News embargoes, journalistic quality, and stuff.
I could've written almost anything for a first line. I've actually put some thought into it, but my lazy, fried brain settled on quite possibly the laziest choice it could conceive (generally indicated by concluding a sentence with "and stuff"). The first line is the most important line of anything you can write - the Great American Novel(TM); a leading piece in the New York Times, Barron's Financial Review or AutoWeek; your OppoLock post, whatever. It sets the tone of what's to come and, most importantly, it clues your reader in on just what the hell you even want to talk about.
News embargoes, journalistic quality, and stuff is a pretty sorry first line, even by my own assessment. It doesn't even fully tell you what this post is about (which won't be so much about the craft of writing as the debate of writing). But hey, it gives you the basic idea, right?
So yeah, this is at least partially a response to Jalopnik's policy on news embargoes and The Truth About Cars' response. But it's more a response about the actual craft of writing and what purpose it sets out to do. First I want to make it clear that this is in no way an attack on TTAC or Jack Baruth. At the very least, Baruth is a massive improvement over Bertel Schmitt - and except for a few cases where Schmitt went Orson Scott Card (if you really need a reminder of what I'm talking about, I'm referring to this and this) I actually (generally) liked what he said. I have a lot of respect for Baruth - he's an intelligent guy, I also like what he says and I think he watches out for the best interests of the automotive industry, including (actually, especially if not solely) the consumer. TTAC is one of my most favorite car blogs, and no I haven't suddenly forgotten Jalopnik exists.
And I have to put in some personal disclosure too, especially since I mentioned it in the very title of this post - yes, I am a wannabe writer whose primary personal writing goals are towards the creative side (but then again, who isn't?) I am, however, a professional journalist - or rather, I was, for a few small-town industrial papers (all transportation-focused, no less). I also have other credentials that I'd honestly would rather not name, and for that matter is not worth naming - it's not so much a case of my work not always being exemplary but rarely being such. If you read this article and come away with the conclusion that it was composed by a nobody jackoff who doesn't know what he's talking about, I won't be bothered in the least. I also reference a guy or two who I might not necessarily agree or disagree with (you should be able to spot exactly who I mean). I present them neutrally as supporting a tangential point, not as a direct endorsement or criticism.
But back to the craft of writing - actually, back specifically to that thing about first lines. Baruth writes:
It means that from now until the end of time you'll get your information about cars filtered through some intern who has limited education, limited talent, limited resources, and a twenty-minute time limit to get it done — with fifteen minutes being nice if you can do it, Jeremy, you know we value the fastest, most hyperbolic writers here at BigBlogCorp. Ironically, the opening sentence of the Jalopnik article bears the unmissable signs of first-draft writing. Get it done, get it out, get it over with.
The first and most obvious problematic concerns the limited education and talent of interns, but that's for someone else's OppoLock post. I'll agree with the Jalopnik first line being clunky - for most readers the phrase "product embargo" is automatically inferred to its correct meaning. I'd simply state that these are done for the company's best interest, for obvious reasons (after all, most people are familiar with the concept that companies like controlling their product information) and about how Jalopnik doesn't follow this policy.
The larger - and arguably only relevant - issue is, does the article deliver the information you want, and does so accurately with minimal bias? Everything else is secondary to that goal.
The issue of whether or not it delvers the information you want is, of course, left to personal opinion. Presumably the answer is yes as implied by the fact that you're visiting Jalopnik in the first place - if capitalism is voting for products with cash, then you're voting for Jalopnik with clicks. You therefore give them incentive to have them keep doing what they've been doing. As for doing it accurately and with minimal bias, that's rather hard to judge on what's essentially an opinionated editorial piece. But focusing so much energy on how this particular Jalopnik article achieves those goals is digression from the issue those goals are tied to.
There are (at least) two thoughts to how the quality of a journalistic piece is measured. The first and perhaps most traditional school of thought is that a piece of news, even something as basic as a daily report, should have the same quality, word-smithing, thought and effort as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (a novel that has the unique distinction of being a true watershed moment not only for fiction writing but for journalistic reporting as well - if you want to learn about the craft of both, regardless of what writing camp you're in, you should read it). This naturally requires a lot of effort. And I do mean a lot - like anything worthwhile, what dumps out is equal to what you dump in. Of course, whether or not it's worth it is dependent on your exact goal.
The second school of thought would make Mikhails Kalashnokov and Koshkin proud - "quantity has a quality all its own." This would be the "Get it done, get it out, get it over with" Baruth mentions. The idea that the consumer doesn't care how the information is presented - he or she only cares about possessing that information, period. In fact, the faster that information is presented, the better - the consumer then move on to other pursuits, like the possession of even more information. Something that can be presented right in your face and immediately absorbed, and BAM!, knowledge acquired.
Of course this leaves a massive iceberg's worth of information left unsaid - the nitty-gritty that Upton Sinclair revolutionized journalism and even the most basic tenants of storytelling period with. Some issues can't be parsed like that. But not every issue deserves a three-thousand word expository essay to be published in Atlantic Monthly.
The pressures of journalism as an art form push towards "everyone needs to be Upton Sinclair" to the absolute most extreme possible. That's inherent of any art form. It's also a byproduct of how journalism is romanticized, and rightly so. Every writer worth his or her salt (basically, anybody not named Stephanie Meyer or Veronica Roth) is pushed to create something that will leave an indelible impression upon the reader and, hopefully, change that reader forever. This is the basic foundation of learning. Nothing is more visceral, more relevant or more fundamental to the act of learning than what's actually, factually happening in the world right now. Why not make the news itself an art form? For that matter, how can you not make the news itself an art form?
The pressures of journalism as a capitalistic, money-making enterprise says that's hogwash. Those pressures push towards a very specific, sole direction: whatever the consumer demands, as interpreted by whatever the consumer is willing to pay for. Upton Sinclair actually proved that the notion of journalism romanticized as a literary art form is far from hogwash - but that reflected the consumer demands of a bygone era. Actually, depending on who you talk to capitalism also pushes towards another yet equally very specific direction. As the biggest supporters of libertarianism and laissez-faire economics like John Stossel will tell you, capitalism inevitably pushes towards greater efficiency.
That is, societal progression is a byproduct of efficiency. Anything that isn't efficient gets abandoned. Adapt or die. It's a cruel world, but it also works for the greater good, or so they say.
It boils down to whether or not consumers consider journalism as an art form or as a simple commodity. Or it would, if media outlets hadn't already decided that for them.
Just as video killed the radio star, it also killed journalism as art. Or more fairly, it commoditized news information beyond the point of no return. People got used to being blasted with all the international and especially local news they can possibly care about and then some in one shot, in tiny minute-by-minute rapid fire segments. Moreover, it made people get used to the idea that the news could be delivered in such terse, bare doses - in fact, people got used to the idea that the news was outright better that way. It gave you just what you needed, so you can move on with your life.
The internet made things better and worse. Sure, people had instant access to Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. But it didn't take long for people to figure out how to take the terse rapid-fire style of the nightly local television news and translate it to the written word of cyberspace. Remember The Drudge Report? Remember how it was referenced almost 24/7 in the late 90s during the height of President Clinton's infidelity scandal? It's not even a legitimate news site - it's a collection of links to other news sites. But it wasn't CNN or the HuffPo or even FOX News that got the credit - the Drudge Report, through basic headlines and hyperlinks, became one of the first New Media darlings.
So what does this mean? In this age of commoditized news, terse and rapid-fire will almost always win over in-depth. The nation's shrinking newspapers (and magazines) are all the evidence you need of that. Hell, it's even effected how the comics in newspapers are treated. Greatly, in fact, to the point where people wonder if it's going to be a literal lost art form (webcomics and print comics share a common origin but the change in medium has a profound effect on how they diverged). Actually that brings up yet another point - the change in medium to web-based journalism has had a profound effect on how the delivery of news displaced the actual quality of the news.
It goes back to the idea of that underpaid intern Baruth berates - and the wider issue of the democratization of who actually tells and delivers the news. Who delivers it is no longer important, just as long as its delivered and that it's right. When news broke out that Paul Walker died, what was the first and most important thing about it? It didn't matter if it was CNN or OppoLock - everybody had their own conjectures of the involvement of street racing or the dangers of the Carerra GT, but everyone was on the same level playing field that Paul Walker had died in a car accident. For that matter, where did I first hear of the news? It wasn't on any cable news channel. It wasn't on HuffPo's website. It wasn't even on Jalopnik or OppoLock. Nope. For me, the news first broke on the Twitter feed of a 20 year old Disney Channel actress-cum wannabe singer blessed with 52Cs:
Or let's go back to the thing that brought this all about in the first place: that Mustang news embargo. I'm sure Autoweek has a lot of nice and detailed things to talk about it. Much of that is undoubtedly relevant: engine options, performance figures, etc. But what's the one thing you immediately care about? What the friggin' thing looks like, of course.
And do the horsepower figures or engine options suddenly become less valid because it's first reported by someone without the automotive journalistic pedigree of Autoweek? Beyond the looks and technical stats, what else is there even to write about? Sure, you can write up the model's history, but coffee table books do a better job of that, let alone slideshows Road & Track does.
There's a limit in terms of how much time is actually worth investing into a news item in the first place, especially if you've already decided that news should be commoditized. I'll eagerly admit that stuff I write for OppoLock is done on the "Get it done, get it out, get it over with" model because it's what I can really afford to do at this point. Sure, I can go more in-depth and I wish I did - I can talk to the pilots who flew these things (which I did, years ago), dig up official manuals and even snap a few pictures myself. And that article is rife with grammatical mistakes, distracting and awful repetition and, from strictly a wordsmithing standpoint, just general stupid. Hell, I recognize that this article is full of needless repetition and ideas too diffuse as I'm writing it. Am I going to go back and redraft it? Hell no. As it stands, it's worth my personal time and investment only for a first draft (well, second draft only thanks to Kinja - and now you know why italics are rarely used in this article past a certain point. Save often, kids) as long as the point still comes across. And I still can go back and polish things up. The thing is (and in addition to the fact that I just have other stuff to do), the way I set the context ended up imposing a deadline - it worked best on a specific timeliness thanks to that context. Deadlines aren't just an artificial construct set up by newspapers for the convenience of publishing - the farther away the reporting gets from the timeliness of the news contained therein, the less it's worth. When I write opinion pieces on why I think Motor Trend's COTY process is complete BS, CTS or no CTS, I'm tied to a specific timeliness based on the relevance of MT's COTY, ending at about the new year when the the release of many MY 2015 cars are just months away, at most. This article is tied to a timeliness of probably 24 hours or so when people still care about this news embargo thing. When timeliness starts to really hit, like in the case of an immediate and sudden even as in Paul Walker's death (or even the reveal of the new Mustang), Get it done, Get it out, Get it over with might be the only thing you can afford. And getting your information through "poorly trained interns" is truly going to be "from now until the end of time" because that's how long news will continue to be commoditized.
So that's a lot of long-winded bitching about bitching. That said how you absorb information is as important as the mere process of absorbing it. Being able to consume information in a satisfying way - enjoying the filet minion verses the quarter pounder with cheese - is an important component to the learning experience. So in the age of commoditized news, how does one achieve that?
Go beyond just the news. The magazines that Baruth argues should compete on quality that will still ultimately be competing for the same news sources as New Media will still back themselves up into a corner, but that doesn't mean the niche markets will go away. If you prefer to read in-depth about issues in the New Yorker or Atlantic Journal, have at it, that's what they exist for. There's a plethora of quality, comprehensive nonfiction tomes out there too with entire careers worth of research and essay-writing behind them. And don't forget fiction writing. Remember how I said The Jungle revolutionized news reporting and fiction writing? Fiction is still the one area where, even in terse, rapid-fire form, still requires a lot of thought poured into it (or at least that's what we like to think). Either way, making the trip to the library is worth it. Absorbing the news is one thing - it tells you what the issues are and gives you the raw information you need to decide how it impacts your daily life. But true learning - reading what a researcher has prepared in-depth, or even playing out a fictionalized and escapist scenario in a fiction work - gives you the tools to make those decisions.