Contemporaeity

Dan Visel at the Institute for the Future of the Book writes about how contemporary and reactionary blogs must be. With blogs, he writes, people check the most recent entries to see what is new. After all, that’s how blogs work. The most recent news gets top billing.

As a result, it’s hard for digital forms of writing to track long-term issues. Visel looks at this through the media coverage of the Iraq War and Virginia Tech killings. Mainstream outlets like the New York Times reported on the killings far more often than on the war during a one week span. This is because, as Visel writes, mainstream media deal best with sharply punctuated events.

Finally, Visel wonders whether our modern forms of writing and media are good enough to track the long-term issues. It’s an interesting question. Our local newspaper recently ran a series of stories dealing with the homeless in Bozeman, Mont. It is a long-term issue that the community is dealing with, but it is also one that has only recently come into the spotlight. The news series was a reaction to recent public concern.

Does that make the homeless situation any less long-term? Not really, but this case is substantially different than mainstream media. Here, the public eye turned toward the homeless problem before the stories were written. The media did not necessarily draw that attention there–it may have helped draw additional attention, but not the first attention. With the New York Times and other mainstream outlets, their choice of what to report can decide where the public’s attention will go.

Accordingly, if the mainstream media reports on only short-term issues, like the Virginia Tech killings, then the attention of those who rely on mainstream media for their news will be focused their as well. And here’s the kicker: people seem to want breaking news. It’s what they’ve come to expect. I have a feeling that this is why we see fewer and fewer major investigative stories on the nightly news or in our newspapers.

Yet another anomaly exists. Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” series. On this show, a reporter chronicles a sting operation aimed at sexual predators who would abuse underage people they met over the Internet. This show is intriguing and addictive. It is also quite popular, if my household is any indication. Certainly, this is a long-term issue. Their results do not make the front page of any paper or Web site, but the show remains popular.

So, television, perhaps with is episodic format, can deal with long-term issues. It would stand to reason, then, that any medium which is periodic (newspapers and magazines too) could also deal well with long-term issues, provided they have a steady readership. This is where I think the Web loses.

Most Web site visitors are sporadic. Their reading patters are ephemeral and inconstant. Sure, they may visit nytimes.com regularly, but how regularly? Every time they remember to go there? Every day? It’s uncertain. Because of this, it is hard for Web sites to maintain steady readership–the kind that would be needed to follow a series of stories over a period of time. Because the attention span on the Web is shorter, the story arcs must be as well.

Form follows function in this case.

More to come on this and other blog issues soon.

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