Thursday, February 02, 2006

Publishing, primates & pattern recognition

My fellow primates --

Alone in the animal kingdom, ours is the order that decided to bet its evolutionary future on the development of a large and complex brain.

As a species, we are not fast runners, our teeth are dull and our claws hardly useful at all, and thus it was evolutionarily critical for us to scan the African veldt and quickly determine whether that flicker of movement was the shadow of a cloud or a tiger lying in wait. As a result, our primate brains have evolved a notable capacity for pattern recognition. We are not only capable but absolutely hard-wired to scan multiple images; to make to distinctions; to select, sort and discriminate amongst items.

Happily for all of us here today, these are all activities especially well suited to reading a broadsheet newspaper. In spreading ink on paper, we ply a craft whose roots reach back to the fifteenth century, but it remains compelling today precisely because it is anchored at the very foundation of the human capacity to learn. We should not be surprised to find that a doubletruck newspaper page on the Iraq war with three stories, a large informational graphic and a couple of well-constructed charts yields a far richer and more satisfying information experience than the soundtrack spoken over a flickering satellite videophone image of the same bomb exploding over and over somewhere in the nighttime sky above Baghdad.

The human being’s physical capacity for pattern recognition also seems to be paired with a deep-seated psychological need for order. Newspapers are likewise uniquely situated to satisfy this primal need -- to bring coherence to a world that sometimes seems to be unraveling all around us.

Let’s think for a moment about how newspapers can capitalize on these two basic human traits: pattern recognition and the need for coherence.

I honestly believe that most of the persistent, misguided talk you hear about the inevitable demise of newspapers is based on one simpleminded fact: that the act of printing words on paper simply seems out-dated. Because these critics and naysayers do not realize that we’re appealing to basic human capacities and meeting basic, primal needs, they mistakenly conclude that the service we provide will be easily replaced by some flashier, more beguiling product -- any day now.

But the fact is that while text seems old fashioned, it remains by far the most efficient way to transfer complex information. As information specialist Edward Tufte delights in pointing out, we typically listen to spoken words at somewhere between 100 and 160 words per minute, but read somewhere between 300 and a thousand.

Add to that the fact that a well-selected picture or illustration really may be worth a thousand words, and you quickly realize that the good old-fashioned newspaper remains the best and fastest way to move information into your head. Satellite TV and the World Wide Web haven’t changed that.

Printed text enjoys others advantages, as well.

To put a fancy name to it, text is asynchronous. That means you don’t have to listen to the story in the order that I speak it, or watch the photos when I get around to broadcasting them. Think about how much easier it is to deal with 10 email messages – yours to scan, answer, delete or set aside at a glance – as opposed to listening to 10 voicemail messages on the phone.

Printed text is also permanent by comparison, which can also be a considerable advantage over what Tufte has described as “a small chunk of promptly vanishing information [appearing] in a relentless one-way sequence.”

Writing is a kind of magic. A freelancer once described his laptop as “a magic box,” showing observers the keyboard and explaining: “All I have to do is press these keys in the right order and people will send me money.”

Good reporting and writing enjoy their special potency for a very specific but seldom understood reason: writing transfers power.

Imagine that I spent 10 hours researching and writing an article that takes you 10 minutes to read. I have effectively given you the benefits of 10 hours energy expended for the price of 10 minutes energy spent -- a wondrous bargain if ever there was one. Fortunately for those of us on the writing side of the equation, this can work as a win/win situation because there are so many more readers than writers, and all those 10-minute expenditures add up ...

Thus it is that newspapers play to the human capacity for pattern recognition by harnessing the power of text and image. What about that other thing that I was talking about -- the need for coherence?

Here we bring out the big guns, the ultimate weapon: the power of storytelling.

I have become well known to some friends and colleagues -- perhaps tiresomely so -- for asserting that the four most powerful words in the world are these: Tell me a story. Our panelists want to take the occasion of our gathering here today to explore that idea with you, partly because good storytelling can be so valuable to newspapers, but also because it is essential to democratic society itself.

We know what it means to hear a daughter or a nephew look up and ask, “Tell me a story.” It is the same request each of us makes when we stand in line for tickets to the new Lord of the Rings movie, or buy that novel everybody's talking about.

But we may not realize that we’re all making that request, almost all the time.

“Tell me a story” is really what we’re asking when we go to church or temple and ask a spiritual leader to help us understand the world. We’re looking for coherence, for order, for tools to help us get a grip on the slippery reality all around us. You go to church with the unspoken request: Tell me a story.

We make the same demand of politicians and elected leaders, asking them to explain how they propose to organize the world affairs we have entrusted to them. In a presidential debate, we’re really listening to hear which candidate’s story resonates most with us. John Kennedy’s story about passing the torch to a new generation was powerfully persuasive; so was Ronald Reagan’s – It’s morning in America -- and Bill Clinton’s -- I believe in a place called Hope.

And you remember Al Gore’s story, of course?

Right. Neither does anybody else, and there is also a powerful lesson there for storytellers everywhere.

This is one of the most fundamental demands we make of our leaders: Tell me a story.

And it is also what people expect from reporters.

It is hardly unusual at journalism conventions or newsroom gatherings to talk about our allegiance to the truth, or the necessity of fearlessness, or the need for independence. All those things are true, and I hope you will consider me to have endorsed them all in the most vigorous possible manner here today.

But I want to end my remarks with a different observation, instead. Rather than talking about the protections and privileges of the journalist, I want to remind you of an obligation.

When he was asked why he brought along a choir and a piano player to the revival meetings, the circuit-riding preacher answered, “Son, you can’t convert ‘em until you get ‘em inside the tent.”

You need to be thinking about that at your newspaper every day. People who aren’t reading the paper are never going to know how well you covered the city council elections, or how insightful your analysis of the budget deficit might have been. You’re just not going to enlighten ‘em unless you get ‘em inside the tent.

And while that’s essential, it is not sufficient. After you get ‘em inside the tent, you need to be sure they believe what they’re hearing.

In January 1994, I was in Mexico City visiting friends when the confrontation between the Mexican government and Zapatista rebels in Chiapas burst into the headlines. None of the intelligent, educated, middle-class Mexicans I was staying with believed either their government or the press. They watched television news of the rebels mainly to look for what wasn’t shown; they disavowed newspapers, dismissed commentary, whether from Reforma or the New York Times. Their capacity for trust had been so fundamentally eroded that no argument from me could persuade them otherwise.

And in that encounter, I saw how the absence of credible media left them terribly crippled as citizens, how fundamentally helpless they were to engage the issues and seek the solutions their society so clearly needs. If they cannot agree even on the dimensions of the problems, they can hardly begin to shape solutions. Because they had no faith in their press to “speak the truth to power” they were left captive of gossip and rumors. To them the most credible information tended to be something like, “My cousin’s boyfriend knows a man who works in the ministry and he told them that …”

Watching them struggle to talk about their future when they didn’t even have a vocabulary for describing the present left me even more profoundly convinced about the vital role we play in America’s fourth estate. It reminds me – and should remind you – that we must not only perform honestly and fearlessly in our pursuit of truth, but that we must find ways of doing so that sustain and advance our credibility with the citizens who depend upon us.

Perhaps you have heard about the educator who said, “I was teaching, but they weren’t learning,” an assertion we can easily see is simply, axiomatically wrong. Let me warn you that the same logic applies to each of us: You can’t say “I was writing but they weren’t reading” without attaching much of the fault to yourself.

Yes, it is undeniably true that this is a particularly challenging time to be in the mass media news business. Audiences have fragmented as never before, lured by a proliferation of news sources and entertainments that provide variety and specialization, although often little by way of verification or credibility. Our readers and viewers are busier than ever, working more jobs, raising families singlehandedly, learning to speak English for the first time. Yes, it is hard to reach them. But we must.

If we do not, we will of course be failures. We’ll lose our audiences, our readers, our advertisements and our paychecks. But that will all be trivial compared to the loss society as a whole will face.

The simple truth is that without a common vocabulary, there can be no shared civic conversation – and without that engagement of citizens, there can be no democracy.

And that’s what makes our storytelling so important.

When I worked at the Anchorage Daily News, we used to talk about these matters in terms of what we called the “tribal fires.” The idea takes its origins from the notion that early humans in groups and tribes must surely have sat around and told stories while gathered at the tribal fire. They would have talked about the successful recent hunting adventure, or a raid by a neighboring village, or perhaps simply have listened to the wisdom of the eldest woman in the group. All together, those stories would have formed the basis of their community.

At the Daily News, we wanted to be Alaska’s tribal fire, the place where Alaskans gathered to tell the stories that defined themselves as a people. That same aspiration is alive and engaged at the newspaper today, and it is one in which you all can readily and profitably share. You’re the storytellers, and the power and the magic of a tale well told rests well within your grasp.

I can think of no more meaningful or rewarding profession, and I thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts about it with you here today.

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