It’s Tuesday afternoon as I post this, which means that sometime tonight or tomorrow, my iTunes will reach out to some server somewhere and download the Slate Culture Gabfest. It’ll be three people—Slate editors and critics—talking about stuff. There will be a loose structure of some sort: usually three topics, loosely moderated by Stephen Metcalf; divided somewhere in the middle by the editors highlighting an audiobook that listeners can download from the Gabfest’s sponor, Audible.com; and ending with this week’s “endorsements,” books or TV or movies or music that the gabfesters, individually, recommend.
It’s a simple formula. And it’s cheap (everyone is already on staff) and easy (they’re already well-informed expert commentators on the topics at hand). And for me, they’re fascinating listening, highlights of my podcast menu, which has grown quite large with the 24+ hours I spend on trains every week. While the gabfest has roots in talking-head panel shows and in conference panel discussions, I would argue that the gabfest is a new and important genre of—and adjunct to—online journalism (and I adopt Slate’s nomenclature here, though Slate doesn’t have a monopoly on the genre).
The Culture Gabfest is Slate’s second. The original is the Friday Political Gabfest, with John Dickerson, David Plotz and Emily Bazelon. Dickerson, Slate’s chief political correspondent, moderates and sets an informed and fairly level tone. Plotz, Slate’s editor, adds a deeply cynical voice; and Bazelon, a senior editor, is often put-upon by the others, often asked—teasingly tongue-in-cheek—to answer any question about women, or more seriously to tackle legal issues, owing to the fact that she is a trained lawyer. They have personalities in ways that even regular readers of their writing—which is more considered, more polished, more edited—wouldn’t pick up on. They talk through ideas, joke with each other, bicker. The three Slate Gabfests have even have a friendly rivalry about who can amass the most fans on Facebook or who can drive the most readers to Audible. It’s a great way to establish community within a publication, and it’s a very human form of journalism.
If it is journalism. Though I would say it’s certainly on the fringes of journalism, at least.
The gabfest is a sort of parajournalism. It is editors and writers thinking out loud. There is reporting behind their opinions and analysis, but for readers and listeners used to consuming journalism that is either opinion-free in the American tradition or at least with a polished argument presented in an organized essay, it is refreshing to be able to listen in on process; to hear the flow of ideas metamorphosing in real time; to hear a smart person convince another smart person of an idea (or not). It is conversation, an aspect of the cultural role of news that is often if not always missing from mainstream journalism. It’s the communal discovery of ideas that is just as important for the culture as the individual discovery of facts that has defined U.S. journalism for more than a century.
They’re not for everybody, these gabfests. I know at least one person who finds some of the individual voices grating, and that can be a real problem when those voices are being piped, directly and intimately into your ears. These are not polished NPR radio pieces with musical transitions and glassy radio voices. And there are critics who question why they should listen to those three people in particular hashing out ideas. Why not just read the straight reporting and draw your own conclusions about how to think about it? My best answer for that is that these are intelligent people who are well-informed (by trade), and they have a damn good idea of what they’re talking about.
That’s just as true of Slate’s newest gabfest, Hang Up and Listen, a somewhat ironically-named Monday show that plays like a sports call-in show (hence the name) except that there are no callers; just the three talkers. And it’s particularly true of the one gabfest-style podcast I regularly listen to that doesn’t come from Slate. That is “Rebooting the News,” a weekly show by the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and Dave Winer, a “technologist” who was one of the developers of RSS, among other things. Their format is even simpler than the Slate formula. Every Monday, they call each other—literally on the phone—and talk about problems with the current system of news in the U.S., and how they might be reinvented for the future (and ending with a weekly “inspiration”). It’s an ongoing discussion, from week to week, that has developed over about 30 weeks at this point. They haven’t solved the news, but they’re thinking about it and talking about it. Listening to them is like attending a graduate seminar where you haven’t done the reading and aren’t allowed to participate. That may sound like an indictment more than praise, but if you’ve ever wanted to audit a course just because you think the professor is fascinating, then the gabfest format may be for you.
I’d love to see other news organizations adopt this format. Imagine the gains in transparency and understanding (of both the news process and the news itself) if the New York Times or the Washington Post opened its daily front page meeting (or whatever replaces it when there’s no more front page) by recording it as a podcast. Or to hear their cultural critics discussing movies in the same way that the Slate Culture Gabfest does. Technology gives journalists a chance to expose their process in all sorts of new ways. There has been some talk of opening the reporting process—and some interesting experiments. But I think it’s just as important to open up journalists’ thought processes, too. Because while the objectivity ideal may idealize reporters as quasi-robotic fact-gathering automatons, many of them do, in fact, have thoughts, and those thoughts are, in many cases, worth sharing.