Saturday, November 6, 2010

What's New is Old, What's Old is New

David Berreby here, another of the NASW traveling fellows, and a first-time attendee. I'm the author of Us and Them: The Science of Identity and I write the "Mind Matters" blog at Since the late 1980's, I've written about science (mostly as it relates to human behavior) for magazines and newspapers (including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Nature, The New Republic, Smithsonian, Discover, among many others).

Like all of us I've been trying to adapt to the financial and technological disruptions that are changing our craft. In the past decade I've learned to blog and tweet and Facebook and digg and stumble upon. Yet I've been struck at how, despite all the innovations, it's still "old media" that sets the terms for my work. Firstly, because only magazine-style contracts can pay the bills for a freelance writer. And secondly, because even in the blogosphere and twitterverse, Old Media credentials determine the pecking order of credentials and prestige. And it's those pecking orders that readers use to apportion their attention. (Much as I love to imagine that people read my blog posts and judge them on their own merits, I know that readers still value the seal of approval that's conferred by association with a magazine they have heard of, or a book review they recall reading.)

In short, we're in an era of new content but we're still thinking in terms of the familiar old containers. History suggests this effect could linger for a long time (even after a century of internal combustion for example, we still rate vehicles according to their "horsepower.")

There's a lot about "new media" that I like: The ability to correct a mistake or improve a phrase after "publication"; the honesty of a byline over sentences direct from me, unadulterated by other people's thoughts and quibbles; learning what "the public" wants from the public itself, rather than from an editor's guesses about that public. But "new media" can't support a sustained writing project financially. Then too, we're told, "the web" wants quick, glib, always-updating "content," which is the opposite of thoughtful journalism about science. So, like many of us, I'm trying to think my way through my own ambivalence as well the ambiguous state of our business.

I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling that I live in a no-writer's-land between two realms -- one supposedly dying, the other not yet born. It's because I feel this way that I'm looking forward to today's session on "experiments in new media." I want to hear about those "beautiful failures and startling successes." God (or evolution, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) knows, we need all the ideas we can get.

I'll be blogging here about that session after it ends (I was about to write "during the session" but, um, no -- it's a discussion, not a pie-eating contest). Stay tuned.

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