Monday, 12 May 2008

German Engineering

One of the benefits of travel is that it makes you appreciate the place you came from. But another byproduct of travel is that it makes you question the place you came from. While it may be true that there's no place like home, it's also true that home can sometimes use a little improvement.

That's what I decided after spending the weekend in Berlin. Clean, efficient, cosmopolitan--the antique intermixed with the modern. A subway, trams and bicycle lanes. I think Washington could benefit from a bit of Berlin style.

It probably helped that the weather was great. All of Europe seems to be gripped in the throes of beautiful climes. Parachute anywhere from London to Gdansk and you'll find blue skies and warm temperatures. But it was more than that. I find Berlin incredibly art-directed, with an attention to style that stretches from the way its people dress to the typefaces of its street signs and posters. I suppose it might grate after a while--perfection can extract a painful price--but thinking of the room Washington has for improvement, Berlin definitely had some appeal.

I compared the shopworn and crowded Smithsonian museums to the tidy German History Museum. It was wonderfully empty, leading me to wonder if that's because the Germans already know their history, don't want to know their history, or just would rather spend a gorgeous spring day outside rather than in.

It was probably the latter. That impulse is the same wherever you come from. And after we'd returned to England and were on the coach back to Oxford, I was reminded how achingly green and beautiful this country can be. The verdant landscape rolled by outside the window looking like a ripe fruit begging to be bitten. That's what nine months of rain does. What am I doing sitting here?

Mother of an Invention
In honor of Mother's Day, The Washington Post Magazine yesterday published my story about Daisy Breaux and W. Clark Noble, a pair of wacky characters from the 1920s who attempted to build a memorial to America's mothers. The final design looked like something from Batman's fevered imagination and the whole thing ended just the way we journalists like it: in recriminations and lawsuits. I'll be answering questions about the story online today at noon Washington time; that's 5 p.m. England time. Click here to join the conversation at

Citizen Bane
Kyle MacRae founded Scoopt, the service that pioneered putting citizen photographers together with newspapers and magazines. Now he blogs about citizen journalism for the Frontline Club. I provided a guest post last week outlining some of my thoughts on the issue. Honestly, I'm beginning to think that the whole thing is becoming less consequential to the mainstream media, not because it isn't important but because so many things are battering newspapers, for example, that they barely have the time or energy to think about it.


mark from alexandria said...

The problems at the Smithsonian and other cultural institutions in the good old US of A, I believe stem from the false arguments of certain politicians of the 80s with regard, not just to big government as it pertained to societal problems, but the way that they morphed this argument into "all government is suspect." This is when public broadcasting's funding was cut, symphonies lost their funding, and museums. This happened at the same time that "greed is good" became acceptable. In the case of the dear old Smithsonian, some old fashioned American bad management and waste added to the problem, along with an antiquated management structure that had the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court nominally running the show. Europeans, I think, have a much greater regard for art and culture as a civic responsibility.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

John: A general comment. Thanks for providing a welcome bridge between Oxford, where I lived for many years, and the Washington area, where I have been for the last five.

Josh Braun said...

Hi John!

I'm a freelance journalist-cum-grad student studying at Cornell. I've really been enjoying your Voxford blog, and look forward to the book (I suspect that's what's coming, no? - I'll pause for a moment and allow you to stop twitching under the weight of expectation.)

Anyhow, thanks for the post on Kyle McRae's site. As I was saying, I'm a 27-year-old grad student, and when I'm not grading papers, planning my wedding (read: attentively smiling and nodding as my fiancee does so), or dealing with existential crises, I study online communities. Particularly those that tinker in citizen journalism.

When I go to conferences however, I often feel like the antichrist, because while everyone's talking about how different and revolutionary blogging an wiki-editing are compared to traditional journalism, I'm trying to document and discuss a lot of the ways in which they're actually quite similar. I think that a lot of the "media filters" that sociologists documented in studying the profession of journalism, about which new media folks have long complained, probably recur endogenously in supposedly gateless, self-organizing online communities. That's because many, though not all, news values are probably common to a lot of different forms of communication - as Reuven Frank pointed out a long time ago.

I think your comments were really insightful in that you're discussing ways of elevating the enterprise of journalism - "citizen" and "professional" - as whole, rather than simply bouncing one off the other. That, in my mind, is the way to go.

Even with all the staff cuts and hemorrhaging of ad revenues, word on the street is, newspapers are going to survive.

John Kelly said...

@Mark: I should mention, too, that you have to pay to get into the German History Museum, or people over 18 do: 5 Euros. So some money comes in that way. But I agree there seems to be an acknowledgment that cultural things are important and worth subsidizing.

@Candadai: Thank you. I think Oxford is one of those places that stays with you, no matter where you are.

@Josh: Uh oh. No book planned. I don't know if I can sustain my own attention for that long, let alone anyone else's. I confess I don't have a good grounding in a lot of the theory that underpins media studies. I just sort of work at the coal face. But what I think will happen is that the news media will incorporate the bits of citizen journalism that work for it and discard the rest. As for what this might do for the citizenry, that's an interesting area to study.