The storyteller strikes back

When I dared question the article’s monopoly as the atomic and only acceptable form of news, I honestly did not imagine the reaction I would get. I thought I was observing a trend and an opportunity. I have tried to provoke plenty of times. But here I truly did not think I was saying anything provocative. But clearly, I plucked a nerve. I’ve been asking myself why I evoked such a strong emotional response, online and off. At Jeff Pulver’s 140 Conference in New York this week, I endeavored to answer that.

In a performance that well demonstrates that I should not quit my day job and hope for a career on Broadway, I tried to take on the voice — in a purposefully simplistic, over-the-top way — of the storytellers who objected to what I was observing. Here’s what I think they were saying: “You can’t have a narrative without the narrator, a story without the storyteller. I am the storyteller. I decide what the story is. I decide what goes in it and doesn’t. I decide where it begins and where it ends.” That’s part of the issue: control. But it’s more than that: “If you don’t need as many articles — if there are other ways to impart information — do you still need me, the storyteller?” That, I think, could be at the heart of their fear and reaction.

Once again, I’m not getting rid of the story, not replacing it or the storyteller. I’m arguing that articles are precious, more precious than ever, and need to add value or we can’t afford to waste our time on them. I’m saying that the journalist takes on new roles and more tasks. But, yes, if as a journalist you see yourself only as a storyteller, a maker of articles, your horizon just got closer.

At 140, I told the room and the cameras that I see something else happening. I referred once again to the Gutenberg Parenthesis, coined by the University of Southern Denmark to describe how the change in our media affects our cognition of our world.

When people say they like newspapers and books they aren’t just talking about the physical form of them: the feel and smell, the portability and tangibility. They are talking about the finiteness of them. Articles and books have beginnings and ends; they have boundaries and limits; they are packaged neatly in boxes with bows on top; they are a product of scarcity. Abundance is unsettling. That is precisely why the internet is disruptive not only to business and government but to culture and cognition. Threatening the dominion of the article is to threaten our very worldview.

You see, I am trying to understand the visceral reaction to what I said. It took me by surprise.

I asked the folks at 140 not to kill the article but to question assumptions about it.

I may live to regret embedding my talk (I haven’t had the courage to watch it yet), but here it is:

Then I got to introduce my friend John Paton, who is challenging assumptions about the form and business of journalism:

  • The way people have responded to your post about the article blindsided me, too. As a child of the Steve Gillmor attention and gesture economy, I fully believe the smallest unit of news is the one that gets the most attention — and it may well not even be the tweet, but the scream, or the shriek. In the real time stream, whatever drifts by and catches your eye is the unit or news.

    I’m trained to read, so I probably consume more articles than most, but I have three foster kids, now adults, who don’t consume any at all, and even the score. My “real” children, very literate, are busy and don’t “do” articles at all. They do email, or video.

    These poor old journos who still can’t come to it.

  • evilbillcosby

    don’t sweat the haters Jeff

    you have always been light years beyond the mouth breathing reactionaries

    thanks for the constant mindstream of great content

    I always value your opinions

  • “That’s part of the issue: control. ”


    “That, I think, could be at the heart of their fear and reaction.”


    “Abundance is unsettling. That is precisely why the internet is disruptive not only to business and government but to culture and cognition.”

    Partially agreed.
    Abundance is quantity. The internet, like the Gutenberg Bible, is rewriting the rules regarding access. In what seemed to some a time period no longer than a blink of an eye many people who didn’t even realize they were performing “middle man” jobs were no longer needed for those jobs. Have you been to an Olde office lately for the privilege of paying a clerk $40 to sell 100 shares of stock? Tomorrow is Saturday. I don’t know what you’ll be doing, but I know you won’t be standing in line at a travel agency to buy a plane ticket. My access to the computer to search, select and even pay for my plane ticket? Direct.

    It’s not that the web, the makers of the web or even fans of the web hate stock brokers or travel agents. It’s just that their value added was artificial – the consequence of a fundamental design flaw created by mistake in a system accidentally torturing for too many people for far to many years. The credo of capitalism is true now more than ever, “Add value or suffer the consequences of your vulnerability.”

    Journalism and journalists aren’t going away for the same reason a bible printed in the language of the reader didn’t sink the Roman Catholic Church – they add value (at least the good ones do). Control who gets into heaven by selling indulgences? Not so much. Control the story, the message, the conversation, the news by writing articles? Not so much any more either.

    Keep trying though and you’ll find your business shrink faster than a blink of the other eye until your entire enterprise is worth 1/40th the old price to sell those 100 shares. Whoops, sorry Newsweek.


  • The ways and means of reporting “events” (that may be considered news) is expanding and developing in ways that are mind blowing. For me, as a consumer of news, the question becomes how do I find the best reports on events I am interested in. In the past, as you note Jeff, someone did this “for” me (or at least narrowed down the possibilities). Now, increasingly, I am on my own! I don’t mind if reporting is in the form of a tweet, a blog, a newspaper article, a sound bite or whatever; the question is – how do I know I have found the best reports and how do I know that they are the best?

    • Andy Freeman

      > how do I know I have found the best reports and how do I know that they are the best?

      That’s easy – the NYT will tell you.

  • I think that whatever a journalist writes for its audience is supposed to tell a story, whether it’s seven pages or an SMS. An article is one of the storyteller’s tools that we’ve come to expect, but the journalist’s job is also to challenge and exceed our expectations. Writing an article when a tweet would serve the audience better is just as unprofessional as going the other way.

    Off topic question: can your website have a favicon? :)

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