Stranger things: How to re-think journalism’s future says Knight Batten Award Winning Journalist
In the recess of his mind Drew was lock picking the future. He saw something a whole industry, second in financial muscle to defence, couldn’t see.
And while its impact then would be utterly profound, forty years later his foresight would be breath taking, helping forge radical deep abstract ideas. “I’ don’t think the future has emerged yet, but it will”, he tells me.
Robert Drew was a pioneering news and filmmaker who revolutionised journalism storytelling when a whole industry was narrowly focused on how journalism should be, rather than what it could be.
As you continue to read this article (I hope), consider this exercise I carry out on my students. How many patterns can you see in these billiard balls? The answer (at the end of the piece) is integral to this story.
There are tens of thousands of academics, and industry figures who’ll tell you what is journalism. Drew ignored them all to tell stories that in spite of criticism wowed audiences.
He passed away at 90 years-of-age in 2014, leaving a huge legacy of international and nationally-recognised and award winning work, such as Primary (1960), The Chair (1962) and Man Who Dances: Edward Villella (1968). The latter I showed to my 19-year old son Robert studying ballet who was a finalist on BBC 2 TV’s national Young Dancer 2022. Videojournalism is like a dance I’ll tell an Apple crowd.
Much has been written about Drew and his colossal impact in the 60s and thereafter. He was less successful in news which was his primary interest, however memories of him are often attributed to documentary: how he and friends minimised the standard news camera to go mobile, and solved how sound could be picked up on location and synched directly with pictures. Then there’s the crew he put together who themselves would become famous, such as David and Albert Maysles, Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker.
But for me there was a bigger prize and learning curve as I sought to talk to him on the phone at his home in Sharon, Connecticut, north east of New York.
Drew was a fighter pilot in the second world war, evading capture from German forces for three and something months when his plane was shot down over Italy. He did not study journalism, but fell into it, firstly at Life magazine by seizing an opportunity when a journalist visited his base. What followed was an intense curiosity, coupled with a vision and Nieman Fellowship to pick apart journalism. The novel and literature will be his inspiration.
He was a problem-solver, someone with an outside-in look at storytelling with an openness, fertile tech mind, and diverse thinking exemplified in his life, as much as his films that examined social issues, sport and the arts. Drew was a Fox. More on that in a minute.
In the winter of 2012, in London, I was in reflective mode. An assignment on the Syrian border would soon drop in my in-box from working with World Press photographer Yannis Komtos (see video). Meanwhile, each morning I’d glare at a “detective wall” contemplating how journalism could be re-imagined. As I’ll soon illustrate by then I had international form and a call to Drew would help crystallise this.
By 2012, I’d been a journalist for 22 years, a freelance foreign correspondent in South Africa covering President Mandela’s inauguration, a BBC radio producer/presenter interviewing the likes of Eartha Kitt.
In the 90s alongside thirty lucky youngsters I’d be one of the UK’s first videojournalists, followed by a creative director for one of the ad industry’s beasts in Jon Staton. Dotcoms would follow and multiples platform builds. I’d be made an artist-in-resident at London’s prestigious arts centre the Southbank centre, whilst balancing new work as a lecturer.
My fascination with storytelling and its different modes was a vampirish curse many times; a BBC director once wanted to bring me into the BBC, but couldn’t figure out what I did. However, this “cause and effect” was also a blessing — I would come to realise.
My interests were sparked whilst studying Maths and Chemistry at University. In between lab work I freelanced for BBC Radio. Here’s my 1987 results for making Nitropentaamminecobalt(III) chloride. It will hold a key for storytelling as I’ll soon explain. Growing up I had my fair share of foster care homes, before being shipped off to live in Ghana.
At my desk on a bleak winter, which in Connecticut I was told was snowy bliss, I’m reading through several books when I rediscover the work of Robert Drew. I write to him about my thoughts how he revolutionised journalism and something I’m trying. His wife Anne writes back. I’m ecstatic and following a few more emails, I get to speak to him.
Your project is very interesting and Bob (Robert) Drew would be available to participate.
Drew Associates’ phone number is (+860 364 xxxx)
Bob Drew’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Drew Associates, Inc
My conversation with Drew is replete with gems. “Why”, I ask “did News eschew his style?” They don’t have the artistic inclination, he replies. He mused over News forsaking his approach, whilst documentary makers limned it as the future. Moreover, they took my equipment, he added.
Yet it’s the implicit thread that runs through our conversation that I’m alerted to. Problem-solving? What if journalists approach to an event, an issue, was viewed explicitly as solving a problem?
It’s not so far fetched, journalism does this to a degree, but limits itself by it own erected foundations. Quite often in journalism everyone has a hammer and everything looks like a nail. Problem solving is relegated for “What’s the story?” For the cinema director solving a problem comes in the shape of style, blocking, film technique, mis en scene and many other fathomable variables that will affect the story’s reception.
That said, Drew minimising a camera from the size of a small fridge to a mobile handheld camera was archetypal problem-solving. The onset of multimedia and blogs too forced relatively few people at first in journalism to rethink how to maximise this new platform. Conceptual ideas were needed and not just procedural ones to move forward.
Entrenched silos is how I remember entering the field of TV journalism in 1990. A neatly defined division of labour, where the boundaries were well marked. There was news and seeing how some news was timeless and warranted more time, one of the BBC’s earlier TV News pioneers Grace Wyndham Goldie, in her memoirs, proposed current affairs. This theme lives on.
But then came the networked hyphenated world, digital, the Net, Social Media and on the horizon AI. “Things”, to quote Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe “Fall apart”. Today, you silo at your peril.
If you trend extrapolate journalism from its beginnings, as authors like Andrew Marr and the British Library have done it morphs through several changes culminating in the 1960s-1990s when it reaches congruence; it’s as if this is the apotheosis where the big guns, academics, and corporates have hammered in its immutable values.
This is where Drew comes in. But first a brief introduction to one Professor Phillip E. Tetlock, a psychologist and political scientist. Tetlock’s ideas scaffolded on philosopher Isaiah Berlin is nothing new. It’s been accepted and studied in politics, but comparatively fewer times in journalism.
Over a period of forty years, Tetlock’s ground breaking research would prove something so contraire that it still confounds experts. He collected data from experts to understand how good they were at predicting the future.
His speciality was Russian affairs, but that needn’t have made a difference because from his results on predictions, the experts, he writes in Superforecasters, made terrible forecasters. In other words, making a point on journalism experts, they’re great at structuring the past into narratives, but the chances of them telling you the future of journalism is “roughly as accurate as a dart throwing chimpanzee” hitting the bullseye.
Tetlock observed how different polarising groups (Liberals vs Conservatives) were entrenched in their views, and could often be wide of the mark. But there was a third group he observed that acted differently and outperformed the experts. It would form the basis of the Good Judgment Project.
Referencing Berlin’s nomenclature, Tetlock would transpose the name to his study: hedgehogs who knew a lot about a single thing and then Foxes who possessed eclectic backgrounds.
Foxes had an element of being outsiders who called on a range of experiences. They were actively open-minded, and their diversity helped them avoid group think. They treated problems as probabilistic, and consulted widely with different groups. Drew was a fox. He saw the world not from a silo but by peering over them, bringing people together to consider their views.
Hedgehogs, on the other hand learned to eschewed ambiguity; they were forthright and determined and would little countenance views that contradicted their own. Their expertise gave them a confidence and their logic was often procedural. TV pundits have the air of hedgehogs about them.
In my conversation with Drew he talked about showing footage to Elmer Lower, president of ABC News, who dismissed it. He couldn’t see the story without a reporter’s narration, said Drew.
The issue here is not that Foxes are better than hedgehogs. No! In effect says Tetlock you need both qualities, but when it comes to conceptual ideas be more fox than hedgehog.
Remember that scene in Hidden Figures. That’s a Fox at work. Adjacent possible patterns are abandoned for something so far removed from working.
I’m no futurists. However in 2005 and 2006 I would produce two facets of a future. Here’s where Nitropentaamminecobalt(III) chloride rears its head. This compound has no determinable useful properties, but you’re forced to make it, because it performs a special function. At different temps and pressure, the molecules flip into a new mirror arrangement. It’s like a twin, but with significant differences. It’s called an Isomer.
In the Summer of 2004, I flipped a nascent multimedia thought percolating in me. How could you take a magazine like GQ, Arena or The Face and make it work online? Remember this is a time when there’s no YouTube.
The next idea was how do your produce those films to move away from normative news videos to cinema? Drew had embraced cinema as a magnificent way of avoiding reporter interventions, making them redundant.
But cinema is not a one-size fits all. I would work assignments in China, Russia, India Egypt and the UK and US, and each region was culturally centred in different cinema modes of storytelling. Never mind too that individuals like Vertov and Eisenstein had their own style
Both ideas would win international awards; one on videojournalism in Berlin, where the judges cited seeing cinema in my films. The other was a Knight Batten for creating a multimedia platform, which the judges said “heralded the future”. Some of the ideas would surface decades later, like The Outernet which Apple profiled and non-linear stories in the Cube.
Almost ten years later I would gain a PhD for building on this work, with a historical and psychological perspective. However, it was the Foxy deliveries of 2005/6 which set me in motion. The PhD enabled me to go deeper, and disregarding some rules go Fox-like, linking videojournalism art and literature movements.
It’s instructive that many of the major leaps in innovation in the last decade have emerged from outside of journalism e.g. TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube etc. Why is that? Please post your varying answer below. And I’m drawn to another Fox, I used to work with many years ago, who says, the distinction between news, docs, and features it utter bollocks.
In 2016 after years of toying around colleagues and we launched a digital journalism story discipline; three years ago came a new one. Now stories would include the build, say an App, a platform, or a technological innovation. Cohorts had to problem solve creatively.
The next generation of journalists in ten years will be unrecognisable to today. Granted they’ll still be writers and video makers, but the landscape will be a blend of what I call HumAnIs, Human-AI interactions.
To replace one form of silo journalism for another merely replicates an old problem. Whether it’s drone journalism, or mojo, these recreate hedgehog syndromes, when the question should be how and with what do we help a generation solve problems faced in a world ever more complex and interconnected.
That means radically changing how journos are taught. How to create a news package? How to write a multimedia piece? How to do a documentary? These are standardised. When like a fox there could be multiple varied outcomes that address the issues of our day. Engineering, Psychology, Neuroscience, History, AI are blends that should be part of a journalists’ armature.
It matters because of the increasing fusion of an ever networked world. Robert Drew ( see video below) I like to think is smiling. His actions brought on fundamental change, and it’s about to go that way again.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is based at Cardiff University. He’s an advisory editorial member for the British Library’s current exhibition on 500 years of news. He’s was the chair of committee for Cardiff University’s future of journalism conference. More on him here
So how many patterns did you come up with? What if I said you should have a minimum of fifty? The more important question is how you went about doing it. Did you try and crack this yourself or with the help of others?