Wednesday, January 28, 2009

An Orwellian Twist To The Death of Print

In George Orwell's classic novel "1984," our tragic hero Winston Smith works for the totalitarian government in the records department of the Ministry of Truth. Smith spends his days at work rewriting newspaper articles and books for the government, to better fit their message to the masses. The image Orwell invokes is of a massive overreaching government that retains it's power by owning and controlling the media, the banks, and stores, along with always trying to keep the populace united with some dubious foreign war.

Americans often reference "1984" when they see government overreaching beyond its role and extending its involvement in our lives far more than it ever should. It's only natural, for many of the scenarios from the book have manifested into reality. We have Orwellian nightmares at the thought of security cameras watching our every move, the Federal government buying a share in national banks, bailouts of national and multinational companies, and any attempt by the government to control the media. For right wing Republicans, they see it as a fear of socialism, with an inefficient government usurping the role of private enterprise. For lefty/liberal folks like me, it's a fear of an all powerful right wing leaning government interfering in our private lives and restricting our rights and freedom. In either case, this healthy fear of a powerful government, so amazingly explored by Orwell back in 1948, has worked to help limit the power of government in our lives.

In Seattle we have two local newspapers, both struggling in poorer economic times in an industry that is rapidly being replaced by a new medium. The death of print will be slow and long, but the first casualties have already fallen. The biggest die off is being seen with print serials; newspapers and magazines. The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Weekly have all been struggling. We've seen their page counts and print runs shrink in size, it's really quite sad.

It's becoming a digital world, and the reality is, print serials are going to have a much smaller place in it. Hell, they already do. And that scenario, for many people, is hard to face--especially for older people that grew up reading newspapers and magazines (unlike today's youth). Believe me, I know this first hand. When Tablet, the magazine my friends and I published, faced dwindling advertising revenues and ever-increasing print costs, we began to slowly accumulate debt. We struggled for years with it before finally realizing our business model wasn't working and we'd eventually have to not only pull the plug on our dreams of publishing our own independent magazine, but also the dreams of hundreds of writers, photographers, artists, proofreaders, editors and volunteers who were part of a cool community of people all working towards the same goal. Finally we stopped when we knew we could no longer afford to publish, and three years later we are still paying off the debt from the venture.

You're probably asking yourself now where I'm going with this. First introducing my distaste for government owned media through the example of "1984," then talking about the struggling local media in Seattle, and finally discussing my own publishing experience and knowing when to pull the plug. I'm talking about a number of issues that have been running through my head lately about the death of print, but it was all brought to light by the news stories surrounding the last dying gasps of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The Hearst Corporation, who owns The PI, announced a few months ago that the paper was up for sale. The clincher to the announcement was that Hearst would shut down the paper if it didn't find a buyer. Many Seattlelites were up in arms, "Seattle needs two papers for more balanced and fair news!" they exclaimed. I think underlying feeling, though, was a liberal town like Seattle shouldn't lose it's more liberal and news-oriented paper. Let's face it, The Seattle Times has a lot more fluff pieces and leans to the right, left wing Seattle wouldn't be up in arms if that was the paper that was facing closure.

Interesting in the debate to me is not how loud and desperate the voices are to save The PI, but how few there are. Most people just don't care or already expected it. Times certainly have changed, newspapers are failing all over the country, I think people realize Seattle can't support two daily papers anymore. And young people just don't read the newspaper, they get their news from TV and the Web. As far as I'm concerned, whether The PI fails now, or gets bought and fails three years from now, it's future is clear. The only way it would survive is if it was the only game in town, and the privately-owned Seattle Times isn't going anywhere.

The most ludicrous and desperate attempt to save The PI surfaced yesterday from City Counsel member Nick Licata. Normally a pretty smart guy, Licata, according to KOMO 4 News, has proposed the idea of a city government buy the paper. What? Are you kidding me? Struggling economy/there's no way we can afford it issues aside, if there is one thing most on the left and right can agree on, it's that the government should not own the media. Fair and balanced news does not come from the government. To me the thought of a government-owned paper is like giving the finger to democracy and the independent media. Licata, however, disagrees. He says, "When we eliminate newspapers, we're essentially dumbing down democracy. Democracy is based on knowledge. If you limit the access to knowledge, you're going to get bad decisions. Or you're going to have decisions based on spur-of-the moment emotions, based on fears, based on sort of panic situations."

Uh, I hate to break it to Nick Licata and his Orwellian scenario of government owned media, but... You're old! You didn't grow up with computers and the Web like the last couple generations. The model in which news is delivered has changed. Our "access to knowledge" isn't limited by not having the opportunity to pay for day old news delivered to our doorstep on an environmentally wasteful medium. We read news instantly when it happens on our desktop and phones, 24/7. Rather than being dumbed-down, we have access to ever-expanding network of data sources and an ever-increasing ability to process and filter it. We fact check news articles ourselves, hop from news story to database to blog for more information and a wider range of perspectives, and we let our own interests guide our news reading. It's a dynamic and different world for younger generations that just doesn't support the old print model anymore.

I, like Nick Licata, am nostalgic for the time when print was the main medium for news and we didn't spend countless hours online. I've spent twenty years of my life publishing zines, newspapers and magazines, print media and publishing are near and dear to my heart. But read the writing on the wall Nick. Desperate Orwellian measures like government takeovers will not save print newspapers in today's environment. Newspapers are being left behind in the digital world, either get with the times or get left behind with them.

Update: Lisa Herbold from Nick Licata's office contacted me to say the KOMO article I linked to "grossly misinterprets Nick's comments" and Licata has made no such formal proposal to counsel. So my outrage may have been misplaced, although it sure sounds like he was floating the idea. Licata hosted a public forum on the issue today, so more accurate and up-to-date news will follow. Lisa went on to say Licata is advocating public funding to buy the PI, but not government funding, under "a new model of ownership that is called a L3C." I'd love for more info on that plan... and still, I find myself wondering why government is getting involved at all. And I stick by my reasons why Seattle cannot support two daily papers in the digital age, it's a different world today.


Anonymous said...

Nick did not propose City funds to bail out the PI. If you'd like to learn more, feel free to contact me (Lisa) in his office. I'll send you some background as well either way. Hopefully, you are listening to the forum that's happening right now - of which 1/2 has been devoted to discussion new media. Please don't give online reporting a bad name and contact the subject of your reporting before blogging. The health and vitality of the public discourse may very well lie in your hands. Nick just now announced that "the City of Seattle does not intend to buy the PI." And everyone laughed.

Dan 10Things said...

Hi Lisa, thanks for your feedback. The KOMO 4 article I linked to said:

"Licata's plan: convince the city to intervene by putting up its own money to keep in print the oldest newspaper in town... P-I reporter Larry Lange isn't sold on Licata's idea of a government-funded newspaper, even if it means he'll get to keep his job."

KING and KOMO were both reporting on it this morning. Are you saying they were both incorrect? They definitely were the source for my rant. If people laughed when Nick announced that, I'm not alone in catching the story in the local news and having an opinion on it. Seems like my little blog is the least of your worries in setting the story right. I'd love to here his real plan. I still don't understand why the government should be getting involved at all, but I'm happy to write a correction given more information.

BTW, while I love your enthusiasm, you're being just a wee bit over-dramatic. I've never claimed to be an online reporter in any way, this is one person's tiny blog, mostly about punk rock music. Gawd knows how I get 5,000 hits a month. But I don't have the funds or resources to track down counsel members or to participate in public forums, that sadly (or strategically) are always scheduled when 95% of the public is at work.