. Why should viewers have Peter Jennings, Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw giving them 22 minutes of what they think is important?"

Perhaps Koppel, coming from television, that other "new technology" that first jolted newspapers and the print world 50 years ago, has the advantage of feeling relaxed as the next technological revolution sweeps over us.

But newspaper executives, rightly, are not so sanguine. I could hear and even feel their fear at a conference this spring in Cambridge. Harvard's Nieman Foundation had brought together more than 200 top-ranking communications professionals to debate whether public interest journalism would wax or wane in the new-media environment, and the newspaper executives suddenly found themselves sitting in close proximity to what many of them have come to believe is the enemy: the intelligent consumer who gets his or her information from a wide variety of sources and is no longer content to let the morning paper set the day's news agenda.

Newspaper executives, who have watched their circulations dwindle and their advertising lineage dip as they have been crowded by new forms of media, from cable TV to talk radio to VCRs and online forums, are a largely fearful lot these days. Many of them just don't get it, argued the exponents of new technology at the Harvard conference, titled ever so trendily, "Public Interest Journalism: Winner or Loser in the Online Era."

During two days of lectures, demonstrations, debates and panel discussions the participants argued spiritedly over the two hottest subjects in contemporary journalism: how newspapers can "reconnect" with their communities and bolster declining circulation in an age when respect for, and perhaps even need for, the services newspapers have traditionally provided are dying. And how newspapers, often relegated to the status of "old media" these days, can turn technology to their advantage.

Many of those in attendance were Techs, the mostly young, always smart, occasionally overconfident inventors, entrepreneurs and exponents of America's new-media culture. These are the people who create alternative news wires, run Internet chat rooms, write pricey private newsletters and consult for the nation's largest corporations.

It didn't take long for the battle lines to be drawn – and somewhat starkly, too. Just 10 minutes into a presentation by 24-year-old Omar Wasow, the precocious computer jock who created and runs New York Online, Steven Isaacs, the associate dean for academic affairs of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, put his hand up.

Wasow was outlining the impatient demands of today's more aggressive media consumers: They want accountability from their news providers; they want a say in what information is communicated; they want to be able to talk back, turning traditional one-way print and broadcast media on their ears. And if they don't get what they want, they will walk out of the old media's tents never to return. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that many of them have already done so.

"Are we dead meat?" asked the associate dean of one of the nation's most prestigious graduate schools of journalism.

"You're only dead meat if you opt out," Wasow replied with a flip of his abundant dreadlocks. If the old media didn't listen up, loosen up and shed some of their we-say-what-news-is arrogance, he implied, they would continue to hear the patter of little feet – heading elsewhere in a new world of multiple consumer choices.

The give-and-take continued at a lively pace that showed the conference clearly split between Techs and Lits. The Techs are often but not always younger and they view themselves as the next wave. They see the world as a web of information with threads linking billions of disparate bits of data. They are interested in information, not stories. If enough links can be made between various caches of information, knowledge will follow, and from that, perhaps even wisdom. They tend to draw schematic diagrams with little arrows pointing the way from Information to Wisdom.

The Lits, on the other hand, are interested in context and meaning. They tend to see the world as a series of interrelated stories, tales that are spun and that both inform and entertain. Often – whether the spinners admit it or not – such narrative news stories also seek to satisfy the reader's underlying values, whether blatantly or subtly.

The Lits favor a narrative form of journalism that, despite the venerable man-bites-dog rule of what's news, actually often panders to readers' preconceptions: The city is dangerous; the countryside is quaint. California is a crazy state; Maine is a sober-sided one. Capitalist countries have "governments"; Marxist countries have "regimes." And so on.

For me, the Harvard conference only amplified the discordance I'd already heard in many newsrooms. At times, the two sides almost became caricatures of themselves. Take, for example, the moment when Southern Lit Hodding Carter, scion of an old and honorable newspaper family and erstwhile aide to President Jimmy Carter, rose to declare testily that the new online world was only for adolescent boys who had time to waste playing video games. Powerful, busy adults, the important people – people like himself, he seemed to say – would continue to rely on newspapers.

His antagonists, the Techs, aided by moderator Denise Caruso, the New York Times' new Digital Commerce columnist, and abetted by Elise O'Shaughnessy, executive editor of Vanity Fair, heckling from the back of the room, only tittered: Poor Hodding. A bit out of it, wouldn't you say?

As Carter repeated the familiar complaint about isolation in the digital world, the Tech sitting next to me, Jock Gill, who helped set up the White House's World Wide Web site, muttered, "Doesn't he know that we're in a period of disintermediation and flattening of structures?" (Techs talk this way much of the time, almost as much as Lits quote Walter Lippmann. Translation: People want their news straight, not filtered by some media agent like Sam Donaldson, and not controlled from the top, either by government or big media.)

It was left to Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the young, witty and red-suspendered publisher of the New York Times, to put in a few good words for the staying power of print.

Sulzberger observed that there was indeed a split in the media business today. He saw it as between the feisty "frontier" people, who liked to break old rules and invent new technology, and the steady (he didn't say "plodding") merchants like himself, who would come along later and make money serving the needs of the legions of settlers in the emerging new-media territories.

ýon't worry, newspapers will be around for a long time, declared Sulzberger, whose own company has been conservative thus far in its new-media experimentation. It has spent far more – $1 billion to purchase the Boston Globe, for example – on print than on emerging media.

Then Todd Oppenheimer, associate editor of Newsweek Interactive, betraying all the symptoms of a Lit metamorphosing somewhat painfully into a Tech before our very eyes, lamented the fact that, with the new emphasis on databases and information retrieval systems we could be in danger of losing the sense of story in journalism. What is missing in the online culture, Oppenheimer said, repeating a common criticism, is "the magic of narrative," the important story , well told.

As the debate crackled back and forth in the Cambridge conference room, all of the hopes (mostly on the parts of Techs) and fears (mostly on the parts of Lits) about the new information order were played out. And perhaps this acting out was helpful at relieving the tension between old structures being strained and new ones being born.

It is particularly painful now for all of us because we have reached that milestone on the information highway where a paradigm power shift is about to take place, and has in fact already taken place in some arenas. And now both Techs and Lits are scrambling for, if not preeminence, then at least for primus inter pares status in any new-media world.

For better or worse, and despite all the talk of the democratic and egalitarian nature of the Internet, the nation's intellectual and commercial elites have discovered its power as an engine in service of both their respective interests: ideas and profits. In the coming stampede for the latter, the Lits stand to lose some of their influence to the emergent Techs and their cult of information-as-power-and-money. The beloved news "story" of the Lits, I suspect, will be relegated to the realm of art, from which it sprang. As cyberspace continues to become a more comfortable and "real" place for many of us, the hard data will move more toward page one online, and the "human interest" story will move toward the domain of entertainment.

But that domain is not as far from the domain of news as many journalists would wish. Nor from the domain of advertising, for that matter. Convergence is all around us, as is confusion. It was Rupert Murdoch who observed, "We are all moving at 100 miles an hour – and we don't yet know where we're going." In less than a decade, the sheer speed of the communications revolution will make the battle between today's Techs and Lits seem as distant as that of the Guelphs and Ghebillines in Dante's 13th century Italy.

Journalism's new leaders will need to combine aspects of both today's Techs and yesterday's Lits. Having mastered the changing technology, the new Techlits will be free to concentrate on a problem that is as old as humankind: the tremendous difficulty and the immense possibility inherent in meaningful communication between individuals and groups.

Data without context equals chaos. Someone will be needed to interpret the data, as the priests and soothsayers once interpreted the words of the Sphinx or the positions of the bones that had been cast in the dirt. All of these were sources of "news" in the ancient world. In the post-modern, post-industrial world, "news" will continue to be what it has always been, something that is important for people to know now. The Techlits will be the professionals who tell them what that is – and why.

This has never been an easy or, for that matter, a noncontroversial task. And the people – yes, the people – will go on being well- or ill-informed, according to their own lights. Because democracy, like all media at the present moment, has that messy, scary, rather amazing quality about it. l



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