February 1, 2010

Newspapers in the Age of i-Perbole

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Hyperbole (hī-pûr’bə-lē)

Noun

1. A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect

2. Rhetorical device of choice for contemporary journalists of all stripes

— American Heritage Dictionary [modified]

Something remarkable happened when Steve Jobs strode out on stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco last Wednesday. As the Apple CEO revealed a new computer — cased in a glossy 9.5-by-7.5-inch frame — a bold, four-lettered neologism flashed against the stage’s black backdrop: iPad.

And everything changed.

From some, the visual triggered a barrage of celebratory tweets and texts; from others, a string of unnecessary menstruation jokes. But there was another reaction as well: The print media representatives in the audience that day, downcast and punch-drunk from quarter after quarter of record losses … they saw something different. In that machine, and in that four-letter word, they perceived something wholly more fantastic and astonishing:

Behold: Jesus Christ, tablet computer

Thus it was written, Steve Jobs descended from the mountaintop, Apple tablets in hand, to lead newspaper writers to salvation. Soon, all the children of the land were reading Maureen Dowd on the reg. And it was good …

Or, you know, something like that. Uh huh.

***

But let’s back up for a second.

Of all the tired journalistic tropes in circulation these days, “the death of the newspaper” ranks just under “the Tea Party movement” for sheer annoyance. Though the former suggests a real and alarming shift in our country’s sociopolitical landscape, the media’s coverage has proved scarcely more nuanced than the typical Glenn Beck screed. Journalism’s role as an independent watchdog becomes more and more compromised with each passing day, but strong, cogent analysis of the problem is hard to come by. What you tend to find, sorting through the veritable avalanche of news copy dedicated to the issue, are variations on the same two lazy, intractable positions:

Writers of the Old Media persuasion — those in the employ of newspapers and magazines — mostly just expound on the sanctity of the print form. (And, by contrast, on the intellectually enfeebled character of that newfangled blogosphere.) Old school publishers grudgingly post their content online, but constantly threaten to erect pay walls to shield their original reporting from web-surfing freeloaders.

On the flip side, New Media acolytes insist that the future of journalism is necessarily collaborative and multidimensional in ways best facilitated by the Internet. Newspapers, they argue, are an antiquated form.

But where exactly does that leave us? For all the bravado, what does the actual data indicate?

Well, the pay wall theory was tested out by Newsday, Long Island’s most widely circulated newspaper. Its publishers launched a pay service in November, and blocked all content to non-subscribers. Thus far they have garnered a whopping 35 paying members. (Ruh Roh.) More broadly speaking, it’s highly questionable that pay walls would make a major impact even for the most popular papers.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, things aren’t looking much better. Despite all the big talk, even the most widely viewed Internet news site doesn’t generate the kind of revenue stream that could support the far-reaching operations of a major newspaper. Most web-based news sources (the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, for instance) mainly produce opinions — at a relatively meager cost — and rely on Old Media vestiges like the Associated Press and The New York Times for their news content.

Therein lies the rub: In the market of Old, print media was a stupendously lucrative advertising medium — earning far greater revenues than comparable websites could hope to rake in — but the Internet effectively rendered those market advantages obsolete.

The new reality: Advertising is a less and less reliable source of revenue, and people aren’t likely to make up the difference by paying for news they can get for free. Thus, opinion writing, with its relatively lower costs, is a publisher’s best bet.

And there you have it: Newspapers are shuttering their doors, while the media landscape — spurred by the renaissance of opinion journalism — more and more resembles some hellish partisan echo chamber. Each side of the conflict digs in, unwilling to budge from its position. And nobody wins.

***

How do you maintain the quality of news reporting in a post-paper landscape? It’s an incredibly tricky question. The natural instinct, when presented with this sort of conundrum, is to wax apocalyptic and cling to hyperbolic and ideologically rigid theories. They’re simply easier to digest. The problem is, these ideas are all but certain to ring false under scrutiny.

To wit: In an institution as battered as the American newspaper, any product that even so much as hints at a return to viability will engender a certain level of messianic veneration. This much proved true in the case of the iPad. Many suggested that a tablet PC designed by Apple would act as some kind of elixir for the industry’s failing business model. What’s more, it would apparently reaffirm the cultural significance of journalism by allowing consumers to engage with the news in exciting, novel ways … Somehow …

Developments like the iPad are productive in that they at least encourage a mode of thinking somewhat removed from the zero-sum rhetoric that tends to govern these debates. However, the same pitfalls still apply even when the conversation is redefined. The hype over the Apple tablet belies the depth of the problems facing journalism. Business models don’t re-write themselves overnight, even with the aid of Steve Jobs and his pretty toys. The real work begins here.

The newspaper is dead. Long live the newspaper.

Peter Finocchiaro, a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a former Arts and Entertainment Editor of The Sun. He may be reached at pfinocchiaro@cornellsun.com. Everyone Choose Sides appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Peter Finocchiaro