The transition to digital journalism has been traumatic here at the Rough Draft pod. For years I adhered to a Platonic ideal of journalism in which one did not want to destroy the purity of The Story by reducing it to an actual published text. The Story was a purely theoretical construct, marbled with hidden meanings, leitmotifs, verbal echoes, and stretches of iambic pentameter that suddenly and deftly give way to trochaic hexameter. Also there are lots of palindromes.
Obviously I had no choice but to wait for the right moment to write The Story, and that moment never arrived. I was forced to decline all assignments in the meantime. Occasionally a new editor, unaware of my system, would wander over and ask me to "write" something, and I'd have to explain how this was truly impossible, and indeed unthinkable, and that the best I could offer to the editor was that I would put the story idea on a list of other assignments I had previously declined.
But now everything's changed. The Internet is a massive, groaning paradigm shift. We keep hearing about these young people who never pick up a newspaper at all, but get everything off the Web, for free. It's bad enough that we don't understand the music they listen to or the slang they employ -- now we're not even sure how to make money off them.
And it's all changing so fast, we feel like we're hanging onto our control panels on the bridge of the Enterprise as it's trying to reach Warp 8. In the Michael Lewis book "The New New Thing" there's a reference to a conference in 1991 to discuss whether people will someday be able to send messages from one computer to another, or whether that's going to forever remain "science fiction." It's so easy to forget that just five years ago the vast majority of people had never once been online or sent an E-mail message.
The transition has destroyed my world. Now I'm a mere appendage of the digital news network, my forehead pressing against the screen to download whatever half-baked and semi-literate thoughts can be generated by a caffeine buzz from a brain not entirely destroyed by chemical insults in the 1977-1989 period (my disco years). I do, for the record, have an editor, Tracy, who thanks to the wonders of Internet technology is not allowed to leave her computer even for such emergencies as childbirth.
Now there is reason to think that things will get even more radically altered. Recently a top editor at The Washington Post, playfully imagining the possibilities of the digital medium, tossed out the notion that someday some reporters may be armed with tape recorders for obtaining audio feeds, and -- this was the grabber -- video cameras on their hats.
Video cameras! On our hats! The newsroom was abuzz. Where, we wondered, could we buy a hat? And what is the current fashion in hats? How wide a brim is acceptable?
Beyond that would be the problem of operating the technology of video cameras and tape recorders. Newspaper reporters, as a group, are trained only the handling of those humble technological marvels, the pen and pad of paper. Some of us are Late Adopters when it comes to the technology known as "the stapler."
So you can just picture what's coming down the pike (or the "pipe," I guess I'm supposed to say): Not only will we be able to publish almost instantly any thoughts that might be occurring to us, we'll also be able to give you amateurishly obtained audio feeds and blurry video images. It will be a farrago of incomprehensibility. Eventually we may be able to produce a continuous, 24-hour stream of pure static.
As Style editor Gene Robinson puts it, "We can be as bad as we wanna be."
But now let's be positive! This is all to the good, in the long haul. Among other things, digitation will disintegrate the thick wall between the reader and the producer of the news. The next big step here at Rough Draft: A pod cam.
The genius of the pod cam is that it will not only allow dramatic "insider" footage of me typing on my keyboard, but will also, as an additional bonus, show David Von Drehle eating a sandwich at his desk.
What you will see if you look more closely is that the Vonster and I are not just two guys typing. We're two guys actively resenting Internet millionaires. That's about half our day right there, coming up with new ways to resent people who are younger and richer than us. Dave is one of my oldest friends and I can honestly say he taught me everything I know about self-loathing. Back when he was a single man he blurted out the line that will survive long after we are all gone and turned to dust: "If it wasn't for shame I'd have no emotional life whatsoever."
Another 20 percent is spent checking the database to see what percentage of our stories have used certain words, such as "paradigm" or "Roosevelt." The Vonster's Roosevelt Rate is one of the highest in the recorded history of journalism. Worse, he's on the record in the database for two, count 'em, two uses of the word "inchoate," a word that a writer is usually allowed to use only once PER CAREER. What you have to know about Dave is that he actually THINKS in words like "inchoate" and "prelapsarian" and "transubstantiation" and "epistemological." COULD WE LINK TO DICTIONARY DEFINITIONS OF THESE WORDS? TRG He's freakishly intelligent. His mind is a bog of Latinate terms, ancient philosophies, the residue of his Oxford days. He has to repress constantly the urge to quote T.S. Eliot.
He once wrote a legendary story about surviving a hurricane, featuring an historic use of the word "gloaming," and doesn't really need to write another word after that. He's also the author of the highly acclaimed book "Among the Lowest of the Dead" (another Eliot line!). It's about condemned men on Florida's Death Row. Trust me, it's a LAFF RIOT.
Now he covers politics, specifically the 2000 presidential campaign, and if he writes a book about it he's already picked the title: "Among the Lamest of the Dull."
So you'll see him back there, with his sandwich, ruminating. He's my friend, but more importantly, he's material.