Sunday, October 07, 2007

Everybody's Yelling at Me: the Challenge of Information Overload

Information infatuation is a thing of the past. What's a journalist to do?

By Greg Bowers (more by author)

My first sports editor, a world-weary man, once told me a story about how sports reporters used to hang inning cards out of the second-floor window of the newspaper building.

Interested men would gather on the street below, their jackets pulled tight against the cool fall evenings, to see how the World Series was going. That's how scarce news was. That's how eager people were to get it.

A career later, I sat on a porch on a warm summer evening at the Missouri School of Journalism, listening while a student told me she doesn't read the news.

"I know I should," she said, sheepishly. "I know I should."

She is a good student who enjoys journalism and is pretty good at it. She just doesn't read it.

"It's just that it's boring," she said, underlining the last word with her tone.

Sometimes you learn more from your students than you teach them.
What happened? In short, we went from information infatuation to information love to information overload.

It's been a remarkable transformation. The clock's hands, like in an old cartoon, have moved amazingly fast.
My mom used to tell stories about how she'd watch newsreels at movie theaters to see what was happening in the world. Now, I'm writing this while watching television with my laptop open, connected to high-speed wireless Internet, balanced on the arm of the sofa.

My dad used to carry a newspaper home every day, with importance, so he could annoyingly read aloud the stories that he found interesting. Now, there are four 24/7 news channels on my cable,  four 24/7 sports channels and two 24/7 weather channels. On top of that, I check my e-mail dozens of times a day and carry a cell phone with me like a wallet. And that's not even counting the radio in my car and newspapers and Web sites that I look at every day.

I've gone from my father reading stories to me to everybody reading stories to me.

These days my life may be lacking some things, but the one thing that it's not lacking is information. Everyone's yelling at us. White noise. So who could blame folks, like my student, for tuning out? Who can blame folks for waiting for the recess of reality television or the Britney Spears soap opera?

What's next? Happily, even with declining readership and viewership, there is good news for journalists.

There are jobs still to be done. And journalists can do them. They're just different jobs from the ones we're used to doing.

Job No. 1: Tell us what we want/need to know.

The good news: Journalists are particularly well-suited for this. Journalists, if nothing else, should be good at critical thinking -- a talent that most folks have lost in this age of information overload and "fair and balanced" reporting. Separate the gold from the garbage. Don't tell us everything. Sort it out. Tell us what's true.

Job No. 2: Engage us, in every sense of the word.

Enlighten us, entertain us, make us laugh, make us wonder, make us think.  Give us something we can't get anywhere else. Again, journalists are particularly well-suited for this job. They write well. And they can tell good stories, something that human beings have been captivated by since the days of Beowulf. Tell good stories.

This is not new.  In 1968, Norman Mailer and Marshall McLuhan debated, among other things, information overload. They were, of course, discussing television, which was the issue in 1968. Their debate is an old, black-and-white television show. That's both a description and a metaphor.

Now, almost 40 years later, you can watch it on Google video. Or if you'd prefer, download it to your iPod.
These days, the situation is clearer. We're left with two groups of people. There are the ones who think there's too much information out there and need some help finding their way through it all.

And then there are the ones who think there's too much information out there and want an escape from it all.
The first group needs guidance. The second group wants recess. And we switch groups all the time.

The first group is bored, frustrated, ready to give up. It's bombarded by information, but finds little it can use or trust.

The second group wants a break. People want things they can't find anywhere else. Beautiful things. Enlightening things. Entertaining things. Enthralling things. Dumb things.

When you can do both jobs at once, that's cool. "Daily Show" cool.

Like Gene Weingarten's Washington Post piece about world-class violinist Joshua Bell playing in a subway stop. Or Wright Thompson's Masters tribute to his father.

Both pieces provide information and engage us. They're fun to read.

But when you can't do both jobs, at least do the second one. Engage us. Remember these days, our lives are not lacking information.

The clock is still moving fast, its cartoon hands spinning wildly. Let's move quickly, because folks, like my student, are tuning out.

Move quickly, while I watch YouTube videos of guys dropping Mentos into bottles of Diet Coke to imitate the fountains at the Bellagio.

Do it quickly or I'll spend more time watching a foul-mouthed toddler landlord scold Will Ferrell.

I know. I know. That Ferrell video was so last spring. But it still makes me laugh. And these days, with everyone yelling at me, that's worth a lot.
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