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Don't waste words, write it down with a pen first

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Tuesday, 26 May 2015

As a relatively new reporter on a suburban newspaper in Melbourne in the early 1980s, I rubbed shoulders with one semi-retired colleague who was old enough to remember the police strike of the 1930s, the notorious criminal Squizzy Taylor, and journalists who used pens to write stories.

As typewriters were in general use in newsrooms for decades before the 1930s, the period remembered by my elderly colleague, those handwriting journalists would have been throwbacks to a bygone age, unable to adjust to the newfangled nonsense of pushing keys to create letters on paper. They would have had to learn to type.

I sometimes think of my former colleague and his tales of this long-gone era when I encounter some new piece of technology, the latest of which is live streaming of videos from your mobile phones, via the Twitter app of Periscope and a rival app Meercat.


The idea behind this newfangled nonsense (I think of pen-wielding journalists when I say this) is to film interesting or unusual stuff, or maybe just stuff, and stream it.

There is instant feedback in that the broadcaster can see how many people are watching.

Why would anyone want to do this, I ask, and surely it will never become popular? But yet again my forecasts based on common sense and reason have been confounded by the burning need for Gen Ys, or whatever the latest classification for youth is, to waste large amounts of time on entirely trivial pursuits, such as watching the live stream of someone they don't know walk through Sydney, or actual police chases in the US.

Ten million people signed up for Periscope in the first few days of its release. To this throwback, Periscope and Meerkat would seem to be one step down from watching cat videos on YouTube, re-enacting the Star Wars films with Lego figures, or using Twitter itself. But perhaps those pen-wielding journalists of long ago thought the same about the then comparatively new consumer appliance of radios? Why would people want to listen to broadcasts when they could be reading or talking to a friend? What a complete waste of time. It'll never amount to anything.

However, at the time there was only the one electronic form of entertainment, broadcast radio, to complement singalongs around a piano. Now there are so many ways to take in information - the vast bulk of it information that you don't really need to know - that psychologists talk about information overload, with the added horror that most of this information is mind-numbing and banal.

As one solution to this problem, Twitter is offering services that summarise the vast number of tweets any person can receive into something that can be taken in at a glance. Of course a better idea would be not to have Twitter in the first place and stream a news site instead, then ignore the news site and watch a movie. Email is bad enough, public online sites that allow comments quickly become outlets for lunatics who want to vent, and Twitter is a haven for political academics who have yet to realise that the Berlin Wall has fallen.


For that is the problem with the modern, wired world - there is too much information and all but a tiny fraction of it rates zero on the Lawson scale of usefulness. At least with old-fashioned printed newspaper, the information was condensed and presented in a form that was, hopefully, easy to read, and there might even be something new in it.

I believed my colleague of long ago when he said that Squizzy Taylor was just a police informant - he was - but I did not believe him at the time when he said that journalists who wrote with pens never wasted a word. With the world now flooded in content, I think my colleague had a point. If the likes of the twitterati were compelled to pen their responses before putting them online, no cutting and pasting allowed, the world would be a better place.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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