Vadim Lavrusik: Five key building blocks to incorporate as we’re rethinking the structure of stories

Editor’s Note: Vadim Lavrusik is Facebook’s first Journalist Program Manager, where he is responsible for, among other things, helping journalists to create new ways to tell stories. (You may remember him from his work at Mashable.) In the article below, he provides an wide-angle overview of the key forces that are re-shaping the news article for the digital age.

If we could re-envision today’s story format — beyond the text, photographs, and occasional multimedia or interactive graphics — what would the story look like? How would the audience consume it?

Today’s web “article” format is in many ways a descendent from the golden age of print. The article is mostly a recreation of print page design applied to the web. Stories, for the most part, are coded with a styled font for the headline, byline, and body — with some divs separating complementary elements such as photographs, share buttons, multimedia items, advertising, and a comments thread, which is often so displaced from the story that it’s hard to find. It is only scratching the surface of the storytelling that is possible on the web.

In the last few years, we’ve seen some progress in new approaches to the story format on the web, but much of it has included widgets and tools tacked on for experimentation. And it doesn’t fully account for changes in user behavior and the proliferation of simple publishing tools and platforms on the web. As the Huffington Post’s Saul Hansell recently put it, “There are a lot more people saying things than there is stuff to say in this world.” Tools like Storify and Storyful enable journalists to curate the conversation that’s taking place on the social web, turning ephemeral comments into enduring narratives. A story, Jeff Jarvis notes, can be the byproduct of the process of newsgathering — the conversation.

And the conversation around the story has become, at this point, almost as important as the story itself. The decisions we make now — of design and of content creation — will inform the evolution of the story itself. So it’s worth stepping back and wondering: How can we hack today’s story into something that reflects the needs of today’s news consumers and publishers, integrates the vast amounts of content and data being created online, and generally leverages the opportunities the web has created? Below are some of the most crucial elements of online storytelling; think of it as a starting point for a conversation about the pieces tomorrow’s story format could include.

1. Context

Context wears many hats in a story. It could mean representing historical context through an interactive timeline or presenting contextualized information that puts the story in perspective. It could be an infographic, a subhead with information — or cumulative bits of information that run through a narrative. When the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was published, many of its stories were only a few sentences in length. Most of its stories were reports that were gathered through word of mouth. But because of the infrequency of the publication and short length of the stories, it failed to provide the reader with adequate context in its stories. Haphazard newsgathering led to a somewhat chaotic experience for readers.

Today, though, with publication happening every millisecond, the overflow of information presents a different kind of challenge: presenting short stories in a way that still provides the consumer with context instead of just disparate pieces of information. We’ve seen a piece of the solution with the use of Storify, which enables journalists to organize the social story puzzle pieces together to suggest a bigger picture. But how can this approach be scaled? How can we provide context in a way that is not only comprehensive, but inclusive?

2. Social

Social platforms have, in short, changed the way we consume news. Over the last decade, we consumers spent a big portion of our time searching for news and seeking it out on portals and news sites. Now news finds us. We discover it from friends, colleagues, and people with whom we share intellectual interests. It’s as if on every corner one of our friends is a 1900s paperboy shouting headlines along with their personal take on the news in question. The news is delivered right to us in our personalized feeds and streams.

Social design makes the web feel more familiar. We tend to refer to readers and viewers as consumers, and that’s not only because they consume the content that is presented or pay for it as customers; it’s also because they’re consumed by the noise that the news creates. Social design adds a layer that acts as a filter for the noise.

Stories have certainly integrated social components so far, whether it’s the ability of a consumer to share a story with friends or contribute her two cents in the comments section. But how can social design be integrated into the structure of a story? Being able to share news or see what your friends have said about the piece is only scratching the surface. More importantly, how can social design play nice with other components discussed here? How do you make stories that are not just social, but also contextual — and, importantly, personal?

3. Personalization

One of the benefits of social layering on the web is the ability to personalize news delivery and provide social context for a user reading a story. A user can be presented with stories based on what their social connections have shared using applications like Flipboard, Zite, Trove, and many others. Those services incorporate social data to learn what it is you may be interested in reading about, adding a layer of cusomtization to news consumption. Based on your personal interests, you are able to get your own version of the news. It’s like being able to customize a newscast with only segments you’re interested in, or only have the sports section of the local newspaper delivered to your porch…times ten.

How can we serve consumers’ needs by delivering a story in a format they prefer, while avoiding the danger of creating news consumers who only read about things they want know (and not news they should know)? Those are big questions. One answer could have to do with format: enabling users to consume news in a format or style they prefer, enabling them to create their own personalized article design that suits their needs. Whatever it looks like, personalization is not only important in enabling users to get content in a compelling format. It’s also crucial from the business perspective: It enables publishers to learn more about their audiences to better serve them through forms of advertising, deals, and services that are just as relevant and personalized.

4. Mobile

Tomorrow’s story will be designed for the mobile news consumer. Growing accessibility to smartphones is only going to continue to increase, and the story design and format will likely increasingly cater to mobile users. They will also take into account the features of the platform the consumer is on and their behavior when they are consuming the content. The design will take into account how users interact with stories from their mobile devices, using touch-screen technology and actions. We’re already seeing mobile and tablet design influence web design.

These are challenges not only of design, but of content creation. Journalists may begin to produce more abbreviated pieces for small-screen devices, while enabling longform to thrive on tablet-sized screens. Though journalists have produced content from the field for years, the advancement of mobile technology will continue to streamline this process. Mobile publication is already integrated into content management platforms, and companies like the BBC are working on applications that will enable users to broadcast live from their mobile phones.

5. Participation

Citizens enabled by social platforms are covering revolutions on mobile devices. Users are also able to easily contribute to a story by snapping a picture or video and uploading it with their mobile devices to a platform like iReport. Tomorrow’s article will enable people to be equal participants in the story creation process.

Increasingly, participation will mean far more than simply consumption, being cast aside as a passive audience that can contribute to the conversation only by filing a comment below a published story (pending moderator approval). The likes of iReport, The Huffington Post’s “contribute” feature, or The New York Daily News’ recent uPhoto Olapic integration — which enables people to easily upload their photos to a story slideshow and share photos they’ve already uploaded to Facebook, Flickr, and elsewhere — are just the beginning. To harness participatory journalism, these features should no longer be an afterthought in the design, but a core component of it. As Jay Rosen recently put it, “It isn’t true that everyone is a journalist. But a lot more people are involved.”

Image by Holger Zscheyge used under a Creative Commons license.

Ars Technica tries a new way to monetize a much-anticipated article with a Kindle ebook for Mac fans

It by now nearly qualifies as an ancient ritual in the tech world: Apple releases a new version of Mac OS X, and Ars Technica’s John Siracusa delivers a comprehensive, almost scriptural, review of it.

A Siracusa review is meticulous, esoteric, thoughtful — and long. His appraisal of OS X 10.7 “Lion,” published Wednesday, weighs in at 27,300 words, split across 19 webpages. And in the tech-journalism world, as in the rest of the field, how best to monetize long-form work is a matter of some question. So this year, Ars Technica decided to also sell it as a $5 Kindle ebook. Ken Fisher, the founder and editor of Ars, is “pleasantly surprised” by the outcome.

“It’s the same review that you get for free on Ars. You don’t have to pay for it,” Fisher said. But people have: The ebook sold 3,000 copies in the first 24 hours, Fisher said. That’s a fraction of the 3 million pageviews the review has seen on the web, but Fisher thinks of it as free money. Ars has sold alternate versions of long-form content for 10 years, but Fisher said he underestimated the power of Amazon’s one-click experience, which makes impulsive purchases painless. “I was surprised by how many people told us they read the review online and they just wanted their own copy to go back to. Or they just bought it as a tip-jar kind of thing,” Fisher said.

Five dollars happens to be the same price as a monthly “Premier” subscription to Ars Technica, which disables advertising and makes Ars stories available in single-page versions and PDF format. That enticement appealed to some: Within 24 hours of running the Lion review, Ars had signed up 150 new members. (The total number of Premier subscribers is a “strong four-digit number,” Fisher said.) For the Lion review, Ars also offered subscribers versions in ePUB and Mobi formats for other ebook readers.

Of course, there was still much grousing from people who think $5 is an outrageous price — an outrage! — for a review, but Fisher said most of the feedback has been positive. (“Only in today’s First World economies can people complain that they can’t get something for free that they can get for free,” he said.) Fisher was reluctant to put the price as high as five bucks at first, wanting to experiment with lower prices. But Amazon’s tiered royalty structure is designed to incentivize slightly higher prices; Ars’ revenue from a $4.99 ebook is roughly 10 times what it would make from a 99-cent ebook.

One person who doesn’t directly share in the ebook proceeds is John Siracusa, who is a freelancer (and a working programmer by day). Every 18 months or so, when Apple updates its OS, Ars negotiates a one-time advance payment with Siracusa. “We say to John, ‘We know you’re going to do your thing. It’s going to be amazing. What do you want?’” Fisher said. “We give him what he wants and more.”

The ebook is, ironically, absent from Apple’s own iBookstore. Because Ars could not publish the Lion review before Lion was released, as per Apple’s stringent non-disclosure agreement, Ars could not initiate Apple’s lengthy review process until it was too late.

“With Amazon, it’s actually easy. They don’t require an ISBN. You upload it, they check it for quality, and boom, it’s in the Kindle store. I think they took eight hours,” Fisher said. “Amazon was the only one fast enough, so they got the business.”

There are frustrating limitations to the Kindle format, Fisher said. The Kindle hardware does not handle graphics well, and screenshots play an important role in Siracusa reviews (while, for example, comparing the pixel heights of window buttons). Moreover, the authoring tools are crude. Reviews are designed for web first, print second, and the design does not translate easily to Kindle’s file format. Clint Ecker, Ars’ technical director, designed the book in, of all things, Pages, Apple’s word processor. Fisher said he is unlikely to make corrections and tweaks to the Kindle version unless it’s a serious error — for example, when Siracusa erroneously reported the number of registers in a CPU. (Yeah, I don’t know, either.) Meanwhile, the web version has already seen lots of small updates.

Ars Technica actually made its first Kindle foray in March with “Unmasked,” a compilation of extraordinary stories about the hacking group Anonymous and its high-profile target, the security firm HBGary. That ebook, currently $1.99 at, has sold 1,000 copies, which Fisher considers a success.

“Our roots are in long, in-depth, technical explainers, and this is just another great explanation that people appreciate that content and open their wallets for it. We’re definitely going to plan more in-depth stuff,” Fisher said. “We don’t have to put up a paywall for people to consume it. We just offer it in different ways.”

McLuhan meets YouTube: From “Annie Hall” to “The Today Show”

“The next medium, whatever it is — it may be the extension of consciousness — will include television as its content, not as its environment,” Marshall McLuhan declared. He made this particular prediction relatively early in his famous career. In 1962.

As our informal McLuhan Week gives way to weekend, we thought we’d curate some prime examples not just of McLuhan-on-media…but of McLuhan-as-media. And via the service that he predicted so uncannily half a century ago: YouTube. Below is a selection of some of our favorite clips — favorite because they’re illuminating, or because they’re delightfully absurd, or because, as in so many aspects of McLuhan’s work, they’re both at the same time.

If you have McLuhany videos to contribute to the collection, let us know in the comments, and we’ll add them in.

1. McLuhan, in — irony! — a bookstore, discussing his concept of the global village:

2. McLuhan discussing the Carter/Ford presidential debate with Tom Brokaw and Edwin Newman on “The Today Show”:

3. McLuhan’s theories stoking young love on “90210″ (alas, the new version):

4. McLuhan, in full James Bond mode, debating — elliptically, awesomely — with Norman Mailer:

5. …and, of course, that iconic scene from Annie Hall:

Happy viewing. And happy birthday, Professor McLuhan.

A newspaper editor’s critique of Marshall McLuhan in 1969: “I find no generalities here that I am able to distill into editing particulars”

This being McLuhan Week at the Lab, we’ve shared a couple essays looking back on the media theorist’s legacy. So it’s only appropriate that we dive into the Nieman Foundation archives to see how people were talking about Marshall McLuhan at the height of his fame and influence.

While the Lab is less than three years old, our sister publication Nieman Reports has been chronicling the world of journalism since 1947. And in 1969, it ran an essay (pdf) by Sylvan Meyer, then editor of the Miami News, looking at McLuhan from a newspaper editor’s perspective. The essay’s conceit is that its form is an internal memo from Meyer to his publisher, trying to suss out what McLuhan has to offer to the news business. (Meyer’s not much of a fan.) A few excerpts:

Though McLuhan doesn’t specifically articulate the point, what this says to me is that writing — print — confronts a generation oriented to the obvious, perhaps to communications by osmosis. Youngsters with this “low visual orientation” induced by TV will not grow up to be “between the lines” readers. In addition to the code signals we use in reporting, we also leave a great deal unsaid. We suggest and imply. We expect the reader to put two and two together and to fill in around the core of our reporting. In opinion columns, particularly, we rifle ideas to the insider and expect the outsider to understand us. The TV-oriented person won’t take the trouble. If we can’t expect him to learn how to read our writing, with a minimum of effort, we will have to find a new way of writing.

It is to the mass that the press is indispensable, he is careful to emphasize. The literateur, who thinks the typical European journalist is what a reporter should be, is “book-oriented” to McLuhan. This intellect has the illusion, McLuhan says, that newspapers would be better off without ads, as ads are commercial and as they expose us to advertiser pressure. McLuhan states what we have long known, that readers desire ads since ads are a form of news and information. But McLuhan does not concede another point that newspapermen make, that advertiser pressure, subtle or overt, simply is not a publishing consideration to an economically sound newspaper. The significant pressures on us, of course, are personal and not the least bit as obvious as either McLuhan or his esoteric literati seem to think. He does not provide us with enlarged understanding of our medium in this area.

Again and again McLuhan seems to say that content doesn’t matter, that the individual stories, the individual pictures and essays, are of little significance to our total impact on the reader. He seems to be saying that the reader’s response (in the newspaper’s case, not the reader’s involvement because we are too “hot” for that) is to the form, shape, feel, smell, crazy quilt of the product itself; to its place in the culture and to its historicity, not to what the print says. It is somewhat beyond my reach as an involved editor to resolve tha t McLuhan is saying, even in the abstract, that whether we pr int good or bad, well-written material or illiterate, sloppily inked or clear and sharp as a tack makes no difference whatever. Yet he says emphatically that content has little to do with the “power” of the medium on the mass mind; that the medium itself is the power, not what the medium contains. Can he be saying that any newspaper, “good” or “bad,” has the same power as any other to involve its readers in their community, to evoke reaction from them or to help them understand the changes around them? I find no generalities here that I am able to distill into editing particulars.

It’s a terrific historical document. Go check out the PDF, and thanks to Nieman Reports’ Jonathan Seitz for pointing it out.

This Week in Review: Murdoch’s defense, objectivity in nonprofit news, and a new paid news project

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Murdoch’s damage-control efforts: As News Corp.’s hacking scandal continues to metastasize, it can be difficult to keep up with all the background, angles, and implications. The best one-stop source is Mallary Jean Tenore’s explainer for Poynter, and I’ll try to update you on all the developments of the past week.

The big event came on Tuesday, when Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and his former British chief Rebekah Brooks answered questions from Parliament about the scandal. The Guardian gave a great, quick rundown of what happened there, and the general theme was Murdoch’s professed lack of knowledge of the illegal activity at his News of the World tabloid. That’s what the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz took away from it, and Slate’s Jack Shafer noted that while the Murdochs kept playing the victim card, they wouldn’t say who exactly victimized them. That was all part of a calculated PR and legal defense, outlined by Nick Davies of the Guardian.

While many people obviously found the idea of a blissfully ignorant Murdoch family hard to believe, Reuters’ Felix Salmon said their strategy was effective enough. Still, the scandal has led to some probing questions about the culture that the Murdochs have created at News Corp. The New York Times’ David Carr documented a history of illegal and anticompetitive behavior in the company’s American arm, and Poynter’s Steve Myers called this a corporate corruption story in the Enron vein. In the Guardian, NYU prof Jay Rosen asserted that “News Corp is not a news company at all, but a global media empire that employs its newspapers — and in the US, Fox News — as a lobbying arm.”

The episode also has implications beyond News Corp. itself: Media consultant Alan Mutter said it weakens the already damaged trust Americans have in the media, and the New York Times reported that media consolidation opponents are hoping it provides an opportunity to re-examine the problems in modern media ownership. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor wrote about why media concentration could be an issue on the rise in the U.S., and the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles said that’s why he’s rooting for News Corp. to fail.

So what’s next for News Corp.? The long-term future of both Rupert and James Murdoch at the company was in question this week, though Rupert assured Parliament he’d be sticking around. Felix Salmon speculated that the whole company could be in play if things go sour, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis looked at one possible scenario resulting in a News Corp. news and publishing sell-off. Ken Doctor, meanwhile, said News Corp. might end up becoming a more American company as a result of the scandal.

Murdoch still has his defenders, though the most vocal of them at this point (aside from the New York Observer) are media outlets owned by Murdoch himself. Perhaps the most full-throated of those defenses came in the Wall Street Journal, which ran numerous opinion pieces, including one equating the hacking with WikiLeaks and an editorial lashing out at Murdoch’s critics. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer said the Journal would have been better off spiking the editorial, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum argued that the Journal’s characterization of investigative reporting as ideologically motivated tells us a lot about the “intellectual bankruptcy” of the Journal’s editorial page itself.

Even before the editorial, the New York Times’ Joe Nocera said the whole paper had been “Fox-ified” — turned shallow and ideological — by Murdoch’s influence. Ryan Chittum countered that the paper has declined under Murdoch, but it’s far from hopeless, and Journal staffers also defended themselves against the “Foxification” charge. Meanwhile, a Pew study found that the actual Fox News Channel is covering the scandal far less than its rivals, and the Guardian continued to earn praise for its coverage of the story, with editor Alan Rusbridger describing in Newsweek how they did it.

Should nonprofit news be more objective?: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study this week examining the growing group of nonprofit news organizations, evaluating them specifically for ideological nature and transparency. The study found that of the several dozen new nonprofit sites covering state and national news it looked at, about half are clearly ideological. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds wrote a good, quick summary, noting in particular that several of the most ideological sites offered no clue to their orientation in their names, and that the most productive sites tended to be the least ideological ones.

The Lab’s Joshua Benton inferred the study’s implicit message — the new nonprofit news isn’t objective, can’t be fully trusted, and especially not to replace newspapers. Benton pushed back against those conclusions, arguing that the new sites aren’t meant to replace newspapers, and that their lack of objectivity doesn’t keep them from being useful to society.

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx was a bit more pointed in his response, picking apart some of its examples and particularly the implicit conclusion that Benton identified: “The PEJ report is suffused throughout with a sense that it’s the obligation of the new non-profits to reincarnate as best they can the status quo ante … But it’s worth remembering that, in many times and many places, the status quo ante wasn’t all that good.”

Scribd to see if news will Float: Over the past year or so, we’ve seen several new attempts to charge for news online by aggregating news from a variety of news outlets, with services like Ongo and This week, the document-sharing site Scribd launched its own entry into that space with Float, a mobile reading app that allows users to read subscribers from a variety of sources — what it calls a “Netflix for news.” Float launched a free version this week, but will introduce its paid subscription service this fall.

Float has a social media-oriented aspect and an Instapaper-like reading list, but as TechCrunch described, its main feature is its ability to present any type of page, from books to blogs to news articles, in the same uniform, easily browseable format. GigaOM’s Colleen Taylor found the fluid presentation remarkable, but wondered if Float could get a critical mass of news sites to make it worth paying for. PaidContent’s David Kaplan said that Float works like a hybrid between Instapaper and Pulse, but that it could try to sell publishers on the idea of picking up browsing readers, rather than devoted subscribers.

Meanwhile, another traditional media outlet moved forward with an online paid-content strategy: Time introduced a plan that allows readers to subscribe to a bundle of the magazine’s print publication, mobile/tablet apps, and web version. As All Things D’s Peter Kafka reported, that also includes shutting off magazine articles on the web from nonsubscribers, though most of the web content should remain free. David Kaplan of paidContent said while it’s always an uphill battle to get readers to pay for news online, magazine publishers are aided by the fact that they’re becoming more unified in charging for their tablet editions.

Big Google+ possibilities: As Google+ continues to grow, tech writers continue to think bigger about what it could end up being. O’Reilly Radar’s Edd Dumbill said Google+ could be the program that connects people across the entirety of the web, just as search does for information. “Google+ is the rapidly growing seed of a web-wide social backbone, and the catalyst for the ultimate uniting of the social graph,” he wrote. Tim Carmody of Wired argued that Google+ is also part of the ramp-up to the coming “Cloud Wars” between Google and Microsoft.

We’re starting to see more possibilities for Google+ and journalism, too: Mashable provided a list of ways journalists can use the service, and 10,000 Words put together a guide to Google+ and breaking news. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman said Google+ can teach news organizations some lessons about innovation and developing new products. Unfortunately, Google is removing many company/brand accounts from the service right now, including the innovative BreakingNews and KOMU-TV accounts.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else we talked about this week:

— The Columbia Journalism published online its feature on the Journal Register Co. from earlier this summer, while the Lab’s Martin Langeveld gave some smart analysis on what Alden Global Capital’s purchase of the newspaper chain last week might mean for the company’s media consolidation plans.

— Yesterday would have marked the 100th birthday of our best-known media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, and the Lab celebrated with some fantastic essays on his legacy by Megan Garber and Maria Bustillos. At the Guardian, Douglas Coupland wrote about why McLuhan still matters.

— NYU j-prof Jay Rosen and author Nicholas Carr finished their debate over whether the Internet has been good for journalism, and Rosen also expounded on five key works to understanding journalism in the Internet age.

— Three great pieces to read now…or later…whenever: Anil Dash on how to make sure the people using your website treat each other with decency, Paul Ford on the way Facebook defies the journalistic impulse to craft simple narratives, and Scott Rosenberg with a book (available free via PDF) on the new ethics of online journalism.

Marshall McLuhan, Superstar

Today would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. Continuing our informal McLuhan Week at the Lab, we present this essay by Maria Bustillos on McLuhan’s unique status as a media theorist who was also a media star.

There was no longer a single thing in [the] environment that was not interesting [...] “Even if it’s some place I don’t find congenial, like a dull movie or a nightclub, I’m busy perceiving patterns,” he once told a reporter. A street sign, a building, a sports car — what, he would ask himself and others, did these things mean?

—Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:
The Medium and the Messenger

The public intellectual was invented in the mid-20th century. Certainly there were others before that who started the ball rolling — talented writers and academics with flexible, open minds taking the whole culture into account, trying to make sense of things as they were happening — but few of them penetrated far beyond the walls of the academy or the confines of some other single discipline. We might count Bertrand Russell as an early prototype, with his prominence in pacifist circles and campaigns against nuclear disarmament, or better still G.B. Shaw, an autodidact of boundless energy who cofounded the London School of Economics and also helped popularize Jaeger’s “sanitary” woolen undies. Until Al Gore came along, Shaw was the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.

Both Russell and Shaw gained a great deal of influence outside their own spheres of work, but remained above it all, too; they were “authorities” who might be called on to offer their views to the public on this topic or that. But it was a devoutly Catholic, rather conservative Canadian academic who first succeeded in breaking down every barrier there was in the intensity of his effort to understand, interpret, and influence the world. Marshall McLuhan was quite possibly the first real public intellectual. That wide-ranging role having once been instantiated, others came to fill it, in ever-increasing numbers.

Though he was an ordinary English prof by trade, McLuhan’s work had measurable effects on the worlds of art, business, politics, advertising and broadcasting. He appeared on the cover of Newsweek and had office space at Time. Tom Wolfe took him to a “topless restaurant” and wrote about him for New York magazine (“What If He is Right?”). He was consulted by IBM and General Motors, and he coined the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” according to Timothy Leary. He made the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, shave off his beard.

In 1969, McLuhan gave one of the most revealing and best interviews Playboy ever published (a high bar, there.)

PLAYBOY: Have you ever taken LSD yourself?

McLUHAN: No, I never have. I’m an observer in these matters, not a participant. I had an operation last year to remove a tumor that was expanding my brain in a less than pleasant manner, and during my prolonged convalescence I’m not allowed any stimulant stronger than coffee. Alas! A few months ago, however, I was almost “busted” on a drug charge. On a plane returning from Vancouver, where a university had awarded me an honorary degree, I ran into a colleague who asked me where I’d been. “To Vancouver to pick up my LL.D.,” I told him. I noticed a fellow passenger looking at me with a strange expression, and when I got off the plane at Toronto Airport, two customs guards pulled me into a little room and started going over my luggage. “Do you know Timothy Leary?” one asked. I replied I did and that seemed to wrap it up for him. “All right,” he said. “Where’s the stuff? We know you told somebody you’d gone to Vancouver to pick up some LL.D.” After a laborious dialog, I persuaded him that an LL.D. has nothing to do with consciousness expansion — just the opposite, in fact — and I was released.

Until the mid-century, there was a wall between what we now call popular culture and the “high culture” of the rich and educated, and there was another wall, at least as thick, between popular and academic discourse. Cracks had begun to appear by the 1930s, when the Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School began to take on the subject of mass culture, culminating in works such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1944). These academics saw popular culture as a positive evil, though, undermining the chances of revolution; a new kind of “opiate of the masses.” Later critics such as Edward Shils and Herbert J. Gans would elaborate on the same themes. But none of these writers personally ID’d with mass culture in any way. Far from it. Indeed Shils said in 1959: “Some people dislike the working classes more than the middle classes, depending on their political backgrounds. But the real fact is that from an esthetic and moral standpoint, the objects of mass culture are repulsive to us.” To some degree, that academic standoffishness is with us even today. The sneering of the “high” for the “low”.

Marshall McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man, was published in 1951, and it took a quite different approach to the task of lifting the veil of mass culture in order to expose the workings beneath. The chief difference was that McLuhan never saw or really even acknowledged that wall between the critic of culture and the culture itself. After all, he too was a human being, a citizen, a reader of newspapers and magazines. McLuhan’s critique took place from the inside.

“[B]eing highbrow, in McLuhan’s eyes, never conferred the slightest moral value on anything,” observed his biographer, Philip Marchand.

McLuhan’s student Walter J. Ong wrote magnificently on this theme in his essay, “McLuhan as Teacher: The Future Is a Thing of the Past,” published in the Sept. 1981 Journal of Communication.

When [McLuhan] did attend to [...] popular works, as in his first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), it was to invest them with high seriousness. He showed that such things as advertising and comic strips were in their own way as deeply into certain cyclonic centers of human existence — sex, death, religion, and the human-technology relationship — as was the most “serious” art, though both naively and meretriciously. However, awareness of the facts here was neither naive nor meretricious; it was upsetting and liberating.

Marshall Soules of Malaspina University-College had this comment on the “high seriousness” with which McLuhan treated popular works:

It is this strategic stance which distinguishes McLuhan from many media critics — like those associated with the Frankfurt or Birmingham Schools, or like Neil Postman, Mark Miller, Stewart Ewen and others — whose views imply an idealized literate culture corrupted by popular, commercialised, and manipulative media. McLuhan used his training as a literary critic to engage in a dialogue with the media from the centre of the maelstrom.

The Mechanical Bride consists of a selection of advertisements with essays and captions attached.

“Where did you see that bug-eyed romantic of action before?

Was it in a Hemingway novel?

Is the news world a cheap suburb for the artist’s bohemia?

— from The Mechanical Bride

The playful and wide-ranging tone of The Mechanical Bride was entirely new, given that its intentions were as serious as a heart attack. McLuhan thought that the manipulative characteristics of advertising might be resisted once they were understood. “It was, if anything, a critique of an entire culture, an exhilarating tour of the illusions behind John Wayne westerns, deodorants, and Buick ads. The tone of McLuhan’s essays was not without an occasional hint of admiration for the skill of advertisers and capturing the anxieties and appetites of that culture,” Marchand wrote.

The Mechanical Bride was way too far ahead of its time, selling only a few hundred copies, but that was okay because the author was just warming up. McLuhan had found the voice and style of inquiry that he would employ for the rest of his career. In the Playboy interview he said, “I consider myself a generalist, not a specialist who has staked out a tiny plot of study as his intellectual turf and is oblivious to everything else [...] Only by standing aside from any phenomenon and taking an overview can you discover its operative principles and lines of force.”

This inclusiveness, the penetrating, metaphorical free-for-all investigative method that appeared in McLuhan’s first book would gain him increasing admiration, as an understanding of the “rearview mirror view” of the world he used to talk about gained currency: “[A]n environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world [...] The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day.”

Because he refused to put himself on a pedestal, because everything was of interest to him, McLuhan was able to join the wires of pure academic curiosity with the vast cultural output of the mid-century to create an explosion of insights (or a “galaxy”, I should say) that is still incandescent with possibility a half-century later. Simply by taking the whole of society as a fit subject for serious discourse, he unshackled the intellectuals from their first-class seats, and they have been quite free to roam about the cabin of culture ever since.

As his books were published, McLuhan’s influence continued to spread through high culture and low. He loved being interviewed and would talk his head off to practically anyone, about the Symbolist poets and about Joyce, about car advertisements and cuneiform. You might say that he embraced the culture, and the culture embraced him right back. The Smothers Brothers loved him, and so did Glenn Gould and Goldie Hawn, Susan Sontag, John Lennon and Woody Allen. (Apropos of the latter, McLuhan very much enjoyed doing the famous cameo in Annie Hall, though he had, characteristically, his own ideas about what his lines ought to have been, and a “sharp exchange” occurred between Allen and himself. McLuhan’s most famous line in the movie, “You know nothing of my work,” is in fact one that he had long employed in real life as a put-down of opponents in debate.)

An aside: In 1977, Woody Allen was very far from being the grand old man of cinema that he is now. He had yet to win an Oscar, and had at that time directed only extremely goofy comedies. It was a mark of McLuhan’s willingness to get out there and try stuff, his total unpretentiousness, that he went along with the idea of being in a Woody Allen film. Only imagine any of today’s intellectuals being asked, say, to appear in an Apatow comedy. Would Noam Chomsky do it? Jürgen Habermas? Slavoj Zizek? (Well, Zizek might.)

Even better was Henry Gibson’s recurring two-line poem about McLuhan on the U.S. television show Laugh-In:

Marshall McLuhan,
What are you doin’?

Last year, I briefly attended the Modern Language Association conference in Los Angeles, met a number of eminent English scholars, and attended some of their presentations on Wordsworth and Derrida and on the development of that new, McLuhanesque-sounding discipline, the digital humanities. What I wished most, when I left the conference, was that these fascinating theorists were not all locked away behind the walls of the academy, and that anyone could come and enjoy their talks. The McLuhan manner of appearing anywhere he found interesting, which is to say all over the place, instead of just during office hours, does not diminish serious academics or writers: It enlarges them.

Is this, when it comes down to it, a mere matter of shyness? Or is it a matter of professional dignity, of amour-propre? The academy has so much to contribute to the broader culture; huge numbers of non-academics, I feel sure, would enjoy a great deal of what they have to say, and perhaps vice-versa. But somehow I find it difficult to imagine most of the academics I know agreeing to visit a topless restaurant with Tom Wolfe (on the record, at least). I hope, though, that they will consider venturing out to try such things more and more, and that today’s Wolfes will feel emboldened to ask them, and that the culture indeed becomes more egalitarian, blurrier, “retribalized” as McLuhan seemed to believe it would.

Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope.

— from the 1969 Playboy interview

With the end of NASA’s shuttle program, science journalists are rethinking the space beat

At 5:57 this morning, Eastern Daylight Time, the space shuttle Atlantis returned to earth, and NASA’s space shuttle program, for all intents and purposes, came to an end.

There’s been a lot of discussion about what that will mean for the people employed by NASA and its subsidiary organizations. But what about the journalists who have been covering them? What happens to this very particular brand of beat journalists after the end of the shuttle launch program?

“Those of us who cover launch and mission operations certainly face quite a bit of uncertainty,” Todd Halvorson, Kennedy Space Center bureau chief of Gannett’s Florida Today, told me.

Halvorson has it a little bit better than some his fellow space journalists, whom he called the “nucleus of people in the NASA press corps.” He’s stationed in an actual trailer-type office at Cape Canaveral, and Florida Today is located right on the Space Coast. But the outlook for some of the other journalists covering space full-time looks a lot bleaker.

In 2009, the Houston Chronicle laid off its full-time veteran space reporter, Mark Carreau, who had been covering the beat for more than 20 years. Carreau covered the Challenger disaster in 1986, and over his two decades on the job, spent most of his time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. And still, “they laid him off,” said Eric Berger, the Houston Chronicle science reporter who took over part of the beat.

In 2008, CNN laid off its space reporter, Miles O’Brien — who also covered science and technology — though Miami bureau reporter John Zarrella remains. Around the same time, Aviation Week, a NASA-and-aeronautics-junkie trade magazine, closed its Cape Canaveral bureau.

From a pure business perspective, the scale-down of the space beat probably makes sense; though there’s still much to cover in terms of space exploration itself — the end of the shuttle program is, of course, by no means the end of NASA — Atlantis’ final landing will most likely mean a plummet in reader interest in the subject of space itself. Berger, for example, who covers science as a broad beat, has been writing 50-60 percent of his stories about space in the ramp-up to the final shuttle launch, he told me. That ratio, now, will change — drastically.

“People are transfixed first and foremost by accidents,” Berger noted, “and, after that, blasting people into space. And once you get beyond that, there is not a lot of public interest in the space program.”

The space beat, in short, is losing its automatic human interest angle. Or, at least, its American interest angle. After today, with Russia continuing its space program, “launches will occur half a world away,” Berger noted — not to mention “at odd times of night.”

“Most Americans have never seen a Soviet launch,” Berger said. “The space station is really cool, but it is not particularly sexy, what they are doing now.”

Space journalism has pushed on regardless of daily breaking news about human spaceflight, Irene Klotz of Reuters pointed out. “In reality, the space launch is just one day,” she said.

At the same time, though, “it’s a different type of story now, and there’s certainly a gap,” noted MSNBC science editor Alan Boyle. “There’s no two ways around that. And so it will be a challenge for people to tune into what’s been going on.”

And that will mean a challenge, certainly, to the people whose livelihoods have relied on the existence of the space program. But beyond the personal — the profound professional consequences for the reporters at outlets both national and local that have made careers of U.S. space explorations — what happens to the shape of the space beat itself?

The space and science journalists I spoke with had a few different theories about what might happen to the type of news we see about space journalism.

  • More focus on commercial enterprises in space, as NASA shifts away from public funding to encourage more private investment and innovation.
  • More stories about robotic space exploration.
  • A new policy angle as we start to learn about funding issues, rather than simply the next manned mission.
  • Attempts to get people jazzed about the International Space Station, an amazing feat of human engineering and one of the coolest untold stories out there.

In other words, not all is lost when it comes to the space beat, as these journalists were eager to remind me. The space program itself is still very much alive. NASA aims to build a heavy-lift launch vehicle — which will continue human expeditions beyond Earth’s orbit. President Obama has set a 2025 goal for a mission to an asteroid, followed by, it is hoped, missions to Mars. Our storied explorations of space are certainly not ending.

Still, for journalists like Halvorson, Boyle, and others, the launch of the U.S.’s last shuttle launch was certainly bittersweet. As Halvorson put it: “It was pretty emotional watching Atlantis blast off on the last shuttle launch. Terribly emotional. People who have been tied to this program for that many years…all feel the same way. You go about being professional and you go about your job, but yeah, it sucks.”

Image via NASA.