Have you ever read something that made so much sense that you slap your hand immediately and directly to your forehead?
“Why didn’t I think of that?”
Such was my reaction to a column by a statistics expert no less, one Trevor Butterworth, who wrote a column last week in Forbes Magazine calling on the news media to adopt a kind of “slow food” philosophy as espoused by the likes of Alice Waters and her restaurant “Chez Panisse.”
The column brought to mind one particular Sunday afternoon about 15 years ago at the late, lamented Chez Renée restaurant in Aptos. Jack and Renée Chyle operated this distinctive restaurant, and offered a “Slow Food Sunday” that brought back memories of those long family Sunday afternoon dinners. On that particular Sunday, my family members sat for hours, enjoying the food, conversation and the fantastic October weather. Course after course arrived, perfectly succulent, while conversation just ambled along around the table.
Don’t deduce from this that I’m any sort of foodie at all; occasionally I can be found in a line of cars outside Dairy Queen.
But the point is that you don’t eat at Dairy Queen every day. And that brings the conversation back to the “slow reading” movement. The question is not necessarily the “slow reading” of, say, “War and Peace,” but maybe in-depth news coverage that takes time to digest.
The stats expert, Butterworth, argues that “The idea of consuming less, but better, media of a ‘slow word’ or ‘slow media’ movement is a strategy journalism should adopt.”
My thoughts go directly to an imagined conversation with the accountants here, and how I’d answer their inevitable question: “Where’s the revenue?”
Maybe there is some revenue here. Chez Panisse – or the late Chez Renee – didn’t consider themselves competitors to McDonald’s. And in fact, it’s possible that the same person who downs a McMuffin might be the same person who also takes the time on a nice Sunday afternoon to settle in for a culinary treat.
Actually, there still are examples of contextual journalism. You get in-depth coverage in The Economist, for example. The New Yorker can also make the news consumer think.
The problem is that these publications are national in nature, and they’re tackling Big Stories like health care, financial ruin and terrorism. Can the “slow media” movement move down the food chain to places like Santa Cruz?
There’s no reason why not, except that “slow news,” like “slow food” takes more time, more experience and probably more knowledge. Reporters and editors at daily newspapers talk about “feeding the beast,” that demand for quick and dirty stories that fill the space but, let’s face it, don’t leave the reader satisfied.
Here’s where the food analogy is even stronger: I’m not talking about those complex, dense, arcane stories about bauxite or government finance. These stories are as difficult to digest as whole grain cheesecake with asparagus spears. An important, complete and entertaining article is as difficult to put together as a slow-cooked Sunday feast.
It can be done. Writer Dave Eggers put together a remarkable newspaper-style publication called San Francisco Panorama. It looked like a newspaper and it felt like a newspaper, but it really was something different. It was, in effect, a slow-cooked publication that featured news, sports, travel and a variety of features. It was fun and easy to read—without boring stories about bauxite futures.
“Fast media” is a lot like fast food. It has its place. We all want to know about storms and crimes and strikes and traffic jams. Learning about those things on our mobile phones has been a great advance.
Unfortunately, what has also accompanied “fast media” is quick opinionating, the kind we get every night on cable news. We start believing the first thing out of anyone’s mouth and we don’t have the time or energy to challenge any of the information coming at us online, on television or on our phones.
The party line at media companies is that news consumers expect speed. Nothing is as stale, they say, as old news. That’s why stories appear and then disappear so quickly.
Just maybe, however, the attention span of news consumers isn’t always so short. Just maybe there is a market for the kinds of journalism that can’t be tweeted or summed up in a 13-second soundbite.
If there is such a market, there just might be a journalistic Alice Waters who will find it.
Contact Tom Honig at email@example.com