As my wife and I recently toured the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., I learned something I never knew about the artist: He was painstakingly meticulous when painting his iconic scenes of Americana.
Museum archivist Venus E. Van Ness explained, “The level of authentic detail that Rockwell insisted on in his paintings was extraordinary: It would not be unusual for him to have his photographer take more than 100 reference photos for a single painting. He would use original props, sometimes having items shipped in.”
Moreover, “He would often have photos developed at three different exposures so that he could detect the varying levels of detail depending on brightness. He would also frequently try out multiple models trying to find the one that had the exact look that he wanted to depict. The whole process was quite labor intensive and could last several days.”
I left the museum wondering if there are any Norman Rockwells left in our digitized, hurry-up world.
What made this thought especially pertinent was Matt DeRienzo’s recent op-ed in CT News Junkie in which he explained how newspapers have “lost hundreds of reporters in recent years following the decline in print advertising and circulation, and companies’ failure to replace it with enough digital revenue.”
In short, not only are fewer people reading traditional newspapers; those same newspapers cannot convince enough people to pay for their online content – thanks largely to the free and instantaneous nature of the Internet to which we have all become accustomed.
The whole world, it seems, is moving at warp speed.
Consequently, we have become a society of digital customers whose activities are measured by “click-through rates,” “cost per clicks,” and “search engine optimization.”
This new world is personified by Emerson Spartz, 27, an Internet entrepreneur whose specialty is finding ways to “make things go viral.”
Spartz, Inc., is a company that operates 30 Websites primarily concerned with how their content is “promoted and packaged: placing unusually large share buttons at the top and the bottom of posts; experimenting with which headlines and photographs would be more seductive; devising strategies for making posts show up prominently in Facebook’s news feed.”
“Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for ‘headline testing’ – a practice that has become standard in the virality industry … Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the ‘winning’ headline automatically supplants all others.”
In other words, it’s not the content that matters; it’s the click-sensitive packaging of material that counts. Literally.
This reality was lampooned by Jordan Klepper of the Daily Show when he visited the University of Michigan to teach student-journalists these tricks of digital-age journalism. The results are hilarious in this piece called “Internet Killed the Newspaper Star.”
“These nerds didn’t get it,” quipped Klepper, referring to the overly earnest student-journalists. “Today news is only the things people want to click on.”
Amusing as this scenario may be, its reality is disconcerting.
Author Douglas Rushkoff calls it “present shock,” a phenomenon whereby we “no longer have a sense of a future, of goals, of direction at all. We have a completely new relationship to time; we live in an always-on ‘now,’ where the priorities of this moment seem to be everything.”
Thus, “Wall Street traders no longer invest in a future; they expect profits off their algorithmic trades themselves, in the ultra-fast moment. Voters want immediate results from their politicians, having lost all sense of the historic timescale on which government functions. Kids text during parties to find out if there’s something better happening in the moment, somewhere else.”
And news consumers are redefining “news” by dictating with their clicks — “clicktating” — the content that news outlets must offer.
Which brings us back to Norman Rockwell. He was a painter, but both the content of his paintings and the way he took the time to research his topic, gather the appropriate material, and confirm the accuracy of his information made him a journalist, too.
Sadly, he’d be part of a dying breed in today’s world.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.