"Suns and pulsing moons" of content
Paolo Bacigalupi, formerly the online editor of HCN and now a rising star in science fiction, was just nominated for the 2009 Hugo award (he's been a Hugo finalist in past years, and has won other sci-fi prizes as well). His story "The Gambler", in the Novelette category, is a tale about the sordid future of media. Drawing a logical line from the collapse of print news and magazines today, Paolo envisions a time not far away when online delivery of titillating content -- "sex, stupidity and schadenfreude" -- has completely supplanted all serious news. In an interview with Pyr Books, Paolo describes the story:
"Given the unfavorable market forces currently swamping the print news industry, it seems like an opportune moment to consider what a new media landscape might feel like if/when its technologies become completely ascendant. 'The Gambler' was partly inspired by my work as an online editor at High Country News, where one of my jobs was to plan for a digital future. The promises and perils of the technologies I was working with turned out to be fertile ground for a story."
Other aspects of Paolo's story seem inspired by his time at HCN as well. His main character, a Laotian journalist named Ong, wants to write the "important" stories, "the stories about politics and the government.... (and) environment." Ong turns in articles about climate change and rare butterflies, explaining that:
“Mr. Mackley calls it spinach reading. When people feel like they should do something with virtue, like eat their spinach, they click to me.”
Meanwhile, his disappointed editor pleads with Ong to write about scandals or celebrities instead, content that will generate more clicks online from easily-bored viewers:
Just not any more of this ‘we regret to inform you of bad news’ stuff. If there isn’t something a reader can do about the damn butterfly, then there’s no point in telling them about it. It just depresses people, and it depresses your numbers.”
Depressing or not, we've always agreed with Ong -- the "spinach" stories, heavy on science and policy, do need to be told. They're not sexy, but they're important. And we'll keep working to harness digital media -- instead of letting it crush us -- so that we can continue our "Don Quijote crusade" for decades to come.