It may be emblematic of the state of journalism today that I found one of the presidential campaign’s deepest insights put forward not by the political press but in a feature story about a museum. Like most great ideas, the thought is so simple and self-contained that it made a great headline: “They Used to Say Whale Oil Was Indispensable, Too.”
Clearly, the fossil fuel era is at an end, and we’re watching its death throes, with oil company executives and their political vassals cast in the role of frustrated whale-oil procurers and salesmen. Because of the realities of global warming — the need not just to reduce industrial-scale carbon dioxide emissions but to eliminate them — the continued burning of oil, natural gas and coal for power represents slow global suicide, the equivalent of a late-stage cirrhosis patient drinking Wild Turkey. And for all its collective selfishness and tribalism, humanity will not, I think, choose to die by its own hand.
So when my 10-year-old is my age, gasoline-powered cars and the culture surrounding them — from two-pump gas stations with local owners to globe-spanning oil companies whose profits outstrip the budgets of countries — will seem as charmingly dead as the whale-oil lamps illustrating Peter Applebome’s excellent article on the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, published by The New York Times early in August. And 40 years from now, I imagine the rhetorical similarities between the ends of these two oil ages will also be obvious.
In 1843, Applebome notes, The Nantucket Inquirer was snorting derisively at the idea that whale oil could ever be replaced as a source of light. “Great noise is made by many of the newspapers and thousands of the traders in the country about lard oil, chemical oil, camphene oil, and a half-dozen other luminous humbugs,” the newspaper wrote. “But let not our envious and — in view of the lard oil mania — we had well nigh said, hog-gish opponents, indulge themselves in any such dreams.” The superiority of whale oil was absolutely obvious — and less than two decades later, kerosene had supplanted whale blubber as a light source.
And way back in the misty summer of 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain was also snorting away, quaintly insisting to The Associated Press that “[w]e need to drill offshore and we need to do it now. If I were president, I would call Congress back into session and tell them to get to work.” The superiority of his proposal was so absolutely obvious that Democratic leaders also supported increased exploration — for a product that could not be delivered for years and would, when delivered, be climactically unsafe to use.
I understand why political reporters need to report on offshore drilling when presidential candidates flog it as a campaign issue. I just don’t understand why more environmental and business journalists aren’t explaining more regularly and prominently that expanded exploration for oil is a losing proposition, given the short time frame required for a shift to non-carbon energy sources. There is no real scientific debate: If the Earth is to avoid catastrophic climate change, the shift away from carbon needs to begin almost immediately and be largely completed over the next three decades. The temporary delusions of the 2008 presidential campaign do not change that reality, even if both the candidates and a majority of the populace suffer from them. The delusions could at least begin to be dispelled if the major media would explain climate change not as a debate point between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans, or oil company executives and environmentalists, or some scientists and other scientists, but as a present danger.
It’s not certain which energy sources will replace hydrocarbons in the next 30 years, but the list of reasonable choices is not long: They will likely include the sun and the wind. Perhaps, as a stopgap measure (and no matter how much liberal environmentalists are riled by the prospect), nuclear fission will have a temporary renaissance as a source of electrical power. Technological advances could always, of course, bring power from sources, like nuclear fusion, that now seem unlikely.
But if I’m not certain which alternatives will win out, I do know the general direction in which the world must head to survive, and I have some advice for readers young enough to be investing on a 20-year time horizon: Go short on Big Oil and Big Coal, for delivery in 2030. It’s a can’t-miss.
Journalism has been twisting in its own end-of-an-era dance, and the transition to digital democracy is nowhere more evident than in the fragmented news coverage of this year’s presidential campaign. Once upon a time not so long ago, three television networks, two newsweekly magazines and a handful of major newspapers told us pretty much all we would know about presidential candidates. Now there are packs of cable TV personalities who seem all to talk only to one another whenever they aren’t talking at you; a claque of middle-brow political reporters who seem happiest when there is a meaningless gaffe to blow out of proportion; a small set of serious (harrumph) reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post who play inside baseball for an audience of tens of thousands in a country of hundreds of millions; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; the National Enquirer; Rush; Drudge; Kos; and every person who can buy a computer and learn WordPress, TypePad or some other free blogging software. Of course, the three shrinking TV networks that once ruled the world are still out there somewhere, too, hosting the Olympics and embarrassing presidential debates every now and again.
Amid the clutter and noise of this fragmentation, disaggregation, deprofessionalizing and proliferation of news media channels, though, are real journalistic jewels. In some senses, coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign is much better than any I’ve ever seen. One example is the aggregation of polling data and, particularly, the explanation of those data by realclearpolitics.com, fivethirtyeight.com and their poll-aggregating like. The trends and likelihoods that political professionals watch are front and center on these sites; the traditional media’s sensationalized reports on the mostly meaningless results of single polls nonexistent.
Another place to get election coverage that goes deeper than what Wolf, Anderson and Candy usually provide can be found, oddly, at the journalism schools that have traditionally constituted the minor leagues for the major media. Begun three years ago, News21 is a collaboration among journalism students, their professors and technical specialists at five major universities — the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Southern California; Columbia University; Harvard University; and Northwestern University — aimed at fostering in-depth journalism in the 21st-century multimedia environment.
Before you jump onto your Web browser for a look, be warned: This year’s News21 project is topped by exactly the kind of clunky, highfalutin title you’d expect out of journalism schools (or, perhaps, The Onion, making fun of j-schools): “What’s at Stake: Election 2008.” But three of the four multimedia packages that compose this year’s project — dealing with immigration, economic insecurity and political change in the Mountain West — are compelling, substantive, fresh and, I suspect, a lot more useful to the average voter than most major media campaign coverage. (The fourth package, which looks at politics and the environment, had yet to be posted when I wrote this column; it’s being produced at Northwestern University, which, I’m told, runs on a slightly different schedule than the other schools.)
News21 is part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, funded over the last three years by the Carnegie Corporation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the universities themselves. In addition to News21, the initiative involves journalistic curriculum enhancement and a task force on journalism education policy headquartered at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Recently, the Carnegie and Knight foundations approved an $11 million grant that includes money to extend the News21 program for another three years and to expand it to include 11 major journalism schools and Harvard.
Bob Calo, a veteran television news producer with a past that includes long stints at PBS, ABC and NBC News, teaches at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and was this year’s national coordinator for News21. The election theme was set by the deans of the participating j-schools and the director of the Shorenstein Center, but from there, Calo says, he and coordinators at each of the four “incubator” schools decided what subject areas each incubator would focus on. There were plenty of meetings and telephone conversations, Calo says, but final editorial choices were left to the schools, in part as a matter of practical necessity. Until News21 began, the journalism schools often viewed one another as competitors rather than partners. “The only way to deal with the universities in this collaboration is to empower them,” Calo says.
The coordinators at each incubator guided students through a spring-semester class, during which they chose, honed and researched stories. Then they were hired, post-graduation, as fellows to complete their multimedia projects. There were 46 fellows this year in all (10 from each journalism school, four from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and two from European journalism schools), directed by two or three faculty members at each of the incubators. Occasionally, “craft” specialists in multimedia production, design and animation also were used.
In the end, then, News21 has journalistic talent and time to play with, and the result this year is an array of significant and nuanced stories, produced in a truly impressive — and seemingly effortless — mix of text, still photo slide shows, audio, video and animation. If you want to see why I used the word “impressive,” go straight to the home pages for the USC package, which deals with the changing politics of the Mountain West and Southwest, and the Columbia presentation on the political impact of immigrants and immigration. Both projects open with stylish, Flash-driven home pages, but these multimedia projects are impressive for more than their fancy animations.
Most important, it’s clear that these sets of stories are the result of thought over time rather than instant reaction. They focus on voters and how they feel about major issues facing the country rather than candidate and consultant sound bites and cross talk. Even when the presentations deal specifically with politics, as in a series of interviews with politicians and political observers of the Mountain West in the UC Berkeley package, the ratio of plain speaking to spin is refreshingly high and a pleasant antidote to the panels of conflicted political “experts” that fill cable news.
As is almost unavoidable in an educational environment, there is some unevenness to the News21 packages; less-able students, after all, can’t be summarily fired. But far more often, these packages offer an authenticity — a basic truthfulness — often lacking in mainstream media presentations (particularly when they deal with that mysterious vastness known as The Heartland, located way out there somewhere between the Hudson River and Brentwood). By accident of history, I have lived for significant periods in the Mountain West and the South, and I grew up in the Midwest. I can testify that the UC Berkeley reportage on the economic issues of the election in Montana, Colorado, Alabama and Minnesota rings true, conveying subtle cultural undertones often missed by national television reporters who seem to believe that Heartland political wisdom is usually best found in the coffee shop of a small town.
The mix of quality stories in the UC Berkeley package includes a few that are best described as wonderful surprises, including one on a race to fill a congressional seat that represents Huntsville, Ala., and was left open when veteran Democrat Bud Cramer didn’t run for re-election. The race involves two men named Parker — Republican Wayne Parker and Democrat Parker Griffith — which gives it a certain comic edge. But the News21 story goes far beyond the possibility of voter confusion, presenting a nuanced video profile of Huntsville — a city whose economy depends on federal defense appropriations — and why this previously Democratic district may go Republican in the fall. The story constitutes one of the best explanations of the Democratic Party’s problems in the South I’ve ever seen or, for that matter, read.
News21 has gone through an evolution during its first three years. Sometimes its stories have been featured by established news organizations — from The New York Times to CNN — and this year it has partnered with National Public Radio, which, Calo says, will present some News21 work as radio stories in coming months. But over time, he notes, News21 has tended more toward a Web-centric, self-publishing model, last year drawing some 3 million unique visitors to its site.
Along the way, fellows and their faculty advisers have learned that multimedia success involves skills with few parallels in traditional journalistic enterprise. Web developers who are also journalists can be golden, Calo says, bringing good journalistic ideas to life on the Internet in new forms that a fill-in-the-blanks Web site cannot accommodate. Perhaps even more valuable, he says, are journalists who can conceive and produce stories so compelling in form and content that they go viral, spreading across the Web by the digital equivalent of word of mouth. One such piece, produced for last year’s News21 project on faith in America, is called “Moral Compass.” It features a wheel that can be spun, a la Wheel of Fortune, to compare the stances of major religions on moral and sexual matters. No text presentation could possibly be as effective at explaining the surprising variance of stances among religions on, for example, masturbation. (In case you wondered, Catholicism and Mormonism condemn the practice, ahem, out of hand; Islam does not.)
Next year, overall coordination of News21 moves to Arizona State University, where Jody Brannon, who’s been an editor at MSN.com, USAToday.com and washingtonpost.com, will serve as national coordinator for more than 90 students from 12 schools working at eight journalism incubators. The deans have yet to choose the umbrella topic for the coming year’s projects, she says, and having just started in her role, she can’t say exactly what innovations News21 will pursue. She surmises that they might include increased agility that lets fellows fuse journalism and interactive presentations more quickly. She also hopes News21 can come up with “something that maybe hasn’t been invented yet” in its 2009 project.
The News21 organization may itself be just such an invention. As Calo notes, there has always been a question lying just under the project’s surface: “In the back of everyone’s mind was ‘Could this become some kind of nonprofit news organization?’” The question won’t be finally answered until the Carnegie-Knight funding runs out in three years. Then, America’s leading journalism schools will have to decide whether to continue financing and producing quality multimedia journalism for the wider world as they train journalists for future news opportunities that will be as unlike print newspapers as sunshine is different from a whale.
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