Dan Kennedy was for many years one of the most artful practitioners of alternative journalism, his work sparkling on the pages of the late and much lamented Boston Phoenix. Paul Bass is one of the emerging heroes of a sort of “new journalism,’’ not the gonzo form practiced by Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe — that was so 1970s — but an entirely new genre, liberated from the printed page and from conventional advertising and seeking to preserve old values (and create new ones using the new technology) as the traditional newspaper struggles.
It wasn’t inevitable that Kennedy, now an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, would undertake a project centered mainly on Bass, the presiding genius behind the aptly named New Haven Independent, an online news site. Nor was it inevitable that the form of this project would be an actual physical book published by an enterprise even more endangered than the newspaper: an academic press.
But one of the precepts of the old journalism is that nothing is inevitable, so the best we can say is that this — the intersection of Dan K and Paul B — is a good thing, or rather several good things: The Independent is often held out as one of the models for the future of news, and Dan Kennedy’s book, “The Wired City,” is a brisk, efficient primer on the (often good) things that are happening in journalism in an age when traditional newspaper circulation and advertising revenues are declining.
Kennedy gives us a nice tour d’horizon of the start-ups and foundation-based initiatives that have sprung up across the country, and argues in “The Wired City’’ that while they may not be the answer, they might be an answer. Fair enough. And one of those answers might very well be Bass’s Internet site in New Haven, which is imaginative, responsible — and, most of all, responsive.
Bass built his site — maybe we should say Bass set his sights — on an idea, that a modern news report ought to be aggressive but inviting. That combination is harder to create than it seems, and he seems to have succeeded, though the financial stability of enterprises such as his is never secure. His mantra: “Keep it very local. Respect your readership; don’t write down to people. Do your reporting in person.’’
Those are old-fashioned techniques, infused with old-fashioned values, and as a brigadier general of journalism’s Old Guard I’m relieved to say that what Bass and many of the myriad ingenious start-up entrepreneurs have created are essentially new divisions in the war for the free flow of ideas and information and the battle for openness, in government as well as business and journalism. In that spirit let me say — our old-fashioned custom is to provide this sort of disclaimer — that once or twice Kennedy has written about me, not scathingly.
The fight that Bass and his Independent are taking on isn’t only against government officials who would rather not reveal their ways, and oftentimes involves topics that the broader society would rather not examine. The fight is also against hard financial facts. The oxygen the Independent breathes — the fresh air it provides — is dependent upon grants, sponsorships, contributions, and the ability, on occasion, to find dimes and quarters under the cushions of the sofa. As an independent voice, the Independent can be ferocious. But because of its independence, the Independent’s financial state is feeble.
The pinions of Bass’s effort are not particularly revolutionary, but the tone and timbre are. And this did not just spring from the ground one sunny afternoon. Kennedy shrewdly identifies how a late-20th-century notion (public journalism, which listened more than preached) morphed into an early-21st-century phenomenon (the remarkable growth of online readership) to produce an alternative to an early-20th-century idea (the mass circulation newspaper).
We in the old biz may not be going away. But there is one thing about the old form that is non-negotiable. I’m out of space. Score one for the new guys — and have a look at “The Wired City.’’ Because even an old newspaper guy like me lives there a couple of hours a day.