Friday, June 5, 2020
June 5, 2020: Mass MediaStudying: The Internet
[On June 1st, 1980, the Cable News Network (CNN) aired its first broadcast. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy cable news and four other significant evolutions in American mass media, leading up to a special post on one of the best scholarly studies of media and the Revolution!]
On the variations, limitations, and possibilities of journalism online.
Through the development of my own online writing over the last decade (beginning with this blog’s November 2010 origins), I’ve had the chance to connect with four distinct online journalistic sites and communities (among many others, but these have been the four with which I’ve had the most consistent and in-depth relationships). Not long after I began this blog, I started mirroring it on OpenSalon, a now-defunct blogging site connected to the groundbreaking and influential online magazine Salon. My first consistent online writing gig (from late 2014 to early 2016) was a column for Josh Marshall’s longstanding political news and commentary site Talking Points Memo. My second such gig (from 2016 through the end of 2017) was a column for Arianna Huffington’s political and cultural online periodical HuffPost (then still known by its original name Huffington Post). And for my current and favorite such gig (from January 2018 on) I write the monthly (previously bimonthly, but 2020, y’know) Considering History column for the online version of one of the nation’s oldest magazines, the Saturday Evening Post.
I’m sure Media Studies scholars would define each of those four sites as occupying a different place on the landscape of online journalism and publication, and I’ve seen plenty of significant differences as well, from their typical content and intended audience to their visual layout and stylistic preferences (among others). But I would also link all four through one structure and form shared by most of their pieces: short-form online writing, pieces in the range of 1000 words. Having been working in that form ever since I started this blog, it has come to feel hugely familiar and comfortable to me, and so using that form for my contributions to these sites has likewise come pretty easily (while I have worked to adjust my content and voice for the different audiences in particular). But at the same time I believe it’s important for us to analyze critically even those forms that we really love, and when it comes to short-form online journalism it is unquestionably true that it cannot offer the same deep dives that long-form journalism (whether more investigative or more narrative) features. While of course the internet does include great long-form writing (this website and podcast collect and dive into some of the best examples), I think it’s fair to say that it is more geared toward shorter-form work, as illustrated by these longstanding and influential sites and most others I’ve encountered.
At the same time, online journalism also offers possibilities that print journalism does not, and in my experience the most important is very straight-forward but impossible to overstate: eyeballs, readers, audiences. My first column for Talking Points Memo hit more than 110,000 discrete readers before it stopped counting; while that was an extreme case (and the site’s 4th most-read TPM Café column of 2014), there’s no doubt in my mind that more folks saw and read each piece I published there than ever have a print article of mine. I know the arguments that “clicks” are a misleading or even destructive emphasis, and certainly have no patience for obvious clickbait. But to put it simply, every writer writes in the hopes of being read (yes, even Emily Dickinson), and that’s even more true for journalism than for creative writing (which could be said to be written first for the writer her- or himself). Finding an audience might not be our ultimate goal—for my online, public AmericanStudies writing, my hope is that my audiences will both learn from my work and set out to learn even more still—but it’s the primary one from which all others stem. Online journalism offers the chance to find such audiences more broadly and more potently than any other form of writing I’ve encountered, making it a truly groundbreaking form of 21st century mass media.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other mass media moments or movements you’d highlight?