Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Quality and other essential bullshit

"The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then to work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value." -- Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974
Our topic for Feb. 25th (absent a spiffy name-change) is "Quality in the digital environment." And obviously, with professional journalists coming in to talk to journalism students and faculty, the form of quality we're going to be discussing is ...

Musical quality.

Or we might as well be. Because "quality" turns out to be one of those philosophical topics that professional journalists simply hate. So to get things started, let me encourage you to begin your thinking about journalistic quality in the digital environment by forgetting about the journalism and the vaguely defined digital environment and focusing on that elusive word: quality.

So: Back to music.

You know good music when you hear it, right? And your tastes in music have improved with age, as you've listened to more music? Most likely.

But if I asked you to define -- in terms that apply to all music and to all listeners, in all meaningful situations -- what makes one piece of music quality and another pure crap, would you consider that a valid request? Where would you begin?

And if it's not possible to define a universal standard of quality for something as universal as music... well, how are we going to do that trick for journalism?

We all think we know quality when we see it (or hear it), but when we attempt to define what quality is, we can't get there. We can't pin quality down, measure its absolute terms, cite its sources. In touching upon this word, we are entering into hostile territory: the realm of the philosopher.

Quality is, at its heart, a matter of metaphysics, and journalism -- as a set of tools -- is poorly equipped to deal with metaphysics. Our profession is a mental discipline in which we are asked to weigh multiple bits of information and perspective and then responsibly reason our way through conflicting possibilities by asking: How do you know? Where is your proof? In our business, the material always trumps the intangible: You've got an anonymous quote? My on-the-record quote trumps it (regardless of the quality of the two quotes, by the way). You've got three people who'll say something on the record? My official, FOIA-obtained document kicks their collective asses. And so on.

So when you try to talk philosophy with journalists, be prepared. Our brains short-circuit. What journalists really believe is that things that cannot be sourced in a materialistic way are -- in essence -- irrelevant. Which means that quality is just a word, and people who say things like "quality cannot be defined" are simply eggheaded bullshit artists.

OK. Got it.

But understand this: To be great, you must be willing to tackle the intangible. To build better journalism, you simply must struggle with the abstract dilemmas of quality, because the answers you find will point you to new possibilities.

Are all opinions of quality equal? Should decisions about quality be trusted to the people or to informed elites? What expertise improves our understanding of quality? Can quality be measured by popularity? Or profitability? Should we measure journalistic quality by how closely we hew to abstract notions like "truth," or by tangible metrics, like correction counts? Is quality found in a process or discipline, or does it reside solely in the end product, however created?

Why should anyone care about this? Because brand new tools are changing the context in which we commit journalism. My charge to you: Do not judge new tools by old assumptions -- particularly those that reject the validity of abstract criticism.

Because we do not look to improve the quality of journalism for journalists. Or to make more money for stockholders. And we certainly don't do it to validate the grumpy opinions of our high priests.

The only reason to improve the quality of journalism is to serve people. And we should get about it.
"Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster." -- Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.