The combination of a recession in the economy and a revolution in information technology is conspiring to put me out of business. Or at the very least, out of print.
Good news, I’m sure, to readers who find my views objectionable, but not so welcome news for me, mine, and, if I dare say so, for democracy. After 44 years of writing for newspapers and magazines, the print journalism market seems to be drying up and with it informed citizenship.
I have never believed that professional journalism is unbiased and objective, but it is edited, vetted and in some ways accountable. The electronic fog of blogs, tweets, e-mail blasts and partisan Web sites that is replacing print journalism is none of these things. It doesn’t even pretend to seek the truth, but rather to feed on-line readers the news they want to hear and are predisposed to believe. It’s about networking, not informing.
I saw the young hotshots who developed the social network on the Charlie Rose Show earlier this month and I shuddered when co-founder Chris DeWolfe announced confidently that, “No one will ever win a major election again unless they are proficient in really leveraging the Internet, and especially MySpace.”
No doubt, DeWolfe is right. And clearly Barack Obama’s historic victory owes a great deal to his campaign’s technological savvy. But what this also means is that, unlike news delivered via print or broadcast, voters are no longer going to be making their decisions based on the same public information. Computerized cabals of the like-minded, linked to “friends” they’ll never meet, will determine the outcome of elections and the course of democracy based on privileged passwords and permissions.
Of course, I may be making too much of the threats posed by the new totally subjective paradigm. I’m not on Facebook or MySpace and probably never will be. And I have no idea what Twitter is or is supposed to do for you. I’m stuck back in the age of pages. The Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, The Forecaster and The New York Times pile up beside my chair. The living room tables are littered with issues of New York, The New Yorker, Esquire, Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Down East, Yankee, PDN, Aperture, and The Week, this last being an indispensable quick-read digest that has supplanted Time and Newsweek as my weekly reader.
I’m trying to do my part for keeping print alive, but, to be perfectly honest, I have recently let New Yorker, Atlantic, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated subscriptions lapse, both because I can’t keep up with them and because I can get them at the library. I find that when I subscribe to all the magazines I read, I end up going to the library less often. Not a good thing in this post-literate society of ours.
The inherent problem with print journalism, of course, is that it is necessarily yesterday’s news. Yes, it has the virtue of being edited and reflected upon, but it does not have the instantaneous quality we have become conditioned by television and the Internet to demand. Too bad, since 99.9 percent of what’s on the Internet falls somewhere between “unreliable” and “worthless” at the far end of the news spectrum.
The one sector of the newspaper business that seems to be healthy (for the moment anyway) is local news. Urban dailies are suffering a dramatic drop off in advertisers and readers because state and national news is available in many places, but where can you turn for news of the local planning board, school committee or high school sports? Answer: local weekly newspapers. The Forecaster strikes me as a great place to hang my editorial hat. If it ever goes under, I really am going to be out of print.
The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.