In Praise of Paper

By William Powers
Thursday, August 23, 2007; 11:42 AM

Joel Achenbach's "I Really Need You to Read This Article, Okay?" incisively captures how the digitization of news is reshaping the culture of journalism. Between the lines, it also gets at a hidden dimension of the ongoing crisis in the mainstream media: When journalists at great print outlets like the Post worry and grouse about the Web, they aren't just thinking about their paychecks or the declining prestige of their medium. Those things certainly matter -- reporters are people, too, with families and egos to feed. But nobody goes into this business to get filthy rich or become a movie star. Anyone seriously chasing those dreams is on Wall Street or in Hollywood.

It may sound hokey, but most journalists are in journalism because they believe it's good for the world. And, at bottom, what troubles them most is the threat that digital technology poses to the mission itself: Is the tyranny of page views driving us to a future where work that really matters -- bold investigations, sparkling foreign reportage, thoughtful commentary -- is replaced by, as Joel puts it, Britney's dog?

It's a not a pleasant prospect, but I'm not as worried as Joel is that it will actually come to pass. For anyone who loves and believes in journalism, there are still numerous reasons to be cheerful about the media future:

1. Journalists are by nature alarmists, constantly on the watch for bad news, and eager to deliver it first. When talking about our own work, we are especially prone to dark forebodings. Newspaper people have traditionally believed the trade's best days are behind it -- the good work alays dried up roughly a generation ago, never to be seen again -- and now everything is going to pot. While it may seem that today there is more evidence than ever to justify such fears, it's crucial to factor in the Cassandra tic, and discount accordingly. We could well be wrong again.

2. Paper is not dying. The Web is a thrilling new medium full of possibilities, and at the moment, it rightly has the cultural mojo and momentum. But is all reporting and writing really going to wind up there, tweaked and tarted up to draw cheap clicks? I doubt it. Paper is arguably the most successful medium in human history. People have been communicating on it for roughly 2,000 years, and there is plenty of behaviorial evidence to suggest that they're not about to abandon it. When was the last time somebody told you about a wonderful online newspaper they love to curl up with in bed on Sunday morning? Though most newspaper content is now available online, many millions of readers are still paying good money to receive hard copies. If paper is truly inferior in every way to the digital medium -- as some Web enthusiasts claim -- this is an absurd waste of money, not to mention cruel to all those trees.

In fact, new technologies don't necessarily obliterate the old ones -- more typically, they shake things up a bit and reconfigure the landscape. Just as radio nicely survived the television age, I believe paper will survive its current troubles and remain (as Joel at one point suggests) the medium of choice for certain kinds of journalism. For more thoughts on the persistence of paper media, click over to my just-published essay on the subject. (Hint: It reads best if printed out.)

3. Quality still sells. There has always been a market for thoughtful reporting and writing, and there always will be. Remember, the great newspapers of today became great during a period when they were competing with tabloids, television, and other relatively cheesey fare. There were no page views then, but quality broadsheets had quarterly income statements -- and a breathtaking profit stream -- testifying to the fact that the public craved what they were selling. Why did so many people choose to read The Washington Post and The New York Times all those years when they could have exclusively patronized the downmarket alternatives? Because they liked and believed in the work. The Web hasn't suddenly turned all of us into Britney-obsessed boobs. Yes, TMZ.com and its spawn draw a huge crowd, but the high-end newspaper websites still pull in impressive numbers. If you really want to see quality thriving, check out the BBC's traffic some time. In a way, the Web is transforming the BBC from a tv/radio operation -- what Marshall McLuhan would have called a relatively "hot" medium -- to a relatively "cool," text-driven one. It's not a private business, but it sure could be a model for one.

4. Irrational Exuberance, Digital Version. My favorite moment in Joel's piece is his image of "the Daily Telegraph in London, where the brand-new newsroom is arrayed like radial spokes, with the Web operation at the center. Everyone can see an electronic board that lists the articles attracting the most eyeballs at that precise moment on the Web. It's like a page-view shrine." It also sounds a lot like the New York Stock Exchange, a place that exemplifies a certain kind of market-driven herd behavior. Indeed, the stock market, which has lately been having a bit of trouble, offers a nice analogy for what's happening right now in the media.

If you follow the herd, the Web and its attendant page-view-driven priorities may look very much like the future. But I can't help but notice that a few very smart, very successful billionaires (named Murdoch, Zell and Geffen, among others) have been breaking off from the herd in pursuit of the great old newspapers. As I wrote recently, these contrarians know how to survive and prosper in the economic marketplace better than anyone else, and we ignore them at our peril.

William Powers is the media columnist for National Journal magazine.

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