Friday, April 24, 2009

On Newspapers

At the beginning of this month, Penny Arcade posted this comic.

I suggest you read the accompanying blog post too, at least the first few paragraphs before the subject changes. If you're really feeling adventurous, read the articles/pages he links to as well.

I already slammed newspapers in my post about Bill Bryson's book. We're beating a dead horse at this point to reiterate how they are relics of the old 20th Century paradigm. What is stunning is how the people behind these decaying social networks still, even as their ships sink, just don't get it. Like Tycho says, these people shouldn't be completely without our sympathy, but sympathy is hard to dole out to the people who continuously fail to understand how and why the world has changed.

I'll start with this cartoon by Mike Lane, originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 3rd, 2009 and made available at Cagle Cartoons. This cartoon actually borders on intelligent. In discussions of "the economy" the connection is usually drawn between the "fat cats" getting their bail outs and every one else - "the little guy" - getting stiffed.

But this cartoon gives us something a bit more meaningful. We are not often made to recognize that while the sowers of economic peril are getting rewarded, an historic part of our democracy is struggling and getting no help from the government.

But the connection is a fraudulent one. Newspapers are failing for one reason: they are no longer necessary. Their function isn't leaving our democracy, it is just being replaced by something better. This process has been ongoing. The current economic crisis really isn't changing the trajectory of anything, just hastening the failure of businesses and industries that are not fit for the 21st century.

Some people do recognize this change, as below:

This one comes from Mike Keefe of the Denver Post, originally published on March 27th, 2009 and again made available from Cagle. A couple weeks later Keefe has another comic ridiculing Twitter, this time juxtaposing it with the failure of newspapers.

Keefe is guilty of what I call "Ivory Tower Liberalism." I add the word "liberalism" not because conservatives are any less guilty of whining from the moral high ground, but because when liberals do it like Keefe does it, it is patently hypocritical. A liberal is ostensibly accepting of change, but an Ivory Tower Liberal attacks all evolutionary segments of their medium such as Keefe has done above.

People my age will one day grow up to be curmudgeons and the nature of the Ivory Tower will change. Right now the defining characteristic of the Ivory Tower Liberals, if their is one, is their intense hatred of anything popular. They have this false sense of "high culture" and believe they belong to its exclusive halls. They want to see society change, and yet when their ideas evolve into something more accessible to the masses, they dismiss it as tainted and low brow.

These people crop up in most liberal and artistic movements, from feminism to film theory. Justify themselves how they will, they are in fact the conservative old guard of a progressive movement.

These people are neither stupid nor insane, just wrong. Penny Arcade linked to an article about cartoonist layoffs and a thoughtful quote came out of Ed Stein, cartoonist for the bankrupt Rocky Mountain News. The emphasis is mine.

I believe in journalism. That's the great sadness of watching newspapers dying. This country is strong because we have an argument built into the system and that takes place in the press. I've been blessed to have had a voice in that argument. That's what I'm really mourning.

Mr. Stein does not strike me as stupid nor callous nor jealous of the success of others. He seems like he'd be a good candidate for my hypothetical barbecue in which I invite pleasant-baby-boomers-who-are-wrong over for some burgers and beer. What he fails to recognize is that in a society of genuine free speech, you shouldn't have to be blessed to have a voice.

Thankfully, we aren't losing our voice nor our ability to argue. What's changing is the accessiblity to this voice and argument.

I have here another quote about journalism. This is Phillip Converse from his famous essay "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics." Bear in mind this is 1964 we're talking about here. 1964.

A member of that tiny elite that comments publicly about political current (probably some fraction of 1% of a population) spends most of his time in informal communication about politics with others in the same selct group. He rarely encounters a conversation in which his assumptions or shared contextual grasp of political ideas are challenged ... It is largely from his informal communications that he learns how "public opinion" is changing and what the change signifies, and he generalizes facilely from these observations to the bulk of the broader public.

Newspapers are doomed because the barriers to publication are crumbling and business models that rely on the denial of information and the denial of speech are increasingly unviable. The void between the insulated newspaper pundits and the bulk of the broader public has become increasingly small, almost nothing.

What the cartoonist and journalists of today need to understand is that there is more room than ever for their talents, they just have to come out of their shells and *gasp* interact with the very public that they have been smugly throwing bones to from their Ivory Offices. The News Room Tower is not the place to stage your career anymore. Come out into the open and get over it.