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.
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.
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.