The United States of Amedia

The United States of Amedia

: Study media and you will study America.

You will study what America thinks and likes and watches and reads and says. Especially today — in the era of the Internet, the first medium owned by its audience — you will find us reflected in our media. We are what we watch.

That is my advice for the Columbia Journalism School as it gazes at its navel, trying to decide its fate.

That is the same advice Michael Wolff gives in a smart (as usual) column in New York this week about Columbia’s School of Journalism. The university’s new president recently halted the search for a new dean of the J-school and instead ordered a search of (or for) the soul of the school: What should a journalism school teach today? he asked. Wolff answers.

Wolff advises that they study “media,” not “journalism.” It’s good advice.

“Journalism” is a synonym for “what editors think you should know.” It is a deadening word. It is castor oil in dense, dark bottles of type. “Media,” on the other hand, is a synonym for “what we the audience want.” It is lively and colorful and provocative and entertaining and actually interesting.

Journalism is inward looking; it’s inside baseball; it’s about us and how we do what we do in the business of journalism. Media is outward looking; it’s about listening to the audience.

Journalism is a craft, a trade, a skill. I went to J-school and I did learn things there (mostly from a sports writer who taught us how to write crime stories and also from actually working on newspapers). I learned how to write a lead and ask a question; I learned the tricks of my trade. But then I became a TV critic and started a magazine about media and now I oversee a bunch of eagerly interactive web sites, which is really just about playing host to the audience’s party. I made the shift from journalism to media long ago and never regretted it.

For media is the study of the people. Media reflects what the audience thinks (contrary to common assumption, media does not lead; media follows). To study media, you have to respect that audience; you have to care what the audience thinks; you must listen. And once you pass that barricade of snobbishness, you will see that we the audience have good taste (given half a chance to watch good shows, we will), and good sense (how many idiots have we voted out of office?), and even intelligence (note my screed on HBO, below).

To study media, you will have to leave other prejudices behind — for example, that TV is a cultural wasteland (rubbish; TV produces more quality entertainment than movies and books combined today); or that the mass audience has nothing to say (look at weblogs especially or at the forums on my site and you will eavesdrop on amazing conversations).

If you study media, you will find yourself studying much more. You will get to the very core of democracy and how we as a nation come to decisions (whether that is electing presidents or starting wars or ending them). You will understand the very essence of commerce and capitalism and how we make choices and calculate value (read: brands). You will get a new window on our society and its every aspect (e.g., the state of the modern family and of religion and of education and of work).

All this was true before, but it is truer now with the Internet. For now, at last, the audience itself has a medium and a voice. Now there is something worth studying.

: And please don’t send me email reminding me that “media” is/are plural. I used to be a copy editor, too. It just doesn’t sound right to say “media are” in a discussion such as this.

And the winner izzzzzzzz…
: The Online Journalism Awards finalists are announced. How boring, as the name indicates.

My baby’s new dad
: Entertainment Weekly has a new editor.