Authors and print journalists have one thing in common, and no, I’m not talking about writing.
Today’s “print” journalism isn’t so much about print. More and more, it’s about posting videos online, then finessing keywords and creating vague headlines to ensure they get hits, page views, visits or whatever. None of that has much to do with writing, and none of it does anything to help with literacy. Neither does laying off copy editors, line editors and staff writers (note the word “writers” in that last title).
We who write books still – gasp – actually write. Sure, we put out ebooks, utilize keywords in marketing and go after a “target audience,” but we don’t obscure or massage the facts in order to do so. Authors were never meant to be public watchdogs. Some of us are, but we take that mantle voluntarily, not because it’s part of our job description.
It is – or was, once upon a time – part of what it meant to be a journalist. Ever wonder why attacks on journalism as “fake news” have gained so much traction? It’s easy to blame ego-driven politicians, but not so easy for media companies to look in the mirror. The more these companies sacrifice their own credibility at the SEO altar (that’s “search engine optimization,” for the uninitiated), the less reason people have to believe them. Or to buy what they’re selling.
The fewer journalists actually attend public meetings, the less reason anyone has to believe they know what’s going on. You can’t be a watchdog if you ain’t watchin’!
This isn’t the fault of front-line journalists, who, increasingly, are asked to do more with fewer resources. They’re heroes, in my book. It’s the fault of the companies that employ them. While they’re tasked, increasingly, with things that have less and less to do with writing and reporting, we authors are doing pretty much the same thing we’ve always done: Looking for interesting stories (in our own heads and in the world at large), and doing our best to entertain, inform and challenge our readers.
That doesn’t mean authors are better than front-line journalists, merely that we are given more freedom to pursue our craft than today’s journalists enjoy. That wasn’t always the case.
No, writing isn’t what we authors have in common with journalists. Not anymore. What we share is a struggle to remain visible in a world that offers an explosion of media choices. Anyone who wants to can publish a blog and call himself a journalist, and anyone can self-publish a book at proclaim, “Hey! I’m an author!” Her books might be good – or they might not. But who has time to weed through all the pig slop to get to find that diamond in the trough?
In truth, we have less time than ever for such pursuits. And the world has catered to our increasingly frenetic lives by serving up fast-food information via iPhones and sound bites, condensing complex issues into Twitter-pated bullshit that can be spewed by anyone in 280 characters or fewer.
Media companies have responded by mimicking their own worst enemy: posting on Twitter, adapting their format to fit “handheld devices” and making news more disposable than it used to be when the morning paper got recycled at the bottom of a birdcage in the opening sequence of Lou Grant.
By contrast, we authors are doing what we’ve always done: writing.
Media companies, faced with declining circulation despite their “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” embrace of social media, go out begging potential readers for attention. “You can subscribe to our online service for just $9.95 a month!” they declare. “It’s a bargain!”
Authors make similar pitches: “You can have hours of reading pleasure for just $9.95! You can’t beat that!”
Both products are worth about the same as a couple of cups of coffee at Starbucks or a ticket to a movie matinee. So, the question arises: If you only have $9.95, which one should you buy?
My answer is: the book. And I’ll tell you why.
More bang for your buck
Prices have gone up for both products. That’s inflation for you. But what are you getting for your buck?
Books are still about the same length as they’ve always been, with just as much content and just as much work put in on the front end.
The opposite is true for newspapers. With all those writers and editors being shown the door, the breadth and depth of newspaper content isn’t anywhere near what it used to be. Newspapers have become the fast-food burger of reading: The price gets bigger as the product gets smaller. And not just when it comes to the number of pages. If you’re not covering the city council meeting, the school board or the Friday night football game, seriously, what’s the point?
Yeah, local newspapers are still putting out some good content, but it’s a small fraction of what you used to find in their pages. And it’s nothing close to comprehensive. By contrast, a 340-page book in 1979 is still a 340-page book 40 years later. You’ll find as many vivid characters, as many twists and as much good information between the front and back cover as you ever did.
None of this should be taken as an argument that books are intrinsically better than newspapers. This is about value for the consumer’s dollar, not an assessment of the two media’s inherent worth. They perform different functions, both essential – and that makes the decline of the daily newspaper even more lamentable.
Three decades ago, I probably would have deemed newspapers a better value than books. Given the Draconian cuts in staffing, resources, content and the number of pages in your daily paper, I simply can’t say that now. Compare a six-section, 72-page paper of 30 years ago to a two-section, 16-page edition today.
Is it any wonder subscribers are heading for the exits?
Newspapers are being made – and, it could be argued, have already been rendered – obsolete by the internet. That’s tragic, and it’s certainly not the fault of front-line journalists, but it won’t do us any good to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it hasn’t happened.
But here’s the good news: Books are as robust and relevant as ever.
So, if you’re offered a choice between a monthly newspaper subscription and a book for that $9.95, my advice is to buy the book. Newspapers have already lost the battle to the internet. And, with their decision to abandon comprehensive local news coverage, they offer very little in the way of content you can’t find online. We authors haven’t given an inch in our battle to stay both evocative and relevant. That’s why I’m proud to be one. I’m still a journalist; I just find my stories in the past these days, digging up nearly forgotten nuggets to share in the realm of historical nonfiction.
And I’m actually writing. Imagine that! It’s a hell of a lot more fun than spending most of my day plugging in keywords, filming videos and sweating bullets in the increasingly desperate hope that someone out there is still paying attention. That’s what the current media culture demands of many good, hardworking journalists who would much rather be writing and reporting. When they do, their work still shines. It just shines far less brightly than it once did. That’s not their fault. But it is, unfortunately, their reality and ours.
For more on the decline and fall of journalism in the 21st century, check out my book Media Meltdown, available on Amazon.