Wednesday, December 12, 2007
On The Media
With BOB GARFIELD
Long Live Paper!
BOB GARFIELD:People have been predicting the death of print and paper for decades now. Here's Dr. Egon Spangler's take in Ghostbusters almost a quarter-century ago.
WOMAN: I bet you like to read a lot, too.
DR. EGON SPANGLER: Print is dead.
WOMAN: Oh. That's very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. I also play racquetball.
BOB GARFIELD: Dr. Spangler was a little ahead of his time, but now with the Internet, E-readers and E-Ink technology, his prediction should be coming true. Right? Not according to National Journal Media critic William Powers. In the fall of 2006, as a fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, Powers wrote a paper called Hamlet's BlackBerry: Why Paper is Eternal. He says that paper does a lot more than just fold up nicely.
WILLIAM POWERS: When you're holding a book with your hands and you're turning that page, the hands are doing a lot of work that the eyes don't have to do. The hands are telling the brain where you are, how much further you have to go, and so forth.
When you're working with a screen, your brain has to keep figuring out where you are in the text because it's not physically evident to any other part of your body. It's a very different experience, and in many ways less helpful to the brain.
BOB GARFIELD: So, even cognition is different between reading something on a screen, as I am right this second, and reading it on a printed page.
WILLIAM POWERS: Exactly - I mean, what I basically argue in my essay is that paper isn't just a container for content. It actually becomes part of the content. It affects the content because of the way it interacts with the brain. It's a technology, although we don't usually think of it as a technology.
And the one attribute that these new inventions bring to the table is refreshability, the idea that they're wired to the Web. But I actually think that that quality is in some ways a downside. I think there is something about paper's disconnection from the Web that is very appealing to people, the idea that you can't click away to another site, to an email, to something you need to check, that when you have a piece of paper in front of you, a paper medium, you are focused on just that.
BOB GARFIELD: Is the allure of turning the printed pulp-based [LAUGHS] page something intrinsic to the experience, or is it more that we're just habituated to it?
WILLIAM POWERS: You know, it may happen - I mean, it's true. This is what our brains and our bodies are used to using. However, there are many old-fashioned devices that people have been predicting would go away for generations. I cite a professor from California named Paul Duguid who talks about the hinge. Futurists have been predicting the death of the hinge for generations.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
WILLIAM POWERS: Science-fiction movies since time immemorial, and stories, have always had sliding doors, doors that disappear into walls.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
WILLIAM POWERS: No hinges.
BOB GARFIELD: Shoo-shoom! Yeah.
WILLIAM POWERS: Hinges are old-fashioned. Doors that are hinges take up space needlessly and so forth. And yet the hinge lives on because hinged doors do things for people that they like. They are expressive. You can slam doors. You can use doors to send messages. There's something about hinges that continue to work for us.
And I argue in the paper - and I know many other people sort of feel this, I think, in their guts when they use paper - there is something about paper that really, really works that has worked for 2,000 years and it's going to be very hard to replace it.
BOB GARFIELD: Couldn't this all come down just to the mundane issue of cost, that it's just a lot cheaper to do things digitally than to deforest the landscape?
WILLIAM POWERS: Yes. That could well kill off paper. I think it is already killing off certain kinds of paper media. And, in fact, I get into this in the essay. There are kinds of content that don't require paper. And I actually think that most of what newspapers do, the breaking news function, is much better suited to digital media. And this is why people have migrated to the Web for breaking news, and are moving away from newspapers. That intuitively makes perfect sense to me.
The one thing that newspapers do that doesn't work as well in digital media is the longer form kind of journalism - features stories, longer investigative pieces.
BOB GARFIELD: But magazines, you think, have a better chance of surviving in their non-digital form, and books as well, I suppose. Is the future of books on pulp-based products indefinitely?
WILLIAM POWERS: I think books have the greatest chance of surviving on paper, some kind of paper - maybe not pulp-based. And there are green papers that I have used, that are almost a kind of plastic, that are wonderful and that really work and that could be, if paper is staying with us, could be the future of paper.
You know, all these E-books and E-readers that are being developed, what they're all trying to do is what a book already does. And whereas where I think magazines might one day find a vehicle online that matches the paper version, I really have doubts about books.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So you wrote this piece, which, I'm sorry to report, I read on a computer screen.
And it makes some pretty interesting assertions about our relationship to paper and its future. What has been the reaction?
WILLIAM POWERS: The reaction was surprising to me in that a lot more people were interested in this paper than I expected. And I continue to get email from fans of paper. Almost everybody who writes me says, thank you, you know, I've been waiting for someone to weigh in on paper.
BOB GARFIELD: And let me ask you a question. Have any of the congratulations come in the form of nice notes on stationery?
WILLIAM POWERS: Yes. Some people have written me on very nice pieces of paper. I must also say a lot of the people who email me make a point of telling me that after downloading the PDF they printed it out before reading it. I love that.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Bill, it's always a pleasure. Thank you so much.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you, Bob. I enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: William Powers wrote Hamlet's BlackBerry: Why Paper is Eternal as a fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
BoSacks Speaks Out: On Samir Husni's Vision of Journalism
I am continually mystified by Samir Husni's continued attachment and fixation to a publishing world where only paper is important. Is there no room in his heart for a meaningful pixel or two?
"The problem is in the newsroom, not the newspaper" is a pretty good article where Samir almost gets it right.The real problem in the newsroom, and in the heads of some friends and pundits, is that they seem to forget that it is actually the words, the journalism, the thinking, and the final distribution of that wisdom, that contains any meaningful importance.
Why does it matter so much if it is paper or plastic? What is the difference? Who really cares? The problem is in the newsroom . . . yes. And most newsrooms are getting better and better, embracing the electronic distribution of their hard, journalistic work. Is that wrong? Should they stop the electronic distribution model now? Is there really no hope for a significant digital future? Is paper the only way to share information?
Samir, are you going to tell me that it ain't journalism, if it ain't on a paper substrate?
Words don't know and don't care how they are read. They just want to be understood.
"There isn't any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks, no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know."
- Ernest Hemingway
The future of newspapers: The problem is in the newsroom, not the newspaper
I recently gave a speech at the Paper and Pulp Products Council (PPPC) European Summit in Brussels, Belgium on the future of ink on paper and the magazine and newspaper's future as we know it today. I noted that the problem is not with the medium but rather the problem is with the message. In fact, after further reflection and several visits with newspaper newsrooms both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, I am more of the opinion now that the problem is rather with the newsroom also and not only with the message. In fact, I do not know if we can separate our message problems from our newsroom problems.
The majority of the newsrooms that I have visited are still operating in the same way they operated when I was working in a newsroom as if nothing has changed. Yes, we no longer use typewriters (we are talking 70s here) but we still have the beat system and the division of the newsroom between reporters, writers, editors and designers. The territorial divisions in the newspaper are still alive, well and kicking the newspaper to its grave. Try to tell the folks in the newsroom that the reporter from the city council beat needs to work with the reporter from the world beat and see what will happen. Try to tell the reporters to ignore yesterday's news because their readers have already heard and seen the news and see their reaction. The newsroom has to go beyond the news and the reporters working there have to do the same.
As we move to adapt in this rapidly moving technology era, we need to make sure that our reporters and editors will focus their content on the right medium. That is why some forward thinking newspapers are moving more in the direction of content editors and directors rather than news editors.
I believe that we need to have two newsrooms in each paper, one to operate the on-line edition which will continue to operate like the old fashioned newsroom with beat reporters whose sole job is to chase and report the news (from their virtual office to the web directly) and a contents-room for journalists who are going to stop the news-race and rather focus on analyzing and studying the news in order to create information out of the news as the editor-in-chief of the Dutch newspaper nrc·next Hans Nijenhuis likes to say, "News is free, but information is not." He told Monocle magazine last month, "We feel that Next is actually a daily magazine. Traditional papers are done page by page and sent off to the press to be put together. At Next we put all the pages on the floor at 18:00 and see how it works as a whole . . . "
The technology of paper (and yes paper is a technology for those who tend to forget that) may no longer be the best home for most of the news, but it sure IS the best technology to provide the information that is needed to link our yesterday with our tomorrow. The good paper technology still provides its customers with a "beyond the news" detailed information that as Bruce Brandfon, the publisher of Scientific American says "will have a profound impact" on its users. We must keep that in mind and start to implement that profound impact in our newsrooms.
Change should start from within, or the prophets of doom and gloom will continue to predict the demise of the newspapers. A paper (notice that I did not use newspaper) must be that, a paper that offers unique journalism that will have that profound impact on the lives of its readers whether political, culture, financial, or even entertainment and lifestyle (Such as in the British paper The Independent). Profound is the key for a successful journalism paper in this century and beyond. The fun thing about the aforementioned is that it is not new. The necessity of journalism is as important today as it has ever been. The only change is in the way journalism is delivered. The paper technology is great for some journalism and the web technology is great for some other journalism. The key is to change and adapt. Change must come from the inside, inside the newsroom, otherwise, newspapers will be committing mass suicide in this country and their numbers will continue to drop. If your newspaper is not necessary and sufficient you can start counting the days to the grave, and if you are still talking about the need to change, IT IS TOO LATE.
The papers in this country can still have a great future if we free the newsroom and the way we do business in the newsrooms. Trimming the staff, redesigning the paper and closing national and overseas offices are nothing but band-aids on a major, deep cut that will not help the healing process. Now is the time to hit the brakes and rethink our entire strategy of the future. A strategy that should begin today and it should begin from within the newsroom.