History / Movies / Teh Interwebz / Writing

Disappearing Ink

Twelve years ago, in the not-so-world-ending year of 2000, I was a high school senior and Co-Editor of my high school newspaper, The Rayflector. I did not excel at much in school, but the newspaper was a point of pride for me and still is. (I also founded and ran the school’s only “underground” newspaper for seven years, but that’s a story for another time.) After winning some awards both individually and for the paper overall, I figured this was going to be my path. Not only journalism, but print journalism.

Talk about dodging a bullet.

It is now 2012, and print journalism is Dying. Dying with a capital “D,” because it’s not even theoretical now. In the decade since I ran a high school rag, several major newspapers have either filed for bankruptcy or collapsed entirely. I watched the collapse in my periphery, because my focus turned to what caused the collapse: The Internet.

In 2000, the Internet was still largely the realm of the “initiated,” in that you had to have some know-how on coding to put up a decent-looking page. Blogging was in its infancy, Facebook was four years away, Twitter was six. And other than making me feel old, all of that illustrates just how fast the revolution came. All it took was for those clever web designers to come up with ways the layman could publish on the internet…Prometheus and the flame…and there was light.

And a firestorm.

My newest love was and is laying waste to my old one. The Internet can do what newspapers and magazines can do but at blazing speeds and at a fraction of the cost, both in money and impact on the environment. And, worst of all, they can do it better. No more worrying about word count, color or black-and-white photos, or even number of photos. Hell, video is on the table now. And a story buried on “page six” isn’t diminished because it’s on “page six”…because there isn’t a page six. And the funny pages? You have thousands of webcomics to choose from as opposed to watching a certain lasagna-eating cat berate his hapless owner for the millionth time. It is absolutely no wonder why newspapers are dropping like flies.

Page One: Inside the New York Times

The documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times poses an interesting question. Yes, the Internet can do it better, but can they do it better? Without the collaborative efforts of a newspaper staff and the meticulous eye of an editor, what kind of quality can we really expect from the average John Q. Blogger? What accountability does an anonymous Internet poster have? And, more troubling, how much of what the Internet is doing “better” is actually lifted straight from the pages of “obsolete” news outlets…like the New York Times?

And the simple fact is, the Internet is still the Wild Wild West. Any one of us could be that mysterious drifter, rolling into town to settle scores or sow mayhem. The anonymity both empowers and overpowers us. We can say or do anything. And, indeed, even people who should absolutely not be saying or doing whatever comes to their minds have been lured by the seeming vastness of the digital frontier. “How will anyone ever know?” asks the latest celebrity or politician to have his or her privates splashed over hundreds of thousands of websites.

In that environment, it is very hard to advocate the death of print journalism.

I am going to do it anyway.

The reason is simple: They of all people should have seen it coming. These were our guardians, the finger on the pulse. They are reporters and writers trained to see and flesh out patterns, to describe – on a daily basis – the very nature of society. If anyone was to foresee and adapt to the communication revolution it should have been them. It was not only their business to, it was their mandate. Ignoring or diminishing that which will eventually do them in was a profound mistake because it undermines their credibility. And credibility is about the only currency they have left to spend.

The Times on an iPad

The future is apparently now.

But the Times appears resourceful in the documentary, its writers and editors beginning to embrace the new technology that threatens them. They even cautiously wonder if perhaps the iPad might be their salvation, which is entirely possible. In fact, if legacy publications like the Times can survive, tablet devices like the iPad would be their best chance and would eliminate the other reason print journalism should die: it is massively wasteful.

Fold an average newspaper in quarters and it’s about the thickness of your average paperback book. Now try to imagine throwing away a paperback book every day. I’m like most people, I still like paper, I still like to open up an actual book. I can hope that never goes away, but my brain tells me it needs to.

None of this solves the problems the Internet would face were it to suddenly find itself the lone journalistic voice of our democracy. I could not ever entirely trust an environment in which “Go fuck yourself, shitbrained n00b!” was considered acceptable discourse. But to believe that a responsible, dignified, and cooperative organization that always strives for the best cannot possibly exist on the Internet is yet another folly of the newspaper titans.

After all, they did not invent the human capacity for greatness. They only reported it.

3 thoughts on “Disappearing Ink

  1. I suspect a lot of newspaper companies will manage to survive in the long term, but they’ll have to change their method. The “paper” part will fade away, but the organizations that aren’t so obtuse will continue as they learn to adapt their format to the web. The NYT, after all, has been using their website for news since the mid-90s; they keep changing the way they try to monetize it, and I don’t think it’s been most people’s go-to news site since those super-early days, but they’ve got the concept of using it, at least. The “blogosphere” is great for having the sheer number of voices, but the thing about a teeming mass of voices is that there’s only so much room at a press conference or a Hollywood event or what have you. Those limited seats will continue to mostly be filled by the “big names”, whoever they might be, and everybody else will continue to repeat and rehash what the AP wire and others put out there.

    The internet is definitely a game-changer in a lot of ways, though. Any paper that wants to survive has to offer something to set themselves apart from the crowd. If your local paper isn’t a good source for world news… you no longer have to rely on them. Even if they have a website, that duplicate content factor is a concern.

    Long term, I expect we’ll see more closures as some papers just don’t “get it” or fail for various reasons. The ones that survive — and I suspect most medium-to-large communities will have a survivor — will be aggregating their national and global news from various wire sources as they do now, but will have to really step up their local coverage. I’ve always thought it was kind of strange that the City/Region section of my local paper was always substantially smaller than the Front Page section… because although there is by definition more going on at the global scale, there’s arguably more relevance at the local, and people are going to want and need to know more details. And local news can only come from local providers; I don’t much care who gives me a transcript of the State of the Union address, but there are only a small number of places I could visit to find out what schools in the district are closing next year. That’s where the smaller papers need to focus if they want to endure… with a surplus of sources for global news, half their content is superseded. Survival will mean focusing on the rest.

  2. Brilliant article. I’m hoping the NYT stays around, at least in some form or another. It’s just one of those things. I really hope they adapt to the Ipad/ereaders because it seems like a really good way to get your news. Especially considering the paperback book dilemma!

    • I think if more papers had gone digital – some even entirely digital sooner, we wouldn’t be seeing the collapse that we’re seeing now. The situation is analogous to the bankruptcy of Blockbuster Video where the experts either misjudged the new technology entirely or took the dim and prideful view of “We’re the established brand and therefore untouchable!”

      Another big mistake the Times – and most other newspapers – made was NOT charging for their internet services from the outset. Now they’re getting a public backlash for demanding payment for the content they provide even though they desperately need to monetize the Internet-side of things before the print-side disappears.

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