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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When online works better than print

I can't believe I missed this when it first ran in The Washington Post last spring. It was only one of the most e-mailed articles in the history of The Washington Post online. All I can say is, "Wow!"

Magazine writer Gene Weingarten wrote an incredible narrative based on his experiment of putting world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell in street clothes inside the Metro station at L'Enfant Plaza. The experiment was to discover if daily commuters would know the difference between a street musician and a world-class musician.

A truly inspiring multimedia piece (with video, print and audio), it is an amazing reporting effort that is elevated further by Weingarten's masterful writing on why beauty and art matter in this world. It's a long piece, but well worth the read, the watching and the listening.

And such a worthy experiment! So many places to excerpt, but you really have to read and listen yourself. Here's something I found very interesting:
The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

(Bold is mine.)

This great sociological experiment even had Joshua Bell perplexed:

BELL ENDS "AVE MARIA" TO ANOTHER THUNDEROUS SILENCE, plays Manuel Ponce's sentimental "Estrellita," then a piece by Jules Massenet, and then begins a Bach gavotte, a joyful, frolicsome, lyrical dance. It's got an Old World delicacy to it; you can imagine it entertaining bewigged dancers at a Versailles ball, or -- in a lute, fiddle and fife version -- the boot-kicking peasants of a Pieter Bruegel painting.

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he's not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: "I'm surprised at the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!"

He is. You don't need to know music at all to appreciate the simple fact that there's a guy there, playing a violin that's throwing out a whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell's bowing is so intricate that you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don't take visible note of the musician, you don't have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you're not complicit in a rip-off.

It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.

I came to this article by way of AJR writer Charles Layton who wrote that Weingarten admits the story worked better online than in the print magazine. But what pushed me to read the link was Layton's lead:
If you want to see a lovely, soul-satisfying piece of journalism, one that might suggest near-future possibilities for newspapers in the age of the Internet, fire up your browser and go here.
Again I say, "Wow!"


virtuallori said...

I remember seeing that article when it came out -- what a fascinating experiment.

Wendy Hoke said...

I still can't believe I missed it when it came out. I must have been in a tunnel of deadlines.

What I love is the kind of thinking that went into this -- they had certain ideas about what would happen and yet the reporting shows that what they thought didn't necessarily prove true. And yet they were still able to make some interesting observations and inferences from what DID happen.

Now THAT'S explanatory journalism!

Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Wendy,

I too was fascinated by the experiment when I first read about it, but perhaps for a different reason.

It reminded me of what are mostly likely apocryphal stories of hippies asking people to read and sign the Declaration of Independence in the '60s and the too-many-to-count stories of frustrated writers sending manuscript copies of famous books to publishers only to have them rejected.

Bell demonstrated what urban legend has always asserted: that we don't know shit from Shinola.



Wendy Hoke said...

we don't know shit from Shinola.

Well said, Jeff.