Saturday, July 11, 2009

How Fandom Killed Journalism (And Why It's A Good Thing)

Journalism is dead. Long live fandom.

Michael Wolff, an old-school journalist, provides the autopsy in his recent Vanity Fair profile of Politico, the site for political junkies and insiders:

The granular and focused and O.C.D. nature of Politico’s view of the world changes the language. Laymen can’t enter this conversation, and the people who are involved in it can’t leave it—can’t set aside so easily the shorthand of legislative, policy, and media talk or the thousand names of minor characters who become major for a 20-minute news cycle, or recalibrate the relative importance of Washington sound and fury against what most other people are thinking about.

Politico reduces the world to Rahm Emanuel and to the people who want to be Rahm Emanuel.

And yet, this is a passionate conversation among quick and deeply knowledgeable folk. The habit and, perhaps, necessity of traditional news organizations to reduce and simplify and attenuate and, in the process, make news flaccid and often wrong have been superseded by these over-informed motormouths. It’s the raw stuff, before the family paper or knuckleheaded network news has watered it down.

It is perhaps useless to argue whether this is good or bad. Rather, the world is as it is. And Politico seems like a pretty credible version of what the world will be: obsessives everywhere in their particular narrow-focused areas of interest (“silos” is the modern information term), flashing ever more information, ever quicker, in ever shorter bites—the shorter you can make it, the more information there can be—to all the ships at sea.

Politico is only the latest sign of the apocalypse for general-interest journalism. The fact is, serving the lowest common denominator in world of infinite choice is a recipe for disaster. The raison d'etre of journalists, summed up in the New York Times' famous motto, "All the news that's fit to print," is the death knell for their industry.

In today's world, it's up to readers, not journalists, to decide what's newsworthy. We vote with our clicks, tweets, and posts.

The relevant model for publishers isn't journalism, it's fandom.

Fandom is often mocked; think William Shatner telling Trekkers to "Get a life!" on Saturday Night Live, or the pejorative connotation of blind, dorky allegiance inherent in the term "fanboy". Yet the operative characteristics of fandom (passion, focus, and attention to detail) are the very qualities that we should admire.

Bill Simmons, the patron saint of fandom in sports journalism, often argues that he can do a better job of covering a sporting event by watching it on television than by attending it in person. This outrages traditional journalists, but what Simmons is really saying is that a close and careful analysis of the source material can provide more insight than allowing one's perceptions to be shaped by the face to face relationship you might develop with your subjects.

Fandom is all about breaking down the barriers of journalism (Press passes! Paying your dues!) and allowing the work to speak for itself. Moreover, rather than providing a purportedly objective conventional opinion, fandom lets the fan express passionate opinions and take sides in arguments that can never be resolved (Kirk or Picard? Batman or Superman?).

It's almost unfair. With millions of passionate fans producing highly specialized content, how is the poor journalist to compete? As we see in the case of Politico, it's to remake journalism in fandom's image.

And fandom does have its compensations:

Live long and prosper!