If You Believe in Newspapers, Then Clap Your Hands

July 29, 2008

Many will remember the immortal words of J.M. Barrie in Peter Pan: “If you believe in fairies, then clap your hands.” Many are urging us to do the same for newspapers. For some commentators clapping our hands might represent the only hope remaining for the daily newspaper in the U.S.

I thought of this as I read Chris Hedges report article on AlterNet titled “The Internet Is No Substitute for the Dying Newspaper Industry” (courtesy, once again of Bob Sacks).

I read this article the day after finishing Neil Henry’s “American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media,” published by the University of California Press.

The article, and Henry’s book, point to two aspects of the tradition of the press in America. On the one hand, there is a great deal of sentimentalism that the press in America is more or less synonymous with our democratic freedoms, and the “twaddle” we encounter on the Web doesn’t even begin to do justice to what the press has been serving for oh so many years.

This sentimentalism is embodied in quotations that could fill a book, but this one, from Thomas Jefferson, well embodies the sensibility: “No government ought to be without censors and where the press is free, no one ever will.”

Of course well before the advent of the Internet the sentiments were not all positive, as noted in the oft-quoted remark from A.J. Liebling: “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”

Neil Henry takes great care in enumerating the more modern problems of press credibility: celebrity journalists, bogus exposes, owner interference and onward.

He is not a follower of one of my heroes, Noam Chomsky, who has reported repeatedly (some would say ad nauseum) on the massive biases of the American press, a result of so many factors, from meddling publishers to an ingrained centrist outlook of those who most often serve as reporters at the daily papers.

But of course the most recent issue that has robbed tremendous credibility from American media (not just newspapers) was the blind support for George Bush and the Iraq war. The massive gaffe still stings many, and has hurt the press as much as it has destroyed Bush’s legacy. There’s a strong argument to be made that quite apart form the Internet the press was well on the way to destroying itself.

So now we’re in a recession in the U.S. and the newspaper industry appears to be crumbling. But both Hedges and Henry do a fine job of reminding us of what the press could be, of what the press should be. Will the Web prove a suitable substitute for an apparently dying newspaper industry? Clap your hands, regardless of which side of the fence you occupy.

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What Happens When a Publishing Medium Dies?

July 28, 2008

I know I quote extensively from the New York Times in these blogs — what can I do — it’s a great newspaper (remember those?). In today’s Times is a perfect article by Andrew Adam Newman called “Say So Long to an Old Companion: Cassette Tapes.” Needless to say, it discusses extensively the past, present and future of cassette tapes. But to me it’s an article about the future of publishing, as seen through the lens of a disappearing medium.

How many cassette tapes do you still have that contain music that can’t be replaced, interviews with elderly relatives where you just wanted to keep a voice record, or any of the other miscellaneous uses that once made cassette tapes so important in our lives (post 8-track)?

While the more digitally-inclined may now have the necessary software and cables to transfer those tapes to digital signals on computer, the vast majority are unlikely ever to invest in (or comprehend how) to remaster cassette audio. So what will happen?

As the article points out: “I bet you would be hard pressed to find a household in the U.S. that doesn’t have at least a couple cassette tapes hanging around,” said Shawn DuBravac, an economist with the Consumer Electronics Association. Even if publishers of music and audio books stopped using cassettes entirely, people would still shop for tape players because of “the huge libraries of legacy content consumers have kept,” he said.

As long as people keep mix tapes from a high-school sweetheart up in the attic, Mr. DuBravac said, there will still be the urge to hear them. “People have a tremendous amount of installed content and an innate curiosity when coming across a box of tapes to say, ‘Hey, what’s on these?'” he said.

But the data for cassette tapes is grim. Quoting again from the Times, “Last year, only 400,000 music tapes were sold, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of all physical and digital music sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. In 1997, the figure was 173 million, and that was when cassettes were already getting a drubbing by CDs.”

While Sony apparently still offers offers 23 tape players, from the Walkman to boomboxes, that number is certain to trail off rapidly as the use of tapes continues its rapid decline.

And so the lesson for the future of publishing. Remember the Bernoulli Drive and the Iomega Zip Drive (and its predecessors)? Do you still have any data languishing on these disks that you can no longer recover? With this in mind, do you imagine that the CDs and DVDs you’re burning today will be readable a decade from now? The issue of digital data archiving is an enormous concern to those who have taken the time to recognize the implicit peril. We assume that once digital, always available. Not so. I’ll cover this in more depth later in the Influences section of this site.

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Is the Web Making Children Illiterate?

July 26, 2008

A surprisingly strong article appears in tomorrow’s New York Times (July 27, 2008) that tackles the ongoing and vexing issue of whether the increasing hours spent by youngsters on the Web, often at the expense of reading books and other sustained verbal constructions, is turning them into babbling drones, or whether it’s possible that new forms of literacy might be accompanying this dramatic change.

I write “surprisingly strong” because newspapers often treat these complex issues by merely interviewing a few “representative” humans, and then drawing conclusions on this worthless limited data. The result is more “color” than analysis, akin to the tripe we encounter when the subject is “what’s your favorite movie this summer?” The Times‘ piece “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” weighs in at nearly 3500 words, and while we do meet the Konyks, the Sims (not from SimCity!), and the Gaudets, we’re also treated to a bevy of outside experts with conflicting viewpoints, and are provided references to several important reports.

You’ll find all of the standard anti-Internet arguments well-represented in the article, but also fresh ideas. We’re reminded once again that “at least since the invention of television, critics have warned that electronic media would destroy reading.” But, the article continues, “what is different now, some literacy experts say, is that spending time on the Web, whether it is looking up something on Google or even britneyspears.org, entails some engagement with text.”

Further, “some Web evangelists say children should be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet just as they are tested on their print reading comprehension. Starting next year, some countries will participate in new international assessments of digital literacy, but the United States, for now, will not.” (Surprised?)

There’s lot’s more to discover in this well-balanced account of the debate. It’s the best summary I’ve encountered to date.

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Remembering When Journalism Mattered

July 23, 2008


This marvelous document appears on the Tell Zell: What You Really Think blog, “courtesy of Andrew Spencer, now 10. Sent in and used with the permission of his mom, Gail Gedan Spencer, a blogger and copy editor at the Sun”

I’ll just note a small part of her commentary, and encourage you to visit the site.

“I’m sending you something that I’ve had taped up at my work station for the past few years. It’s a worksheet on careers that my son did in first grade. As you can see, a love of journalism must have passed into his DNA from my husband and me. It’s hopeful and sad at the same time. (He now has more sensible career goals — cartoon voice artist or professional sports team mascot.)”

I don’t think we should despair about the future of newspapers. I think we should keep the faith.

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Esquire Magazine Takes a Stab at the Future of Publishing

A glowing article in last Monday’s New York Times alerted readers that Esquire magazine, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, has figured out a trick to gain admittance to the future of publishing party.

The cover of its September issue, or rather the cover of the newsstand version of the September issue, will be “printed” with E-ink technology. It’s not 100% clear exactly what kind of razzle-dazzle Esquire will be providing newsstand browsers as a result. It could be fun…we’ll soon enough see. Esquire went to some considerable pains to make this technology leap. The article provides the details, including “first Esquire had to make a six-figure investment to hire an engineer in China to develop a battery small enough to be inserted in the magazine cover. The batteries and the display case are manufactured and put together in China. They are shipped to Texas and on to Mexico, where the device is inserted by hand into each magazine. The issues will then be shipped via trucks, which will be refrigerated to preserve the batteries, to the magazine’s distributor in Glazer, Ky.” The article notes that unfortunately the battery will lose power in 90 days, although any unsold copies will no doubt be in the recycling machines by then. It may however be a disappointment to the folks who are hoping for an eBay bonanza as a collector’s item.

The blogosphere has been underwhelmed by the announcement. Brian Lam at Gizmodo comments “This is really slick in some ways—as far as attention goes—but the bigger thing it shows is the terrible lack of understanding that most magazine editors have in dealing with the digital future of their publications.” Later in his piece he even uses the “f” word!

In the comments section of Paul Constant’s brief entry on SLOG, we’re treated to Fnarf’s snarky comment: “When you open it, will it play a tinkly electronic version of a popular Christmas carol, like those godawful greeting cards that came out 20+ years ago?” Jubilation T. Cornball chimes in with a quote from the article in the NYT and then adds a comment: “‘I fully expect that in 25 to 30 years, this cover will be in a museum,'” is noted in the original article.

Mr. Cornball adds: “I fully expect ALL magazines will be in a museum by then.”

Oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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