Paul Brownfield is a current freelance writer for the New York Times, a former staff writer and television critic for the Los Angeles Times, and also the lead facilitator for The LAMP’s Making the News workshops with the Brooklyn Public Library (click here for the full schedule and branch locations). Read on to learn Paul’s thoughts about early attitudes towards the web in newsrooms, how the interactive nature of the web impacts journalism, and why media literacy is important for students and working journalists alike.
You’ve been working as a journalist since 1993. What happened that got you interested in writing about news and culture? Part of it was the fact that I loved being in newsrooms. The pace and feel and activity was very appealing to me. I went into print journalism work after getting a masters in creative writing. So I was also interested in applying the narrative writing skills I acquired in school to the broader canvas of popular culture and the world around me.
A lot has changed for journalism since the Internet and other new media became such major forces in the way people get their news. What are some of the most significant developments for yourself as a journalist? There is, first, the continual problem with the economic model: That while people move their news consumption online, traditional news organizations like the ones I worked for have the challenge of figuring out how to generate the same amount of revenue from the online product that they’re used to getting in print.
I think, like a lot of people who were at newspapers in the ’90s, I didn’t see this revolution coming. Maybe I didn’t want to, because I wanted to hold onto the idea that a major news organization like the Los Angeles Times, where I worked for 10 years beginning in 1998, would continue to thrive and hold onto its primacy despite the heat created by social media. My attitude about the web, when I was at the Times, was, admittedly, that it was something of a nuisance, another mouth to feed, when what I wanted to do was focus on putting thoughtful pieces in the paper. Obviously that attitude won’t get you far. The word “nimble” was a buzzword–in that the web is much better-equipped to respond or react to news in real time.What worries me about this is the way the web waters down the provenance of content, so that people don’t consider that without the news organizations who feel a sense of mission about employing large numbers of people and committing the budgets necessary to do good journalism, social media and websites would have a lot less to appropriate.
I’ve been out of newspapers full-time since 2008, and though the online revolution has accelerated since, some of the same issues persist. There is, first, the continual problem with the economic model: A 2011 report on the state of newspapers by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that news organizations like the ones I worked for continue to be challenged in figuring out how to generate revenues from “visitors” to their websites that they traditionally generated from readers of their papers. The debate, for instance–to charge or not to charge for access to your content online?–rages on.
In your piece for the New York Times Magazine about stand-up comedians and podcasting (“Stand-Up Comedy Without the Stand-Up. Or the Comedy”), it sounds like podcasting has been freeing for performers, in that there are things they can say to a mic in an empty room that perhaps they can’t talk about in front of an audience—the lack of immediate interaction changes their performance. For journalists it seems to be the opposite, since it’s so easy for readers to comment, publicly, about what you write. How does the presence of an online comment forum impact your work, if at all? As someone who has been heckled in online comment forums, I would say that it shouldn’t impact your work at all. Or, put another way, you have to have a thick skin when it comes to online comments, and see it for what it hopefully is–a new way for the audience to feel connected, to feel as though they’re in a dialogue. It’s a transitional time for journalists–they’re being encouraged to take their identities to social media more, to interact with the public in this exciting new way, but at the same time nobody knows where it’s all headed, or what the rules of engagement should be, exactly.
When I was a TV critic, in the pre-Twitter days, things were a bit simpler, I suppose. I just got emails, mostly. Still, I never thought the contract was that I should write something that the most possible people would agree with. There’s a lot of noise out there, but I also don’t think journalists should be in some glass tower where they’re removed from knee-jerk responses to their work.
What got you interested in working with young people and media literacy? I believe it was when I read about SUNY Stony Brook starting a news literacy center as part of its journalism school. I think news literacy is a very intriguing area of inquiry and study–breaking down where information comes from and how it travels, and how to navigate that superhighway. As someone who has long bemoaned, for instance, the way cable news trivializes everything it touches, I think it’s important to examine that, and what it means for our culture. There are so many factors influencing or trying to mediate how we look at the world beyond ourselves. Then I found The LAMP, and the opportunity to work with young people, to discuss how news gets made, or even what it is, and to sort of freeze and look at what technology is doing to the way they consume information, and experience their own lives, seemed exciting to me. As the emphasis in The LAMP is on getting students to learn about news through using technology themselves, I hope to get up to speed as well.
Click here to find out when Paul and The LAMP are coming to a Brooklyn Public Library branch near you.
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