IDEAS | Slow journalism as place writing

Posted on 06/08/2009

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I’ve been reading about slow journalism lately and it seems somehow relevant for the Placing project. In an earlier post, I’d pondered whether journalism is a built environment practice, as a way of thinking about the place of journalism in the city, a practice of place writing. I’d initially started to mull this over after reading a piece by Andrew Blum titled In Praise of Slowness: Thoughts on writing about the future of the city in Urban Omnibus. I was struck by his comment, “what’s obvious is that the city is slow and we write too fast”. Our writing overtakes, possibly overwrites the city. Does fast writing force the city to move too quickly, causing it to blur in some Virilan fantasy? Or does writing mask slowness and incrementality?

As Blum, a respected architecture journalist, notes “how sharp the disconnect is between the immediacy required of journalism and the sheer evolutionary slowness of the city itself”.  As I re-read this piece, I am acutely aware of its structure as threaded thoughts where the writer self-consciously narrates an internal dialogue, drawing on other things he’s read while trying to negotiate the possibilities of stories, buildings and cities. It’s almost as if a journalism of the city is impossible: journalism is about today while the meaning of building in the city is in the future. Stories perish daily.

In considering this and other points Blum raises, I’d become aware of some currents encircling the idea of ‘slow journalism’, a proposition that draws on the idea of ‘Slow Food’ and means, according to Sasha Anawalt, that journalism is less mass-cultured and less celebrity-centred. But then, I sometimes wonder about the celebrity that can sometimes be wound up in journalism and the media generally. Other commentators propose that this kind of journalism should be collaborative and open so that the ‘user’ can see its sources, how it is made, how it connects and how it might be used. The internet has an obvious role to play to here. There is a particular kind of artfulness about this where the news story may be enduring and may even, as some earlier journalism innovations were exhorted, as art. My mind drifts to my own earlier investigations in the Wording project, which embarrassingly sits unfinished and unresolved on a DIY website, in which I’d started to explore the arts writing and publishing (ie art writing/writing art).

As I Google around, what I enjoy about these characterisations is another temporal distortion which involves the internet and the city, the internet and writing. The internet can both speed writing up and slow it down, depending on who (editor, corporation) is bearing down on you as you write. Working on your own projects, no one can really force you to meet a deadline. This is certainly what I’ve enjoyed about the PlaceBlog, having worked in more pressured and deadline environments as well.

A practice of slow journalism may not be like any kind of journalism we’ve seen before – e.g. the narrative feature, languid prose or the investigative expose – though these may certainly be part of it. It may mean something more fractious than that, assembled publicly and collaboratively over time, like the city itself. Naka Nathaniel, a former New York Times reporter worked with Nick Kristof for several years they covered famine, conflict, war, and environmental destruction around the world. Nathaniel shot photos and video to accompany Kristof’s columns, but their work wasn’t necessarily the end product.

According to an online report, after a 2006 reporting trip to Chad to cover the genocide in Darfur, Nathaniel and Kristof posted their reporting – articles, columns, photographs, video, blog posts, reports, background material, and links to Human Rights organisations — on NYTimes.com. Then they invited readers to use their reporting to continue to tell the story in new ways. They received essays, poems, letters and works of fiction from readers. In addition, Winter Miller, an assistant to Kristof, wrote a play based on her travels in Sudan.

Stories in this sense can be finely grained and populated, like place itself, and the story of the story is alive. It impels us into the future. 

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