Grenades or Smoke Bombs

20 Feb

Great journalism should be greatly creatively, right?

Right. But it doesn’t always work out that way. The point has been hammered home in the last several years (by people such as Jeff Jarvis), most fervently during the mid 00’s that journalism’s initial failure to grasp and adapt to the internet in the late 1990s and early 00’s led to the disastrous predicament that newspapers find themselves in now.

Journalists hung onto their established methods and resisted change. And death came upon them. In some cases the resistance came from the corporate level and highest levels of editorship. In other cases, shoe leather reporters were the worst offenders. In any case, the market (the advertising market, that is) is speaking, and innovaters, sensing weakness, have injected a stagnant field with creative juices.

Nick Denton, the founder of uber-popular gossip site Gawker, strikes me as the archetype of this new breed of innovators. He disdains questions about whether he’s a journalist. He’s abrasive. He’s British.

The very idea that he would forge a media empire and have a nonchalance about whether or not Gawker is journalism is perhaps the most jarring thing about the man. Media execs, journos and to a certain extent myself have spent the better part of the last decade arguing about what the word journalism means.

To see someone come along who doesn’t even care has shocked me.

Shocking in a good way. In a way that’s disturbed me.

The journalism world has spent so much energy arguing about what journalism is, in the hope that having a good answer would help us in the quest to move forward. We didn’t even stop to think about whether that debate was even worth having.

Even as the profession tried to have debates, to decide between what we think to be bold, new directions (“why yes, maybe bloggers can be journalists”) others like Denton and Arianna Huffington come along and utterly unconcerned by this brooding, press on into territory we haven’t even thought of yet.

Now that’s creativity.

Denton and others have been able to escape from the narratives of how we view the profession. It’s something we need to be able to do. Not abandon the narratives (truth, right to know, public interest, information greases the wheels of democracy, excuse the metaphor) but to look outside them and see what exists outside of them that might be of interest or helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, Denton’s not a saint of good practice. Gawker isn’t exactly a bastion of high brow or ethically pristine material, but it is creative and it does have an impact.

I see several parallels between the education field and journalism. I’ve even explored a few of those parallels before.

Watch the video above. Sir Ken Robinson speaks about creativity and education. He strikes me as a Nick Denton figure of education. So does Michelle Rhee – people who when you throw them into education act like grenades. They explode the systems around them, hopefully allowing new systems, new methods, new ways to emerge in their place.

From my own lay observation of education, it appears there’s been a greater willingness to throw grenades into education in the last few years. And it seems to me when those grenades are actually allowed to explode, the results can be good. But it’s also apparent to me that for every grenade, there’s also a number of smoke bombs: they look like grenades, but ultimately they just create a smokescreen and nothing actually changes.

Individual educators and the education establishment are having to decide whether they’re interested in grenades or smoke bombs.

And so are journalists. Nick Denton is a grenade. Arianna Huffington is a grenade. Jeff Jarvis is a grenade.

But others are smoke bombs. Rupert Murdoch is a smoke bomb. The Washington Post Company as a whole is a smoke bomb. They can look like grenades at times – heck, it’s hard not to feel like a rebel when you watch the intro video for Murdoch’s iPad Daily. But when it comes down to it, the flash tends to mask just how un-innovative they are.

We have to ask ourselves who we want to be?

Grenades or smoke bombs.


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