“Information without context strikes the mind but peters out before the heart.” -Sarah Smarsh
Creative nonfiction is a form I find myself increasingly drawn to. In the hands of a great essayist, we see a real writer struggle with real life.
Sarah Smarsh, for instance. She is a Kansas-born journalist, public speaker and educator, and her recent piece of media criticism in Aeon struck a nerve.
In a media landscape of zip-fast reports as stripped of context as a potato might be stripped of fibre, most news stories fail to satiate. We don’t consume news all day because we’re hungry for information – we consume it because we’re hungry for connection. That’s the confusing conundrum for the 21st century heart and mind: to be at once over-informed and grasping for understanding.
In her essay, Smarsh exposes the mechanics of reporting and the news business as one culprit in the dehumanization on news. She also explores the need for real story, versus packaged up text masquerading as coherent content. Regarding what is sometimes called “hard news” she writes:
…in J-school my peers and I learned never to call 10 inches of lede, nutgraph and body an ‘article’ – true journos, we were told, call them ‘stories’
I hear and admire Smarsh’s call for a higher standard in today’s metric-fed mediascape. Media enterprises need page views, subscribers, events, merchandise and ad dollars to survive. I get that, and most writers get that. We also get that there’s a need to make a product or service out of our writing, and for the most part, we are happy to abide by these terms. Perhaps publishers, editors and writers can begin to work towards more equitable outcomes all around.
Smarsh writes about how we’re “hungry for connection” today. I agree. Imagine hiring a great chef, sous chef, line cooks and prep cooks and outfitting them with all the best kitchen equipment. But then you tie their hands when it comes to ingredients—all this talented crew can make is pork and beans, onion soup and tater tots. Publishers are in a hurry to be mass feeders of media. Conventional wisdom says that’s where the money is.
Brands want a return on content. B. Bonin Bough of Mondelēz International argues that “without the metric of monetization, there really is no way for you to determine whether content is good or bad.”
Media companies also want a positive return on their investment in content. Meanwhile, people find it hard to pay attention, can’t sit still, can’t take it all in. A lot of smart people are working on answers to the media conundrum. I am glad, because it’s easy enough to see the connection between junk media and an unhealthy citizenry.
As a writer, I want to answer Smarsh’s call for more substance and more heart in the pieces we put into the world. As a reader and consumer of media, I want to scroll less and read and think more.