On June 10, Israeli newspaper Haaretz gave its reporters the day off, and had some of the nation's best authors and poets write the paper instead.
Here's how the stock market report kicked off:
"Everything's okay. Everything's like usual. Yesterday trading ended. Everything's okay. The economists went to their homes, the laundry is drying on the lines, dinners are waiting in place..."
A front-page story on a children's drug rehabilitation center ended with this:
"I lay in bed and thought wondrously how, amid the alienation and indifference of the hard Israeli reality, such islands -- stubborn little bubbles of care, tenderness and humanity -- still exist."
I think it was a fascinating experiment, though I'm not sure what it was hoping to prove. Asking artists to determine what qualifies as newsworthy would seem to exclude other criteria, such as commercial or base entertainment appeal. Is that a good thing? Does it have any relevance to a potential future for newspapers?
It's certainly in stark contrast to, say, the Twitter feed, or any number of blogs that presume to provide content for the public square. One of the complaints against newspapers, along with any authoritarian provider of information, is that they presume to be authorities. There's something just wrong with a defined group of people defining what matters, or what things mean, just as there's something inherently right or fair about letting the crowd decide things.
So trading one group of elitists (reporters) for another (well-know artists) changes the content and tone, but not the structural imperfections of the medium, right?
Then again, abdicating control to the crowd is trading one authority for another, replacing our explicit awareness of the needs and limitations of traditional providers for our implicit hopes that the crowd will be somehow better. It isn't necessarily more accurate, nor is it balanced, or particularly just in its randomness. And it is rarely poetic. If social media are putting newspapers out of business (which I don’t think is the case, necessarily), it isn't because the experience is an absolute improvement. It's just different.
A newspaper written by artists is different, too. And my dim bulb conclusion is that the experiment does indeed suggest a future role for newspapers, whether delivered via print on paper, or electronic bits on screens.
The crowd can deliver immediacy and breadth, but has little to offer by way of analysis (relevance is a desperately subjective qualifier, and isn't a sum of frequency or virulence). The wash of content affectionately called ambient awareness isn't a replacement for meaning, it just redefines it as a pleasantly spun version of distraction. My bet is that people still thirst for:
- Facts that are objectively true (or at least we know why they claim to be so)
- Interpretation that is thoughtful (and we understand how it was arrived at)
The answer probably isn't to ask poets to write newspapers, however intriguing the product might be. Maybe there's a little side business here; imagine a country's most popular artists in various media providing regular commentary of what they find most important in life. I'd read it, or watch it, or listen to it.
The Haaretz exploration of a way to reaffirm the role of mediated content was a brilliant thing to do. I wish more newspapers would quit the useless marketing and web-envy redesigns, and embark on similarly bold experiments.