Friday, June 24, 2011

The Day The Newspaper Died

by L.S.S

“Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices, especially since printed books are often deficient in spelling and appearance.”
- Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes,1492

The day the newspaper died, I cried.

I love all things print. I like the feel of a book in my hands. I like the smell of old books at the library. I like the sound (crinkly) and smell (dry inky on cheap paper) of a newspaper as I turn the pages. Yet, this past year, I had to face the fact that print of all varieties is fading, and being replaced by the more agile new kid on the block: the Internet. I realize this is a major transition in human history -- a shift from stable and tactile print to shifting web pages. This shift, in human history, can only be compared to the dawn of the printing press. Yet, the printing press brought print to the masses; the internet threatens to take print from the masses.

One of the more awkward moments of my life came in a discussion about the printing press. I was at a colloquium of Seminary Students in St. Louis several years ago. Several seminaries were represented: Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and a weird liberal seminary. We heard lectures on technology and Christianity that day. At issue was the question, "How should Christians engage technology?" After the lectures, all the students were sent off to discuss what we'd heard. Each discussion group contained a representative student from each Seminary. So, I'm sitting there with a Catholic, Lutheran, and unaffiliated. The Lutheran starts praising technology, and arguing that we should include it more in the life of the Church. Then, he says, "If not for the printing press... there would not have been a reformation." -- i.e. we wouldn't have been able to overcome the Catholics. The Catholic guy next to him takes this mildly. The unaffiliated moved quickly to make sure everyone was "in harmony." Then, the Lutheran, in the spirit of the strange ecumenism of that day, adds, "Or, a counter reformation."

The Lutheran, despite his obligatory nod to ecumenism, made a decent point. The printing press enabled reformed writers to get information into the hands of the masses, quickly. It democratized information. He made another point, though, which he didn't really mean to -- some people welcomed the dawn of the printing press more than others.  

Well, grey is the new black, and 40 is the new 30, and guess what -- the Internet is the new printing press. And guess what, some are going to welcome it more than others. Established writers, especially in print, aren’t so welcoming.

Yet, the Internet is the new printing press. It is the latest technology to revolutionize the way we get information, and the way we consume information. It's not just an outlet for media, entertainment, and information. The Internet is now the first way to get news, and the first place to go for information. Not magazines, but e-zines. Not encyclopedias, but Wikipedia. And, as the Internet ascends, the older medium of print falls.
Print news and magazines, especially, are falling fast. I get Time Magazine weekly because my old roommate accidentally signed up for a magazine scam. Long story. Anyway, I get Time Magazine every week. I've noted a new tone the last year -- despair. Like, Time knows its days are numbered. Every now and then, Time will discuss the impending doom of print media, and you know they know. Their days as a powerhouse -- perhaps even a house -- are numbered. Time feels like a different kind of reading than a few years ago. They've been taken down a few notches. A "little-guy" humility has even come through in a few columns -- "we are the poor (in spirit, and revenue) print media."

The revenue is now flowing straight to the Internet. Often, this is speculation, and leads to foolish business ventures. But not always. The internet is the new land of opportunity, and opulence (ka-ching).

As Time watches powerful newspapers lose influence, and print powerhouses go under, their tone is is not yet resignation. Yet, every now and then you can read resignation between the lines, "It doesn't look good for print." More and more, they remind me of Will Muny in Unforgiven:

Will Munny: Hell of a thing, killin' a man. You take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.
The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess he had it comin'.
Will Munny: We all got it comin', kid.

Why is print news dying? The Internet. The Internet is not killing print news maliciously. Rather, it is taking its life as a byproduct of its own life -- taking, slowly, its life... and readers, and even more importantly, revenue (ka-not-ching). The Internet is like a good vampire. He doesn't mean to hurt anybody, but he has to take print’s blood to live.
Also, at least in some cases, print news had a hand in its own demise. Print media has shown it's not quite as dependable and objective as we hoped (ahem, Jason Blair, and The New York Times). So, we should keep this in mind, or else we will unduly glorify the good old days when real writers sat around in news rooms, smoked, got cancer, and wrote serious and truthful columns. 

Another thing which has led to the demise of print news -- a good old boy system has slowly taken root in that arena: a system which starves already hungry writers. I just came across an interesting perspective from Bill Simmons. Simmons struggled to achieve stardom in the newspaper industry despite hard work, and clear talent. Here's his take on the death of news print:
"Clearly, I was good enough to do this for a living, but there was no way I was every getting a chance doing it conventionally. That’s what pisses me off. I never even had a real chance. I mean, this is the only industry where companies PAY PEOPLE TO LEAVE. Look at what just happened at the Herald [now at the Globe, too] – they had to spend four years worth of salaries to dump all their dead weight. This is a good system? If I suck for the next two years, you know what happens? ESPN doesn’t renew my contract and I’m unemployed. With newspapers, you could basically hand in scribble for 20 years and they have to keep paying you. It’s bad business. That’s why so many newspapers will be going under soon, if they aren’t already."

Simmons points out that system itself was corrupt. It was burdened by an archaic model, with archaic statues running the show -- a show which wasn't much to see. Note, Simmons is not criticizing the medium, but the model -- the model by which the medium was delivered.

Yet, at most, the model exacerbated the problems of print news, and print media in general -- because the medium, even in its purest form, is itself becoming antiquated. Even if print media didn't fade from within, it would have faded from without. It would have lost dominance to the Internet, eventually.

Print media is being replaced by a new, more direct and more powerful, medium -- the good old world wide web -- the same way that hand copying was replaced by the printing press. Yeah, you can copy everything by hand, but it's easier to stick it in a printing press. Yeah, you can pay 15.00 a year for Time Magazine, and wait 5 days for takes on the news of the world. But it’s easier -- and relatively free -- to go to Yahoo! News. Yahoo! Also, it's quicker. You can get news on the fly, without having to wait for the paper boy, or the evening news. As a recent ESPN add clarifies, you can get sports news while riding on the back of a horse in the desert. Yahoo! indeed.

This trend toward the Internet, and away from print news, may be good. After all, it brought us fresh voices like Bill Simmons. You might even argue that, without it, those fresh voices would have been drown in the sea of good old boy journalism. Then again, this may be bad. Getting words quickly may lead us to value them less, and think about them even less. I, for one, have an eerie feeling that this is all bad. Remember, the Internet not only affects the way we get info; it also impacts the way we take in info. 

I'm sure some people lamented the dawn of the printing press -- new technology always leave us somewhat nostalgic for the "good old days." A great example is Neil Postman's critique of the shift from public discourse to Television. Again, this may be good; it may be bad. But, it's the facts of life, and the Internet is here to stay, while print news is there to stay (in 2010).

Now, you say -- well, fine, Charles. Tell us something we don't know. Print media is falling into poverty and irrelevance. The Internet is rising to world information domination. We already knew this.

True, but here's the angle I'm interested in -- what does this mean for writers? The question seems to me a stark one -- adapt, or fade. Bill Simmons is an example of a writer who took the unconventional route because the business model of the medium was broken, and decrepit. The medium itself was not yet antiquated when he started. Yet, in 2011, print media is becoming more and more antiquated. Times have changed. Now, if a writer wishes to reach a larger audience, they have no choice but to consider the Internet route. So, those who don't adapt seemed destined to fade. 

I suppose there is a third option: fadapt (adapt + fade). This is the option for the writer who knows that print is an unlikely path to an audience. Yet, out of conscience, or love of paper, or hatred of trees, he still chooses print. Jack White recently released a vinyl single because he appreciates that medium, and felt it suited that particular single. Yet, the act itself was nostalgic and calculated. He knew what he was doing, and why he was doing it. I can imagine a writer who stands by print, and it's virtues (and they are many). So, as a sort of protest, this writer seeks to publish their work in print. I can imagine this writer. But I can also imagine a writer who toils away in the print medium for the next 10 years, and then wakes up one day wondering why no one reads their very good work. History was passing them by. Or, better said, they were passing history by. 

Someday, in the near future, I'll write a lament about how I yearn for the good old days of print. I might join up with Neil Postman in lamenting the ascendance of any kind of medium other than books. I'll write Amusing Ourselves to Death, part 2. I'll write that one day. I know I will. Yet, just now, I'm trying to be a realist.

The Internet is the new printing press. We are in the midst of a shift-change in how people take in writing. Even, a shift-change in how writing looks. Ever notice that print format is different than an online column? -- a different reading experience? Sure, you have. No, you haven't. Words look different on a computer screen – especially when surrounded by a bunch of ads for They read different on a computer screen -- especially when obscured by pop up advertisements informing you that you just won 10,000 dollars. The Internet medium is different. It requires a different knack for communicating. I'll mention one example -- a lot of online columnists don't use traditional paragraph structure. They block their paragraphs with little or no indenting. Why? Why throw out 2000 years of paragraph wisdom? Why traumatize Strunk and White? I have no clue. But this is I know: Writing online is a different kind of writing, for a different audience, with different tastes.

David Halberstam was one of the great sports writers of the 20th century. He was a master of the sports book. He was a master of the sports column. Yet, he floundered as an Internet writer. Why? According to Bill Simmons, “Halberstam is one of my heroes and one of the greatest writers ever, but he had no idea how to write on the Internet (The New York Times
, "Can Bill Simmons Win The Big One?"). By the way, I found that quote online. I could have ordered the back issue, and waited a week or two. Then, once the issue arrived, I could have relished the print medium, and caressed its pages. Actually, I would much have preferred doing that. But I didn't. It. Was. Just. Too. Darn. Easy. To. Google. It.

By the way, I just learned (literally 5 minutes ago) how to link phrases to a web address. It looks much cleaner than copying and pasting a web address into the text. It enables the reader to keep reading without interruption, if they so choose, or click on the link, if they so choose. Where was this in my grammar class in 9th grade? I never knew this would be a skill I needed in writing. Come to think of it, in 9th grade, I also had terrible grammar. So, I had a lot to learn on all fronts. Bad grammar aside -- are we approaching a day when technical education in writing (i.e. grammar) must be accompanied by technical education in computing (i.e. doing stuff like linking addresses) if one hopes to communicate well? Nope. Not approaching. We're already there.

So, the world of the writer is changing. Not specifically the writer, but the world of the writer. Kinda like how the ice age came in and killed all the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs stayed the same. The world changed, but the dinosaurs didn't. And they died. As someone who loves writing, I need to consider the weight of this on my life and calling.

And consider I will. After considering, then, and only then -- I will lament the bygone era of print. Ironically, Bill Simmons  -- who has millions of readers because the Internet medium --who would likely have never had an opportunity to write in traditional print anyway -- has already started his lament:

And I feel the same way about ESPN, even though they exposed me to 10 times as many readers as the Globe would have. I just feel like a newspaper column, when it’s done correctly, can resonate with an entire region. I know (Leigh) Montville and (Ray) Fitzgerald and even (Peter) Gammons had that effect on the city and the region when I was growing up – I still remember when Montville left for Sports Illustrated, I felt like my best friend was moving away. I’m not sure an Internet column can have the same affect, and only because I’m appealing to a national audience instead of a local one, so I had to make my style broader to pull that off.

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