print is dead

– Egon, “Ghostbusters”

I recently wrote up a very long comment in response to this post on LiteraryGulag. It screwed up the formatting of my comment, so I am reproducing it here for posterity. Let’s see if we can’t get Sheets to show up and respond!

I find the recent lamenting over the death of traditional newspapers to be a curious phenomenon. I suppose people wailed and moaned over the death of radio, and I vaguely remember similar chicken little articles as cable (and particularly cable news) began to steal viewers from network television. Newspapers enjoyed a monopoly over the kitchen table during these media transitions for a few basic reasons: the news was reliable, portable, and incredibly user friendly. More than any other alternative, the newspaper allowed readers to extract the information they wanted, and to skim or ignore the rest.

The internet radically increases the portability and user-friendliness of media, and of news media in particular. I scan RSS feeds on my phone on the bus ride to work, and my girlfriend is infatuated with aggregator services like Newser and The Daily Beast that can digest and colsolidate massive amounts of information from all over the net into easily assimiliated bites. There may be some sacrifice of depth in favor of a breadth of knowledge, though articles of interest will get singled out and saved for more in depth review at a more convienent time.

This behavior in particular is sorely absent from your attempt to villainize the internet and hold it responsible for the death of journalism. The moral you draw from studies about apparent “changes” in reader behavior are terribly misleading in this regard. Exploring the web is precisely a process of filtering and sorting, of determining what is important and worth paying attention to, what can be glanced over superficially, and what can be ignored. This is a feature inherent to newspapers but perfected by the net, and gasping in shame at the way people exploit this feature of the internet medium is to entirely misunderstand not only the virtues of the medium itself but the skills necessary to successfully navigate its spaces. If you assume the task of reading on the net is to absorb and comprehend fully articulated ideas, articles, or studies, these behaviors seem shocking, and the size and scope of the internet seems daunting and impenetrable. If, more realistically, you realize that these users aren’t involved in analysis and review but instead are actively participating in socially situated filtering, sorting, monitoring, tagging, and forwarding, then it is clear that they are spending exactly the required time, doing exactly what is needed to maintain a handle on the constant streams of information that are necessary for making sense of their lives.

Internet users are multitaskers because the must be. It is the only way to make sense of the incredible amount of information available. Describing that information as ‘undifferentiated’ is deeply wrong-headed, since the medium functions precisely by allowing the users themselves to act as differentiator. The tools of the internet user, like search engines, RSS readers, aggregators, and social tagging and networking sites, are designed specifically to assist in this process of discrimination; and these are exactly the skills that young people on the internet are searching out and cultivating as a necessary part of basic social competence in the internet age. In doing so, they can ultimately route that information to those readers competent to review, analyze, and digest the material for the benefit of all users. Worrying about the lack of a ‘guiding narrative’ makes as much sense in this domain as worrying about a lack of horse posts to tie up your car. Our collective discursive consciousness has changed, quite appropriately, to a changing information environment. McLuhan said: “Every age creates as an Utopian image a nostalgic rear-view mirror image of itself, which puts it thoroughly out of touch with the present.”

So what is left to be said for newspapers? Only their apparent reliability, and specifically their unique ability to fund genuine investigative journalism, and to fulfill their duties as the fourth estate. And while it is true that the internet has stolen much of the revenue base to continue supplying good journalism, it is completely clear that the blame falls on the newspapers themselves for slowly and reluctantly adjusting and adapting to a changing world of information. Its not like the internet came out of nowhere; people have been predicting the effects of the net on traditional newspapers for well over a decade while newspapers showed almost no leadership in this regard.

So if the newspaper as a business collapses, it will be their own fault. But as it stands there is no reason to think that journalism can’t thrive on the internet; we just seem to lack the appropriate business models to support its sorely needed presence. Contempt for the medium of the internet itself, and greatly underestimating the skills its users bring to it as a participatory medium, is certainly of no help in salvaging what is left of an obsolete practice. Once some clever entrepreneur figures it out how to bring reliable journalism to the net, there are plenty of eager hands waiting to consume, repackage, and distribute that info for all of us.

Sheets also makes a disastrous comparison to the current financial state of newspapers, and the supposed lack of revenue for the film and music industry, all wrought by the evil, naughty internet. I decided to let that one go out of courtesy, but maybe we can get into that here.

edit: I added a link to the social networking study in my previous post to fill out the argument a bit.

2 Comments

  1. Mrs. Sheets accidentally left her response in the next thread. So I’m reproducing it here for posterity.

    Eripsa/Egon/”Ghostbusters”,

    Like it or not, information-including journalism-is migrating to the Internet. It’s here to stay. The purpose of my essay, “Journalism in the Age of the Internet” posted on http://www.literarygulag.com, is not to damn the Internet or “Millennials”, but to discuss the implications of this new medium on how we read and interpret the news. As eyetracker studies confirm, viewers on the “Net” don’t generally read; they scan headlines and pages, flitting from site to site. Comprehension and depth of analysis suffer. Accuracy of sources is compromised because increasingly “news” sites are not vetted. Sustained thought-fostered through reading and solitude-is lost. For an analysis of the impact of the Internet on learning, read Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Penguin Books Ltd, 2008).

    Millennials have a facility with the Internet. They have speed and ease and comfort with connectivity. Let’s hope that our social, cultural, and political understanding is facilitated by this new medium. For your sake and for mine.

    Diana E. Sheets

  2. Hi Diana!

    I understood the essay the first time I read it. I’d like you to respond to some specific points I made:

    1) Your nostalgia and frankly unwarranted fretting about the death of the newspaper medium is, I argue, entirely out of touch with the demands, constraints, and virtues of the present media landscape. I’d like to hear your response to another quote from McLuhan: “Every age creates as an Utopian image a nostalgic rear-view mirror image of itself, which puts it thoroughly out of touch with the present.”

    2) The eyetracker studies emphatically do NOT show that internet viewers do not read. At most it shows that they don’t read everything, but this is not surprising: you simply can not read everything on the net. It is an impossible standard to hold people to, and it is just silly to be appalled when they fail to meet that standard. They are reacting to text differently, for different purposes and with different effects, because they live in a different information environment that demands these changes. For this reason, comparing it to old ways of reading (with eye-tracker data conveniently absent) is a completely illegitimate comparison. I’d like to see you address some of the new ways of interacting with news instead of dwelling in the past. If anything, the socially embedded, participatory activities of tagging, forwarding, aggregating, and commenting show a unique responsiveness to this new information environment, and it is completely absent from your essay.

    3) With this in mind, you have given absolutely no reason to be skeptical of the ‘social, cultural, and political understanding facilitated by this new medium’, precisely because you have failed to appreciate the way the medium is actually processed and digested by the ‘millennials’. There are plenty of examples of how our cultural and political understanding has developed in new and surprising ways because of the medium; failing to address the new cultural and political landscape makes your essay look archaic and obsolete.

    I hope you return to respond!

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