from Stand Firm by Greg Griffith
For a couple of months I've been trying to find the time to write this post, and each time I sit down to make some progress on it I'm reminded that it really doesn't fit the form of a normal blog post. Short of an essay-length post, it cries out for a new kind of form that I hope to explore with the soon-to-be-launched redesign of Stand Firm.
It begins with this post by Frank Lockwood on the corner into which the Episcopal Church's communications office has backed itself regarding its claim to "open governance" and "democratic polity" on the one hand, and its establishment of a secret committee on the theology of same-sex relationships on the other:
Week before last, facing criticism, the Episcopal Church quietly removed its transparent governance pledge from the front page of its website — IAmEpiscopalian.org
The church’s top PR person said the pledge had been deleted [some time during the week of May 31] so that there’d be room for a Spanish translation to be posted. But today, roughly 10 days after the language disappeared, there’s still not a single word of Spanish on the site.
Which raises a couple of questions. 1.) How hard is it, in a city with 8.3 million people, to find a Spanish speaker to translate a 130-word statement from English into Spanish?
2.) If the change was really about making the site accessible for Spanish speakers, why was the English-language transparency pledge removed at least a week and a half before Spanish text was available?
3.) Are the problems in the communications office at the Episcopal Church, as outlined in a 2009 official report, getting worse or getting better?
It continues with this post by former 815 communications director Jan Nunley, in which she takes the blistering report (by a General Convention commission, no less) on the failings of the new powers-that-be in her old office, and emphasizes a few choice phrases. Other than that, she makes virtually no comments on the report itself, but her emphases create a commentary of their own, as well as a peek into what actually happened when Katharine Schori and Robert Williams rode into town:
One of the most disturbing developments in The Episcopal Church during the last few years has been the number of diocesan communicators who have been laid off or had their positions eliminated because of financial pressures. A partial reason for these decisions across the church has been a general sense that there was unrealized cost savings to be had by moving from print media to electronic media. The more distressing reason is a sometimes unspoken belief that the relatively low bar to using electronic communications tools leads to a belief that anyone can do an adequate job overseeing communications at all levels of the church. It is this second reason that seems to be causing dioceses especially to layoff or downsize their communication positions in an attempt to cut costs in the face of rising budget pressures.
That's just one of many "1+1=3" gems in Nunley's post. Really, the whole thing is well worth a read to get a picture of a) how mired in chaos and amateurism the current church communications office really is, b) the ham-handed way Schori & Co. fired people and "reorganized" the office, c) and just how bitter Nunley is over the whole thing.
For insight into what the underlying problem in the 815 communications office really is, there's this blog post by Clay Shirky, a writer with an interest in social networking systems and the author of the book Here Comes Everybody. Several years ago I was a frequent participant on a forum with Shirky and others, where it was clear he was Thinking Grand Thoughts about the coming transformation of news gathering and dissemination via the web. The whole post is a must-read to understand what all he's talking about, and especially if you have an interest in mass communications in general and how the web in particular has affected it. Shirky weaves the invention of the printing press, Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic church, micropayments, the New York Times, and a whole skein of other topics into a warning flag for the newspaper industry. Take some time to read this, but be prepared for many of your idle moments over the next few days to be filled thinking about this essay. Here's just one excerpt from a post that's remarkably hard to excerpt:
Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?
I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.
Imagine, in 1996, asking some net-savvy soul to expound on the potential of craigslist, then a year old and not yet incorporated. The answer you’d almost certainly have gotten would be extrapolation: “Mailing lists can be powerful tools”, “Social effects are intertwining with digital networks”, blah blah blah. What no one would have told you, could have told you, was what actually happened: craiglist became a critical piece of infrastructure. Not the idea of craigslist, or the business model, or even the software driving it. Craigslist itself spread to cover hundreds of cities and has become a part of public consciousness about what is now possible. Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.
In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to ‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.
Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.
Even properly connecting all these dots hints at the need for a different form within what is widely regarded as a cutting-edge medium all its own: The blog post. To connect these dots in such a way that everything I want to say is laid out before you would require thousands of words. Not only do I have less and less of that time, but I'm not even convinced that it's the right way to go about it. What I'm looking to do in some experimental posts in the future is to create a kind of shorthand through juxtaposition, to impose a lot of commentary on a complex subject in relatively little space, through the web equivalent of film editing, which not coincidentally would serve us well in a debate as complex and rapidly-changing as the Anglican crisis.