Riding the Juggernaut That Left Print Behind
by David Carr
Even if you aren’t one of those people worried about media consolidation — there are many in that number — the big bolt of lightning last week that pierced a summer of ennui in entertainment and publishing news was hard to resist.
The unrequited bid that Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox made for Time Warner Inc. had it all: defensive consolidations taking shape in both distribution and content production; two like-size media behemoths in an awkward, high-stakes dance; secret meetings; board intrigue; and a naked grab for size and power. Plus, there was the gift that keeps on giving: Mr. Murdoch on the prowl.
It was as if a big train with the word FUTURE emblazoned on its side was revving up. But it was difficult not to notice that one car had been uncoupled and would not be leaving the station.
Even though both companies involved in the merger discussions were built on print franchises — Mr. Murdoch’s newspaper empire, and the storied Time Inc. magazine brand — neither owns print assets anymore. In fact, 21st Century Fox is in a position to make a deal and Time Warner is an attractive target partly because they both got rid of slow-growth print divisions. To the extent that the proposal offered a crystal ball on the future of media, print doesn’t seem as if it will be much a part of it.
Mr. Murdoch moved onto his next quarry only after he had quarantined his own print assets under a separate public company. And Time Warner took on new allure when it shed those dowdy old magazine properties that now trade under their own ticker. Print has lost value in business realms because it has, in fundamental ways, lost traction with you and me.
Think about what happened when the Malaysian airliner was shot down in eastern Ukraine. No matter where you were, or what you were doing, an ambient feed of information pulsed and heaved all around you. Graphic images soon appeared in social media feeds and breathless news alerts arrived in the inboxes of anyone with even a casual interest.
I happened to be at CNN for a taping session when news of the downed jetliner broke, and you could see the entire apparatus come roaring to life, getting everything in place to cover the kind of story — big stakes, scary pictures and international consequences — that a 24-hour news channel was made for. Then again, given the ubiquity of information and delivery devices, we already sort of live in an always-on news network.
Between the flood of information online and the wall-to-wall television coverage, what is left for print? The Wall Street Journal devoted special reports and remarkable video to the events in Ukraine and Gaza. And The New York Times responded like the digital news organization it is becoming. Vivid on-scene reporting was accompanied by early video, with step-back analysis of what it all meant.
I am a faithful reader of The Journal’s and The Times’s print edition. Both are built on a wonderful technology for discovering and consuming news, and a large part of their profits still reside in that daily artifact. But when big things happen, I stayed glued to the web, at The Times and other great news sites.
Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now, and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.
But once a sponge is at capacity, new information can only replace old information. Last month, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand published a study that found that comprehension, concentration and retention all went off a cliff when information was taken in online. (Then again, there are those who say that we see everything and remember nothing because we don’t have to, that the web now serves as our memory.)
Online, we are always beckoned forward to the next great thing, often right in the middle of what we thought we wanted to read about. Consider how many times you have clicked a link early in an article and never returned to what brought you there in the first place.
As somebody who lives in the news cycle, is far too engaged on Twitter and has almost as many devices for consuming media as I do fingers, I’m not so much a digital native as a digital casualty.
For the last six months, my magazines, once a beloved and essential part of my media diet, have been piling up, patiently waiting for some mindshare, only to be replaced by yet another pile that will go unread. I used to think that people who could not keep up with The New Yorker were shallow individuals with suspect priorities. Now I think of them as just another desperate fellow traveler, bobbing in a sea of information none of us will see to the bottom of. We remain adrift.
As Alexis Madrigal wrote in The Atlantic, “it is easier to read ‘Ulysses’ than it is to read the Internet. Because at least ‘Ulysses’ has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The Internet is never finished.”
I don't miss the smudged ink on my fingers at all. Far too my ruined ties and dirty white shirts to mourn the loss of newsprint.
My husband and I are both writers and avid consumers of information. But that's where the similarity ends and our worlds diverge.
Most of the "breathless news alerts" in my Inbox arrive from The New York Times. Who still own a print division, from what I understand.
Some days, when I board the bus or train to the city, I’ll stash a print copy of The Journal in my bag with a magazine or two, in high hopes of reading them. And after I settle in, I will check my email on my phone. The relevant message usually comes in faster than I can get rid of it. Sometimes when people ask what I do for a living, I am tempted to say that I write emails.
On Thursday, I was scheduled to take a three-hour train ride up the Hudson Valley and I decided this was it — a clean block of time to rectify my print deficit. I picked a doozy of a day: The news cycle seemed to go on tilt, with the downed jetliner, the Israeli ground invasion in Gaza and the untangling of an immense proposed media merger. But I resisted, leaving my devices in the bag and pulling out a stack of magazines.
I read New York magazine’s delicious profile of the journalist Kara Swisher of Recode, took in a long interview that the Virginia Quarterly Review conducted with one of the world’s leading origami makers and stared at an exquisite photo essay in The Pitchfork Review. I grazed the sassy delights of The Hollywood Reporter, and in Fast Company, I learned how Mark Zuckerberg wants to own our (increasingly) mobile lives.
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Purposefully, but not in a hurry, I caught up on the remarkable television and film writing in The New Yorker and contemplated interesting, different versions of being a male in GQ and Esquire.
I was having a moment, one without informational angst or FOMO (fear of missing out). And when I finished something, I spent time staring out the window at the unspeakably pretty Hudson River. I came to rest.
Still, there was some trouble in paradise on the Ethan Allen Express. More than a few people around me were cursing the indifferent Wi-Fi as they desperately tried to remain tethered to the grid. Behind me, a passenger made serial phone calls in a mind-erasing loud voice. “I’m on the train!” he would always begin.
It struck me that part of the reason we always stay jacked in is that we want everyone — at the other end of the phone, on Facebook and Twitter, on the web, on email — to know that we are part of the now. If we look away, we worry we will disappear.
We are all on that train, the one that left print behind, the one where we are constantly in real time, where we know a little about everything and nothing about anything, really. And there is no quiet car.