Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The medium shouldn't have become the message

A few weeks ago I read an article in the Toronto Star, called Connect or Die, about Jeff Jarvis, media guru. In it, he mentioned that newpapers should evolve or die, and that death would come to the industry relatively quickly.

Today I read about the bankruptcy of the parent company to the venerable Chicago Sun-Times. I've thought about this for a while, and the two stories highlight the issue that I'm now writing about.

For too many of the industrial age publishers, the important part of the word "newspaper" to them was "paper." It should always have been "news."

Paper was just the medium, the message should have been the news. As it turns out, the paper itself became the message. And now that paper is waning vs the electronic media, they're hard-pressed (no pun intended) to adjust to the shift.

Paper, hard copy, is yesterday for many reasons. The industrial age was very tactile, very physical. Paper was tactile, physical. At the same time, there wasn't much going on in society, relative to all that tantalizes the attention today. For many, the newspaper was more than "just the news": 
  • it was their window on the world at a time when they probably would never see other lands let alone travel outside their home continent or city;
  • it was their connection to others, providing something to talk about;
  • it was their entertainment. "Reading the Sunday paper" became as ritualistic as church, with sections laid out all over the floor around the big chair;
  • it even gave people a reason to get out of the house. Indeed, Louis Armstrong even wrote a song titled "I Guess I'll Get the Paper and Go Home", because people actually did that. And while out, they might sit in a coffee shop, or stop to talk to the grocer or general store manager, or take the paper and sit on a park bench...
Today, we are much more mobile, much more travelled, much more connected to the world both in terms of immigration and the simple exposure to other cultures as well as electronically through television, the internet and all the information and access it offers. The internet also means we don't have to go out as much. I remember doing research in libraries. Today I have access to much more information online from home. When I was a kid, the thing to do after school was go out and play - street hockey, bike riding...today, neighbourhood streets are devoid of kids doing such industrial age things. Today, everything is on a screen - movies, video games... kids don't "go out to play anymore" (I stand corrected, they've got portable games they play in groups now)...

As I write this, my wife is saying "isn't it cool how we don't have to write letters to a talk show anymore, we can email them in real time and actually participate in the discussion live?" Indeed.

Newpapers are dying because their focus was on printing paper. Society's focus has shifted, and they've been slow to keep abreast. We now live in the information age. Information is key. People aren't consuming less news, we're saturated with information, email, RSS feeds, websites, online subscriptions, tweets (which I haven't even gotten into yet)... We are on online fantasy leagues for every sport under the sun, and then some...we are online watching the outcomes of every facet of a game that can be bet on, and we place these bets with online, off-shore books because it's so much less sleazy to place a bet on the sanitary interface of a computer than with a shady character in an alley or down by the shipping yards...

So the problem is not that we don't want news; we want news more flexibly, more dynamically, more now, than paper, in all its static glory, can support. We are also a more environmentally-concerned generation than our factory-building, pollution-spewing industrial grandparents and parents. Cutting down trees to print yesterday's news today just doesn't seem worthwhile when, with a few clicks, we can read 6 different views on the news today, with columns and blogs to enhance our understanding. People use their cellphones with text-messaging to announce that the subway is delayed at the next station - these are things that paper is too static and slow to support. As so many pieces of our lives are delivered to us on our computers, cellphones and PDAs, we lose any connection to a newspaper - it's just not very relevant anymore.

But, make no mistake - newspaper printers should have, and still can, function in today's society. They are, after all, experts at gathering and disseminating information. If they distribute it online, and restore focus on the news, there may be no need to lament the obsolesence of the newspaper, anymore than we remember saddles (the issue was transportation, not the mode), or 8-track tapes (the issue was the music, not what it was played on). And news organizations are also where we look for verification of news. When the word began to spread that Michael Jackson had died, people were hearing about it plenty before the "official word" was provided through "the real news" - anyone can start a rumour, but hearing it on network news gave it a sense of "ah, now it's official." And, of course, when there is news to make, a press release is where an official statement is offered to "the media", who can then convey it to the public. Imagine a news organization disseminating press releases by blog, text messages, RSS and Twitter subscriptions...with an advertising footer in each? 

To that, I say "Extra! Extra! Email/text/tweet all about it!"

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