My obituary (347th in a series)

Nick D'Aloisio, 17-year-old prodigy, shows Summly app he sold for $30 million. AP photo/Matt Dunham Nick D’Aloisio, 17-year-old prodigy, shows Summly app he sold for $30 million. AP photo/Matt Dunham

Fetched the paper from the front walk and plopped it on the counter, an act that registers me as a primitive being, stuck in ancient information-retrieval rituals that date to the age of glaciation and the Bering Land Bridge. Newspapers are increasingly quaint, we’re told. But I like the bandwidth of print, and the way a broadsheet paper can organize the world into manageable sections. When I scan the front page I download, instantly, and not entirely consciously, the collective judgment of the editors at the A1 meeting, and although some fundamentalists may object to the notion of filtered information I consider the filtering to be an added value. I don’t want raw data. I don’t want transcripts. I want information that’s already made it through some winnowing processes. I want a veteran reporter’s judgment to shape the story I read about the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on gay marriage, for example. Later, in theory, I could go online to C-Span and hear the event unedited — if I had time. Another thing I like about a newspaper is how easy it is to dig quickly and deeply into the weather report or the sports scores, without having to wait for the page to “load.” Print just feels faster to me.

Ah, but today, as on many days, there is a story on the front page that feels like another harbinger of doom for those of us in the professional news business. Craig Timberg reports on a 17-year-old kid who sold a $30 million app, called Summly, to Yahoo. The app boils down news stories to 400-character summaries. The genius of the thing is that it’s all done by algorithm, no humans involved. The people most hurt by this could be the sweat-shop twentysomethings who currently work for aggregators. But it’s also the latest, incremental sign that the news of the future will be consumed in the palm of your hand, on that little screen, in smaller bites. What if I, as a writer, feel compelled to craft a run-on sentence? Are my words going to be cut off right as I’m about to

[Har.]

Three thoughts on this:

1. Reading a 400-character automated summary of a story is unlikely to satisfy the reading wants and desires of most literate people. That can be useful information. But most readers still appreciate a well-told story, and deeper information, and smarter analysis. The Summly version is just a nibble, not a meal.

2. Over time, the reading wants and desires of the general public may evolve in a direction that is unrewarding for those of us working for pay on long form articles. The readers have to uphold standards. The readers have to demand, for example, stories that don’t have typos or glaring infelicities. Anyone reading this blog knows that I have typos aplenty, because this isn’t copy-edited, and my desire to proof-read and revise and fact-check is strongly attenuated by the compelling reality that I’m a very-part-time blogger and my editors expect me to get on with my actual non-bloggy job of reporting and writing actual stories. Standards inevitably erode. What happens incrementally also happens broadly. Those who still read novels should check out Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” about a dystopian, hyper-digital near-future in which everyone is constantly online, constantly streaming data about themselves, constantly shopping, and no one really reads anything, certainly nothing so antiquated as a book. There’s a scene near the end where the main character, Lenny, is alarmed and horrified that his building is being torn down, and he protests to a young guy who is helping supervising the demolition:

“I’ve got books in there.”

“Who?”

“Printed, bound media artifacts. Some of them are very important.”

“I think I just refluxed my lunch.”

(The New York Times doesn’t exist anymore by that name; in the novel it has become The Lifestyle Times.)

“Super Sad” is a satire, but disturbing, because it has such a ring of truth to it. (For extra credit you might also dig up from the dark corners of the Internet my 1980s-era essay on Creeping Surrealism, in which I argued that in the future nothing will be real and authentic anymore — case in point, 400-character Summly news accounts written by robots — and that the true horror of the phenomenon will be that people won’t actually care.

3. It’s important to remember that revolutionary changes in the news business have been going on for a long time. Yesterday I looked at a story I did in January 1989 for Tropic magazine (Miami Herald) about the closing of the Miami News. That was before the Internet. The closing of a paper is a terrible thing. Who keeps the archives, I wonder, of the News, Miami’s oldest paper? Did any of those old articles ever migrate to the Internet in some fashion? (My story is completely invisible on the public Web so far as I know, reminding me that I need to gripe about how today’s Web is overly biased toward whatever’s been written in the last 5 minutes.)

Here’s the top of that (8415-word!) story, published Jan. 29, 1989, headlined “The Bottom Line”:

The Miami News died on Dec. 31, 1988, after a lengthy illness. It was 92.

The proximate cause of death was an unusual business deal reached two years ago between two large corporations, a deal that would give both companies millions of dollars but result in the extinction of Miami’s oldest newspaper. The staffers of The Miami News, who had struggled for years to keep their paper competitive, honest and provocative, felt personally betrayed, sold out.

Journalists tend to be repelled by anything they see as the avaricious exploitation of the craft. More than just angry or sad or bitter, many of the News employees felt slimed by the deal, their rarefied world despoiled by what they saw as common greed. They realized that something had to be done, that the paper couldn’t go on much longer in its degenerate condition, the circulation so low even the news tipsters wouldn’t call up anymore. Under ordinary circumstances, they might understand a corporation’s simple urge to cut its losses. But these were extraordinary circumstances. The paper’s owner, Cox Enterprises, was earning millions of dollars a year in Miami; The News just happened to be worth more dead.

Mort Lucoff, a News writer for 25 years, finished his last column on Dec. 30 and stood around the rest of the night feeling numb. He had been hospitalized with chest pains in October after the announcement of the deal between Cox Enterprises, owner of The News, and Knight-Ridder Inc., owner of the rival Miami Herald. “Cox betrayed us. It’s just another corporation. Like any other corporation, it’s the bottom line.”

Tom Jicha, the TV critic, popped in, packed up, said goodbye to some friends and left for the beach. Referring to the Cox sisters who own the newspaper chain, he had said earlier, “Two billionaire women cut a deal that amounts to tip money for them, and put out of work 100 loyal employees.”

Tom Blackburn, an editorial writer, said, “I would have liked to have had a little death with dignity. You look at this deal, this is what businessmen do, this isn’t what people who care about newspapers do.”

[I assume this is under copyright, owned by McClatchy, which bought Knight Ridder, which owned the Herald, which in 1999 closed Tropic. Someday maybe someone at a J-school would be interested in putting this story online or even assigning it for a class. It was quite an ordeal to get it in print, as the executives upstairs at Knight Ridder were not happy with our decision to write about their closing of the News. But of course that was 24 years ago. So, you know, who cares?].

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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