The contagion of slow journalism

A dialogue with Peter Laufer by Christian Ruggiero.

Christian Ruggiero

[versione italiana]

What is slow journalism? Megan Le Masurier explains it to us in an article from 2015. It is a response to the hyper-acceleration of the world in the news, from the point of view of both producers and consumers. It is a form of journalism that claims the need to “take one’s time” – which underpins both the formula of investigative journalism and the various ‘long’ forms of reporting, from new journalism to literary journalism. But it is above all an approach inspired by the “good, clean and fair” formula of slow food movement, and indeed slow journalism is itself a movement.

The parallel with the principles of slow food is brought forward by Harold Gess, not surprisingly in an article dedicated to the representation of climate change in the media. “Good” would refer to careful research about information that is relevant to a particular community. It would be well-produced and “benefit the cultural senses” through quality. “Clean” journalism would be ethical and not corrupt or abuse the communities in which it is practiced. It would avoid stereotyping, and “support the sustainability of both ecosystems and livelihoods, support social justice, and develop a sense of a community’s shared destiny.” “Fair” would allow for advocacy journalism, make media accessible to the community and ensure non-exploitative working conditions.

It may seem like an ideal model, but it can count on newspapers that have already been active for several years in various parts of the world. The most famous examples, reported by Daniele Nalbone and Alberto Puliafito in their book, are the Dutch De Correspondent, the English Delayed Gratification and the Danish Zetland. But even in the Italian panorama we have examples that are at least comparable to the “slow” model: Valigia Blu and Internazionale above all.

From the point of view of news production, this means aspiring to journalism factually accurate, verifiable and traceable by consumers via methods of transparency, relevant to a particular community, produced in an independent or alternative space, collaborative. From the point of view of news consumption, it means acquiring the role of critical consumers, able, among other things, to question news reports that promise simple solutions to complex problems; avoid echo chamber reporting; shut off the all-news channels whenever it’s possible; buy some of the news one consumes; read past the jump; exercise free speech. These are some of the rules for information consumers with which Peter Laufer, one of the “fathers” of slow journalism and author of a book published first in Italy than in the United States, where he teaches at the University of Oregon, introduced the subject during his visit to Sapienza.

The picture that emerges from the discussion with this eminent scholar also goes beyond the necessary hypothesis that slow journalism is not an obligatory direction for the news industry: it is, in fact, a form of contagion of information production and fruition practices that, as the documentary directed by Alberto Puliafito shows, are spreading at every latitude, in journalism’s attempt to generate new antibodies to the deteriorated version of itself.

Let’s get right to the heart of the matter: how is the “slow” model compatible with a world that runs faster and faster? There is an Italian B-Movie called, not by chance, “Fermate il mondo, voglio scendere” (Stop the world, I want to get off), and it is the story of a group of non-conformists who, one after the other, are conquered by the glitter of the society of entertainment. This power is even stronger now, it’s not only in that we see in the cinema or on television, it’s in a tool that we always keep in our pockets and that dictates the timing of our lives. The solution is clearly to compromise, which involves sacrifice. Why is it worth it?

Because we are all so speeded up, because it is so frantic. We, both as producers and consumers, have to find the time to slow down. Or we won’t even know what we’re missing!

Let me give you an example. While I was waiting for you in this room, I was standing at this window, looking at this villa across via Salaria. Where I live in California, it is the middle of the night so I could not call friends or family without waking them. I could have used my mobile phone to read a newspaper or listen to a newscast, but I tried to control that urge.

Just because our mobile phone is always with us, we have to find the courage to do without it.

So I stood at the window and I mostly didn’t look at it. I have to confess I did look at it, just to see if there was something new, something fresh especially because of the important governor recall election at home. But I was at the window, and I was watching on this hot summer day, men and women walking down the street, and some of them looked dressed as if they were out of the Sixties! I don’t know if they do it on purpose, I don’t even know if they realize it, or maybe it’s just my imagination, but they looked like something out of a Federico Fellini film!

Standing half an hour at the window without looking at my my cell phone allowed me to experience Rome for a few mintes instead of connecting back to California: I looked at the wall of the villa, watched people walking down the streets. Some of them were gesticulating while talking on their mobile phones, locked in their bubble. Others were talking to each other, with or without their masks on, or perhaps only half wearing them. It was reality instead of pixles.

As you said, it’s a compromise. I wanted to know about the elections in California: it’s a very important election, I want to know right the way what is going on. But I also want to have the chance to get lost in Rome for a few hours, or even just to observe a cross-section of the city’s life, what passes under this window. We can do both, we have to do both.

How would you explain this need, this necessity, to an editor-in-chief who wanted content, content, content on a continuous cycle from you?

The idea behind the slow news movement is that we challenge that model. It is something that is also done from within the news system. And one of the ways to challenge that model is, for those of us who are producers of information, to admit that the consumers are up to the attention span limits. Which is a problem on both sides of the fence: news is produced in a continuous cycle that fails to grab the attention of an overdosed audience.

Year after year, I see that my students, and I believe yours too, are not reading newspapers, they are not watching television news, they are not listening to the news on the radio. And so it is for people all over the world, and all over the world the editors-in-chief, and even more so the publishers above them, have the problem of how to capture the attention of this kind of overdosed audience.

If we could slow down a little, differentiate ourselves and our journalism from the information melange that for many reasons is alien to them, maybe we can capture them.

In your opinion, has the movement expanded or strengthened in recent years? Let me explain: the most successful examples have a fairly close date of birth – Delayed Gratification is from 2011, De Correspondent is from 2013, Zetland is the “youngest” and is from 2016. This perhaps means that the second decade of the 2000s opens under the banner of a crisis, which generates a response that spreads and is embodied in revolutionary initiatives that, against all odds, are still operating. But I can’t think of anything born in the very last few years. Is it possible that the propulsive thrust has already been exhausted? Or that the “niche” is already saturated?

I think we’re falling into the trap of definitions, and perhaps creating focused delineations is not helpful to understand where this movement is. I think slow news influences traditional journalism. Slow news has outlets that are successful in terms of their content but not their business models, so when they run out of money they disappear. But even in this case, they have left their mark, and their influence on the consumers and on other media outlets. I would hope the movement recognizes that there is a common factor involved, in terms of attracting audiences having time and money to spend for information, and also producers having time and dedication to try to avoid being seduced by publishing information just because it comes first, but the to wait for information that gets best to the heart of things.

So the answer to your question is problematic: there are outlets that are successful, as we can see from Alberto’s film – Delayed Gratification is now a dozen years old, and has gained an international circulation, that is small but successful in terms of the business model, which makes it possible for its employees to pursue a way of doing journalism that is sustainable and satisfying.

I think we should focus less on definitions, and note with satisfaction and gratitude that the slow news model is infecting the profession – in a positive manner.

Slow journalism is undoubtedly quality journalism. However, does this also mean that it becomes “luxury” journalism? The turn to “fast” information has actually broadened the possibilities of getting information, first for those who had no time or way to read a newspaper and were “served” by television, now for those who carve out an information space while riding a bus or train rather than perpetuating the ritual of dinner in front of the TV. It is clear that there have always been, and will always be, news users who are more “equipped” from a cultural and technological point of view to manage their relationship with information and “poorer” users. But is it possible that the spread of slow journalism could create further “discrimination” among information consumers?

I think that the contemporary news environment is already creating more distance, so there is a “new information élite” just as there are élites in a broader sense.

How to encourage people having a superficial relationship with the news to spend more time with it? Perhaps they want to understand issues more in depth. Perhaps they require a higher quality of analysis. I am not sure that it is a task that we are going to be successful at. But it’s up to as journalists and news producers to understand how we can make information “valuable” content again, or at least of interest to its users. This is much easier for those who work in the entertainment field, but the goal is ultimately the same: our audience must believe that enjoying what we produce will enrich their lives.

Slow news is quality news, but by no means does it have to be a type of information that requires particular cultural tools, or a particular intellectual effort, to be understood and enjoyed. What we have to figure out is how quality journalism can be spread as widely as possible.

The collaborative dimension of slow journalism emerges particularly in projects related to migration or the environment (I’m thinking of Salopek’s on migration routes out of Ethiopia), and is well suited to the coverage of health issues in times of pandemic. What kind of user do you imagine would be able to continue this kind of work, and by what means?

These are practices very likely to find obstacles in a business model where resources are time and money, and time is money itself. But disruption has occurred in the traditional business model and only companies that are backed by particularly wealthy ownership structures do not care how much it costs to report abroad for several months and to shed light on a phenomenon that the mainstream media only see when it reaches the borders of its audiences. This is no great novelty, if anything it is a small throwback to the past, when journalism outlet ownership often was a profession for the sons of rich families. But as in that case, it poses a problem of possible influences on the point of view of those who report on the world.

On the other side is the citizen-reporter. We now think that technology has the ability to empower everybody to supposedly be a journalist. But at Sapienza, at University of Oregon, in schools around the world we presume that professionalism is something that needs to be taught and learnt, it is a long process of theory and practice. Teaching ethics, basic reporting, how to generate content that is clear and good and fair. This is our task, as professors and as journalists.

Information is a privilege. Not only in the sense of something that has a cost, but also in the sense of something that implies a responsibility. The idea that anybody who can use a cell phone or a computer spreading information is important from the point of view of emancipation from information elites. But we have to admit that more often than not what is produced without a journalistic background may be information but that isn’t necessarily news reporting.

There are exceptions: the woman who turned on the camera of her cell phone and secured the proof that the police officer murdered George Floyd in Minnesota, that’s an example of citizen journalism at its best. That’s why she won the Pulitzer Price.

Research has shown (somewhat provocatively) that the use of “slow” information (in this specific case, we were talking about Zetland) not only does not reduce, but increases the stress of the information user, to the extent that he or she does not give up fast information and in addition uses slow information. How do you think we can get out of this paradox?

I told you about the challenge that our mutual friend and colleague Andrea [Spinelli Barrille, ed] set me some time ago. The challenge of digital detox applied to news. For six days, I would have to avoid any source of news information; I could catch up on what I had missed on the seventh. I have to say that I found time to do a lot of things that I would never have been able to do otherwise! But that seventh day was quite stressful.

The news consumer has to feel empowered to make decisions. They have to decide how much news they think they need. If they decide to set a bar, they will find that they don’t need an update every five minutes on television or radio, let alone constant monitoring of their social profiles.

We are not going to stop the news producers from trying to get us to listen to the news 24/7, so they can count us, and use us for click bait and sell us to advertisers.

What we can learn from this study is that we need to understand just how to manage our time. We have to, because there’s so much more assaulting and attracting us in today’s world. Instead of the screen all the times, take a look out the window at the lady dressed like in a Fellini film walking down the street, at the rooftops of the villa, at the trees growing… if we don’t do that at least some of the time, we become robots!


(photo Peter Laufer © Slow News)

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