Journalists Without Journals

Written by Ryan Thornburg April 6, 2008 3:11 pm EDT

Journalism is an inalienable state of mankind. Professional journalism is not.

By coincidence, I recently found myself reading two things that, as a pair, illustrated nicely the reason I’m so sanguine about the future of news and so panicked about the future of news companies.

From Travels With Herodotus, a book about the Greek father of history by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapusciniski, comes an argument that men have been journalists even before they were paid to be:

” [Herodotus] was probably one of those chatterboxes who prey upon helpless listeners, who must have them, who indeed wither and cannot live without them; one of those unwearying and perpetually excited intermediaries, who see something, hear something, and must immediately pass it on to others, constitutionally incapable of keeping things even briefly to themselves. To be a conduit is their passion: therin lies their life’s mission. To walk, ride, find out — and proclaim it at once to the world.

There aren’t many such enthusiasts born. The average person is not especially curious about the world. He is alive, and being somehow obliged to deal with this condition, feels the less effort it requires, the better. Whereas learning about the world is labor, and a great, all-consuming one at that. Most people develop quite antithetical talents, in fact — to look without seeing, to listen without hearing, mainly to preserve oneself within oneself. So when someone like Herodotus comes along — a man possessed by a craving, a bug, a mania for knowledge, and endowed, furthermore, with intellect and powers of written expression — it’s not so surprising that his rare existence should outlive him.

…. Herodotus’s mind is incapable of stopping at one event or one country. Something always propels him forward, drives him on without rest. A fact that he discovered and ascertained today no longer fascinates him tomorrow, and so he must walk (or ride) elsewhere, further away.

Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if truth be told, frequently unhappy — lonely in fact. Yes, they seek out others and it may even seem to them that in a certain country or city they have managed to find true kindred and fellowship, having come to know and learn about a people; but they wake up one day and suddenly feel that nothing actually binds them to these people, that they can leave here at once. They realize that another country, some other people, have now beguiled them, and that yesterday’s most riveting event now pales and loses all meaning and significance.

For all intents and purposes, they do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial. ….

We do not really know what draws a human being out into the world. Is it curiosity? A hunger for experience? An addiction to wonderment? The man who ceases to be astonished is hollow, possessed of an extinguished heart. If he believes that everything has already happened, that he has seen it all, then something most precious has died within him — the delight in life. Herodotus is the antithesis of this spirit.”

In blogs and the world of no-barrier publishing that they herald, I see the awakening of a million Herodotus’s who might have otherwise been possessed of an extinguished heart.

But with this proliferation also comes a splintering — a world that could make the curious even more lonely. A world without city desks to call in to, as David Simon wrote recently in his Esquire article, “A Newspaper Can’t Love You Back“:

“[T]he other day, I saw a column of black smoke due east of I-95 just above Eastern Avenue — dark and thick enough that I drove there. It was a roadside car fire, no injuries. Nothing worth a call to the desk. Good thing, too, because Spry is long dead, and Ettlin retired last year. Who I was gonna call it in to, I have no clue.”

Yup, even if newspapers go belly up, there will always be someone who drives in the direction of the smoke, witnesses the fire and provides stenography of it. But without city desks, who will prod the reporters to look for what is not easily seen? Who was the city editor for Herodotus?

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