January 7, 2007 · Posted in Uncategorized 

What is your preferred language?

Michael Browning, one of the most amazing writers ever to toil for newspapers, died recently. He worked for much of his career at the Herald, covering China for a while, and anything else his expansive mind fancied. I remember covering a hurricane in Key West with him once. While I literally waded into the storm to take pictures, he retired to his hotel room with a stack of books. In the morning, his story wove history, literature, and the cosmos together to explain man’s struggle against nature. I hated being assigned to his stories — he could never really tell you what they were going to be about.

His language was on a different plane from most journalism. His writing was advanced calculus compared to simple inverted pyramids. It was brilliant. But it didn’t lend itself to succint story budget lines. Toward the end of his career at the Herald, budget cuts and a changing emphasis on story lengths marginalized Browning, sending him off to other employers. I think editors weren’t able to deal with someone who couldn’t sum up his story a day in advance in a single paragraph. His language was not that of newspapers. But if there were more writers like him, we’d have a different language in our papers, and probably more readers.

Editors didn’t know what to do with Browning’s writing; they didn’t speak the language.

Right now, we’ve got another problem with language. Newspaper editors in general don’t speak the language of multimedia and images. They can’t wrap their minds around the possibility of telling a story in some other way than words. They don’t know how to take a great story and make an interactive graphic out of it. They don’t know how to visualize a video that will tell all the emotion and character of a story without words. They don’t know how to look at a photo and find a thousand words in it. They don’t know how to make a web page that sings. They don’t have the visual language skill.

If you’ve never watched a teen play video games, you should. You will receive an education in another — visual — language. Any kid who’s ever touched a game controller can process visual images at mind-blowing speed. Their brains are wired for this language. A flood of images come at them at 30 frames per second; they process and discriminate intricate details from this blur without a problem. It is a language — a way to process and deliver information using context, cuing and inflection. And newspaper editors, in general, don’t speak a visual language. Nor do managers — the people who are desperately trying to hire employees who do speak it… so we end up with illiterates running things.

The problem is finding journalists who speak a visual language. Do you find a journalist and teach them visuals? Or do you find artists and teach them journalism? It’s pretty clear that hiring computer geeks for your web site doesn’t produce good journalism, visual or otherwise.


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