I was at a rest stop off the Atlantic City Expressway on Saturday when I noticed something peculiar: On sale at a Starbucks of all places, right next to baskets of limited edition coffee beans, was a commemorative reprint of the Dallas Morning Star from the day President Kennedy was shot.
I am intimately familiar with the headline. My father saved the copy of the New York Times from 1963. It is now framed and hanging in the basement of our house. This is something I have inherited. I keep print clips. I have an unsettling fear that I will forget a moment if I bear no tangible evidence of it. Moments were documented as chosen flashpoints in time, important events that we could remember even when we forgot. They help to form both our national and individual identities. Now, with the advent of social media and reality television, we document everything and anything, from bombings to breakfasts. We have created hyper-detailed accounts of our mundane lives, marking them “momentous.” But what happens when we saturate our world with details of our everyday lives? Do newsworthy moments even count anymore to the formation of identity, or do they become cultural jetsom, byproducts on our way to becoming the next Snooki or Honey Boo Boo? What makes a President’s assassination any more important than, say, buying a prom dress or taking your first cab ride?
How do we determine what is meaningful?
Obviously, magazines struggle with this. At The Nation, we are in a constant uphill battle against a glut of information and practices. Our competitors in the digital space aren’t even our traditional competitors anymore—we’re competing with Mother Jones and The Atlantic, sure, but we’re also competing with non-print media (MSNBC, Alternet), YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, BuzzFeed, Netflix, and Google News. And we’re no longer competing in a niche universe—because of the aggregated nature of online content, our stuff is out there. EVERYONE’S stuff is out there. But what can we put out there that people can only get from us, by paying us? We’re not competing for eyeballs; we’re competing for eyeballs that will pay for the privilege of seeing.
What’s interesting is that though people have amped up their newsfeeds, they haven’t stopped looking for intelligent information. TV and books have become smarter, and people have proven that they will commit to long series or writing if it holds their interest. eReaders have created a space for longer books, because people don’t mind reading long pieces that they’re not lugging around. The length itself doesn’t bother people, as long as they can commit to it on their own time.
The trick is to create meaningful experiences for people living in a world glutted with information, through carefully selected (buzzword alert: “curated”) content and longer, more introspective pieces. Long form journalism in digital outlets? Absolutely. We’ve seen a return to long form narratives, in literature and journalism, which may seem anachronistic in a world dominated by short attention spans. Even BuzzFeed and Business Insider recently started their own investigative journalism units, focusing on long form. As Tom Junod wrote for Esquire, “…taken as a trend, the persistence of long form at a time when it’s been declared dead is a hopeful thing, not a trend at all but evidence that humans, as a race, are at last learning how to take our own complexity into account as we stumble into infinity, digital and otherwise.”
In a world humming with “meaningful moments,” how do we maintain that meaning? How many shootings before we rally for gun control or just forget it’s a problem altogether? How many natural disasters need to decimate a country before we start thinking critically about global warming or we decide it’s “just one of those things”? It’s no longer media ‘s job to just deliver meaningful moments; instead, we need to deliver meaningful commentary and analysis on those moments.
In 1963, my parents were both ten years old, and I was not even an imagining. Yet I understand the importance of marking that storied day that “America lost its innocence,” particularly for the media. JFK’s assassination was a betrayal of national consciousness, a curtain slashed through to reveal a dark underbelly of reality. A moment, a heartbeat, in a gunshot—we were a nation young, smart, and cavalier, ready to take on the world—and then, we were not. People wept openly in the streets. Walter Cronkite famously teared up.
What I don’t understand is my reaction to the commemorative paper. I wish I’d bought a copy, only to prove it was real, but it felt wrong. It didn’t feel right to share the assassination of a president from 50 years ago with no context, no handholding, no exposition. Seeing it now, in print, pretending to be just another part of my everyday news cycle, made me feel more of an outsider, a person sharing a memory that isn’t her own, like I was some interloper, a person who didn’t have a right to someone else’s memory.
Yet, how do we learn, if not from sharing memories and stories? Since the dawn of civilization, history has been preserved through story-telling. But what will it mean when we no longer have physical artifacts from a story, when there is no newspaper clipping, when a URL is tweeted in one second and lost a second later? How will we record time and memory? How will we build lasting identities? We will need direction—content and analysis that helps us discuss meaning, since we’re too saturated to create our own.
President Kennedy’s assassination is a story worth re-telling, and the media has been all over the fiftieth anniversary. Has it only been fifty years? To me, it feels like a century ago. To my folks, it could have happened yesterday.