writer, speaker, content creator

Someday, Egon Will Be Right

In Rants on May 7, 2009 at 5:33 pm

At one point in Ghostbusters Dr. Egon Spengler remarks that “print is dead.” I the 1980s it was a funny line because it looked like premature futurism. Recently, though, Warren Buffet made a statement that could have come from Dr. Spengler, if Egon were a business bigwig. Buffet said the same thing that lots of other people have been going on about recently, that newspapers are a dying form of business, and that he would not advise investing in them.

With the ascendancy of the web, the folding of so many newspapers, and the advent of the Kindle, we are seeing a process that is steadily taking us away from the printed word and into an age of digital media. As much as people might complain about the new formats and lament the death of newsprint, I think that there are a few very real upsides to this.

The demise of print will be great for the environment.

I’m sort of surprised that no one’s talking about this. Think of newspapers: Every day, sheets and sheets of paper printed and consumed to produce something that is only useful for one day. Many of them go unsold and unread, and all of them have to be disposed of at the end of a 24 hour period. Even if they are recycled, that still expends a fair amount of energy. They still have to be gathered, transported, and rendered into raw materials, all of which takes time and money. Hopefully, future generations will find these one day use news sources to be laughably extravagant, and produce less in the way of waste than we do now.

With print dead, information will be more accessible.

Before the printing press, books were hugely expensive. Better technology made information cheaper, and therefore more people could access it. Now, the challenge is getting things such as out-of-print books and high-demand items into people’s hands. When I worked in a bookstore, I had no shortage of requests for out-of-print books. People paid stupidly huge amounts of money for things that weren’t being printed anymore. Likewise, there were tons of requests for recently popular books, and we couldn’t accommodate everyone’s demand.

Ebooks could fix that. Nothing has to go out of print, and nothing is inaccessible due to shortness of supply. There will be little reason for anything like a rare volume to exist, and as much as that might disappoint rare book collectors, it will greatly democratize information. Likewise, if news archives are all available on the web, any curious person can become their own investigative reporter or historian.

The death of print will reduce clutter.

As much as I like books, the fact remains that they can be rather troublesome as objects. You have to store them and sometimes move them from house to house. I’ve recently hauled around a few boxes of books, and as nice as they are as objects, I have to admit that I’d rather own a single, portable electronic tablet that I could read them on comfortably, rather than tons of boxes of paper. Likewise, I’m all for not having to budget old newspapers into my living space. I don’t keep phonebooks in my personal space at all, because they are bulky and troublesome objects, made redundant by electronic means. Future generations may feel the same way about print.

I’m looking forward to all of those, and, unless you have a chemical addiction to newsprint, you should as well.

We should not ask the question, then, “How can we save newspapers?” The question we should be asking is “How can we insure that reporters get paid for the services they provide?” As nice as bloggers and the like are, we still need people who dedicate their time to covering current events, and who can afford to do things like ship off to foreign countries. What is more, we need media organizations that politicians can’t afford to ignore. I’m sure that politicians would be happy to hang up on me if I called them. They cannot afford to hang up on the New York Times, though. They need to be held accountable. If information is as common as air, though, then how do these people, doing an essential job, get paid?

My conclusion right now is that reportage will become a public good. Like roads, law enforcement, and a clean environment, an active information society is something that benefits everyone, that is essential to our civilization, and that no one wants to pay for. Like most public goods, the answer might be that government will have to pick up the tab. I’m not too opitimistic about this, given that PBS is plagued by pledge drives and that the News Hour with Jim Lehrer is not exactly gripping material. However, I’m not able to come up with a better alternative at the present time. We need something like an American version of the BBC.

Print is dying, but information is more vibrant than every. Newspapers, and books as well, will go the way of the illuminated manuscript. The essence of those things, though, will remain. Romanticizing old technology, I think, can be something of a trap. As many problems as modernization may bring, we all too often forget that we live in an extraordinary age.

  1. I agree that print is likely to die in the near future, and I have no real problem with that. However the concept of a publicly funded news organization as the main outlet is troubling. The BBC is certainly well regarded, but I don’t think the US version would have the same credibility. While it is clear that politicians and the government are adept at manipulating the media, I have to believe it would be worse and likely less obvious if the government owned the presses.

    I suggest it is much more likely that our wonderful, free, online news sites will slowly become less free and that more and more ads will creep in to subsidize their existence. NewsCorp (bastion of honest press that it is) has already announced that they will be converting most of their sites to a pay for content model.

  2. I don’t know if ad revenue will be enough to fund something on the scale of the Washington Post, though. I’d rather have privately owned reportage, but I don’t think that there’s a future in it. I’ve been reading the NY Times for years, but have never paid for it, and don’t want to. There are lots of people, too many, who do the same thing.

    I think that publicly funded media (distinct from “government run” media) is the least bad solution. Ideally, we would be able to pay for everything voluntarily, but we don’t live in that kind of world.

  3. I think one problem is the model: newspapers should be run like non-profits. This whole idea that they’re an investment that should make money is past. And idiotic. But I digress…

    The REAL problem is -and llama, you should know this- that without print media, we’re totally screwed in the apocalypse. You know that we will wander the wastelands with little to keep us sane except an ancient and decrepit copy of “Catcher in the Rye” (missing three pages in the middle) and a much annotated copy of “The DaVinci Code” which we will believe explains the cause of the apocalypse. People never wander futurescape wastelands with Kindles or internet connections.

    Interestingly, I just read yesterday that Amazon has not disclosed Kindle sales, although ebooks only make up 1% of book sales nationally. What does that mean? Would you expect, what, one year of the Kindle to make a deep impression, visible in national book sales? Or is that in and of itself impressive? (Stupid Oregonian, not answering my questions in their articles.)

    Actually, the whole “instead of your college textbooks” thing is the first decent argument I’ve seen for the Kindle. I like books. I like reading them, how they feel, how they smell. But having all my textbooks, for all four years, in one little device… with all the handouts and worksheets and articles and notes… with my annotations and highlighting and no one else’s…. That sounds pretty good to me.

  4. What about beautiful printed objects? Even from somewhat archaic technology, these things are growing in popularity (as evidenced by my business). You write, “Romanticizing old technology, I think, can be something of a trap…”. What sort of trap, pray tell, I am in? : P

  5. First Kristin: I don’t think that your business has anything to do with the decline of print. I know that might sound weird, but what you make are commodities and consumer items. People want what you make for aesthetic value.

    I don’t read the New York Times because it’s beautiful, I read it because of the information it has. I choose to get that information without having to bother with the newspaper as a commodity, and other people are making the same decision.

    Sydney: I like the idea of newspapers being run by nonprofits, but I don’t know how viable they’d be without assistance. The problem I see is that they’ll be producing information, something necessary and weirdly worthless, much like oxygen.

    I don’t think the Kindle is powerful enough yet. It’s clunky and books don’t look differentiated on it. I might sound like I’m contradicting myself here, but having information differentiated is nice. I like that the NYTimes looks different from Slate. The Kindle doesn’t provide that experience. However, portable readers someday will, which is the important part.

    Moreover, people talk about the physical experience of books. With ebooks, there will probably be new experiences associated with reading. There’s a lot you can do with web design, and talented authors might some day actually work it into their narratives, a la House of Leaves.

    As for the apocalypse, we’re screwed anyway, books or no. I’m sure we’ll run out of shotgun shells before the wasteland runs out of zombies.

  6. Oh yeah! “Romanticizing old technology, I think, can be something of a trap…” Here’s what I mean by that: Nostalgia taints reasoned assessment of things, and people get attached to technology for sentimental and emotional reasons that have nothing to do with the utility that the technology ultimately provides.

    A good example of this is “classic” cars. As nice looking as a lot of old cars are, I would take a 2009 Prius over a ’65 Mustang any day. The newer technology is simply better. The old one has more romantic cache, but it isn’t more useful in any real way. There is no reason to by a ’65 Mustang except for sentiment, and that blinds us to the fact that there are better possibilities. In this case, you consume less gas and have a back seat.

    More generally, though, I don’t think that we should look backward. I think that dwelling on the “good old days” is a somewhat cynical activity that blinds us both to the reality of the past and the possibilities of the present. We have an immense panoply of stuff in front of us, and life is better now for more people than at any point ever in human history. There is so much at our disposal to make the world awesome, and while I don’t want to sound like a naive idealist, I do think that we are on to something. If I could choose any time to live in, I really would choose the present. We have it good, and forget that too often.

  7. I guess this means people will stop subscribing to my bi-weekly newsletter. A shame, I thought my pamphlet industry was booming due to low overhead and combined ad space with Thai take-out menus. What do you suggest I slap on windshields then?

    I agree that media (t.v. included) will have to reformat their approach to make profit on the current technological trends. Social websites, Hulu, iTunes, and a host of other sites have threatened traditional revenue sources and have sent parent companies scrambling to find another way. They want to adopt the new technology, but not until they can find a way to get money out of it. Hulu is a good example. All the major broadcasting companies have entered into contracts with the site. Now the issue is that it’s too successful. They fear that it will drive down cable subscriptions and DVD sales, and the advertisement dollars are not enough to make up for the loss. They fail to realize that they have greatly expanded their viewership, and most of these people are paying for a fast cable modem to watch these streaming shows. I can understand why they shouldn’t post entire seasons on the site, but they may find a way to make that happen as well. Print media needs to find a median between online access, advertising and subscription. I’m sure they’ll obtain a model soon. As for a state run/funded print news media…perhaps we should look at some of the countries that have it like DRoCongo, N. Korea, China, and Turkmenistan. The past U.S. administration had hotwired the private media for their own purposes, we don’t need to hand them the keys.

    However we should not disregard the past. Back in the day some things were done better. In the past decades there was a full pursuit into genetically altered food, convinience food loaded with HFCS, and ground meat with acceptable levels of bone shards and fecal matter. There was an outpouring of negative health externalities, which industry researchers tried to circumvent with added chemicals, like Saccharin and Olestra. Now we are seeing a wonderful revival of farmer’s markets, organic food, local food intiatives, community gardens, and food co-ops because some one was nostalgic about farm fresh eggs and meat. Yes new technology has brought us the Prius, but it also brought us the H3. Let’s look forward while keeping an eye on our peripherals and rear view mirror.

  8. I think Paul makes some good points. The only thing I would add at this point is that I think there is a tendency for youth to over-estimate the breadth to which new technology has spread and how quickly modern technology is adopted. People our age really like Hulu… people our parents age, who still have 20-35 good years as consumers are still a large and viable part of the market base. I think the next few years will see media struggling to find a balance between the two market shares.

  9. I’m absolutely against state run media. However, I don’t really see how information can make money in the long term. If we need something as a public good, but it is ultimately unprofitable, then the least-bad course of action is public funding. That’s public funding as distinct from state control. It’s not like Congress can control what’s on PBS.

    As for the influence of technology- we always get it wrong. There is always something that people don’t see coming or miscalculate, and the future always makes some people’s predictions look foolish. I hope I’m wrong, actually. I hope that selling information in non-printed form will make lots of people lots of money without public assistance.

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