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Are newspaper's old hat?

By Dave Riley

There's a perennial discussion ad infinitum to the effect that newspapers are old hat. That like the 'paperless office' New Media rules.

This is the sort of topic that keeps Rupert Murdoch awake at night. He thinks perhaps anxiously in insomnia mode: If not paper, then what sort of 'space' can I sell other than the column inch? (For a man who has everything -- movie studios, TV and radio stations, record companies... you have to sympathise.)

This question is addressed in a post on or by Clay Shirk Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.

But really is it so unthinkable, what ever Clay Shirk thinks?

A lot of this perennial discussion ad infinitum is sidetracked by pondering the medium rather than the content. Content is deliverable any old how and when you come down to tin tacks does it matter? At some point it has to settle on such basic questions of whether you have a dollar for the daily rag or a bit more to pay for web access -- or whether you watch TV or listen to the radio.

And if these options are going to be ruled by money matters then price will out.

The complication is -- as the essay/post argues -- the real marker is who pays the piper. (Or as Rupert would surely ask: what's in it for me?)

Granted there has been a shift in consumption. My father would buy -- in the fifties and sixties -- two newspapers per day, and two other weekly rags; and my mother would maybe indulge herself with a weekly "Women's" magazine purchase.

When Charles Dickens was alive and writing that's how the Brits got their Oliver Twist or Pickwick Papers just as later on in the pages of The Strand, Sherlock Holmes mysteries could be had for penny a chapter.

Same content. Same words. Their meaning doesn't shift because they move house.

Of course if I get Dickens read to me -- as Dickens was so often shared that way in Victorian times-- there is going to be a different nuance to the paragraphs, but it still is going to be the same plot, same characters, despite the fact that the book which was a 300 page serial is now aural.

The complication is that the web is anti text. I know we read on the web all the time. I know that you are reading this. But after 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000...20,000 words (whatever your limit) you are going to drop out of our reading circle.

That's what the web does. It encourages you to seek out and only tolerate short swags of text. You aren't going to read Das Kapital on the web are you? Nor would you read Oliver Twist -- one of Dicken's shortest novels....

But how much of anything would you be prepared to read? Especially if it was a news item.

That, I think, is the tyranny of the New Media.

The irony is that newspapers are ruled by the dictum,"all the news that fits" -- but on the web, space is infinite. You can try to fill all that space with as many words you can imagine.

But the exact opposite happens in online newspapers or at least web based news: the post or the article gets shortened into digestible units -- some often less than 300 words.

Thats' the trick you see. The web parcels text out in morsels and each morsel is buoyed up by other morsels so that news and text is this massive collage of segments competing for your attention. In the end, 'truth' if you seek such a thing, comes down to the wire as a consensus between different sources.

If I'm going to write journalism --which I do -- I can pursue the web route which means that for at least part of my article I repackage the content already out there and online. While I don't have to rely on News Corp the content is still going to be very much the same. Same topic. Similar selection of facts, quotations and the like.

What differs is spin.

This isn't a Postmodernist schema as content, regardless of how much I tweak it to my own POV, is still ruled by the real world of our experience off line. ( Even Second Life is ruled by our non virtual lives.)

Then there is the clincher: if I walk away from my computer how do I carry that content with me?

The tragedy is that words -- written down words -- don't port so well.I can walk away with digital video , images and audio strung around my neck , in my handbag , or in my pocket for later viewing/listening -- but the WRITTEN WORDS where am I going to put those?

[Here's an idea! Why don't we print them out onto paper! Then later we can leaf through these paper pages and read these WRITTEN WORDS one after the other.]

What changes en route is Rupert Murdoch's means of making money out of it.

However, the way we read is changing very fast. The web in terms of text is like the shower of digital numbers in The Matrix. It forces us to graze. There's no beginning nor end. There's no front nor back cover. The web rains words and all we can do is grab our share of them one morsel at a time. So we surf the words and sample as we go because the web is ruled by customized indexes which we brows. But we do that anyway. That's how we live. We choose what we want from everything that's around us -- on and off line. Its' just that on the web our attention is so focused on that task as though we are reading all the books in the library at the same time.

So WORDS may still rule but only in small portions. Will newspapers? Ask Rupert....

1 Com:

editor1pr | March 18, 2009

"Then there is the clincher: if I walk away from my computer how do I carry that content with me?"

You might not have to. We're only months away from an 8.5x11 wireless-capable "reader" you can roll up and put in your shirt pocket, and use to access and read whatever you want, including newspapers, wherever you are. Like bringing an entire warehouse with you wherever you go, easily accessed.

The magic trick continues to be figuring out how to make it worth anyone's time to gather the information in the first place. If it's not a job for someone to simply gather useful information, some of it will fall increasingly on the people with axes to grind, grievances to air, products to sell. A decade or two of that and maybe someone will be willing to pay for information gathered by someone who just wants to find out what the heck is going on and tell you about it.


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