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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: newspapers

Books are a better value than newspapers — and it's no contest

Stephen H. Provost

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 mantel 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 journalists sacrifice their own creditability 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’!

We authors, meanwhile, 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.

Shared struggle

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.

Journalists 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.

Journalists, 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 are 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.

Newspapers are being made – and, it could be argued, have already been rendered – obsolete by the internet. That’s tragic, 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.

For more on the decline and fall of journalist in the 21st century, check out my book Media Meltdown, available on Amazon.

 

 

Media Meltdown: Blurb for my new book

Stephen H. Provost

Here's the blurb for my forthcoming book, "Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump," due out June 1. Pictured above is the full cover:

Some politicians use the media to their advantage. Others reshape it in their image.

Had the political force that is Donald J. Trump met the immovable object that was the American news media in the 20th century, the result would have been predictable. Trump would have vanished without a trace, along with such wannabes and also-rans as Edmund Muskie, Howard Dean, Gary Hart and John Edwards.

Today, however, the once-powerful Fourth Estate might as well be in foreclosure, shattered into a million pieces by cable television, talk radio and the internet. Newspapers, their stranglehold on information broken, are on life support. Gutted by cost-cutting and consolidation, they see the very same digital platforms that crippled them as their last, best hope for salvation. Television news, meanwhile, has descended from Cronkite and Brinkley into a three-ring circus of breaking news and talking (or shouting) heads.    

Trump, a carnival barker of a president, has taken for himself the role of ringmaster, using his chaotic style and the power of his office to dominate the spotlight. At once condemning and exploiting the media, he's transformed the presidency into a reality show, complete with multiple scandals and cliffhangers to keep everyone tuned in.

He didn’t arrive out of nowhere. The way for his ascent was paved by the media themselves, hungry for drama to stoke ratings and boost subscriptions. When cable and the internet began siphoning off readers/viewers by targeting their built-in biases, the nation became polarized and the gloves came off. Civility was sidelined, spin became the MVP, and the referees – the mainstream media – were benched.

This is the story of how carnival journalism has supplanted and, in some cases, co-opted what’s left of the mainstream media, and how politicians like Trump have both fueled and profited from the change. Is any of this good for the nation? A game without a referee might be more fun to watch, but is it fair? Media Meltdown provides some of the answers.

Literacy on life support: The decline and fall of written language

Stephen H. Provost

Motion pictures didn’t kill writing. Neither did television.

We who love the written word took comfort in the fact that authors such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown could still use it to captivate mass audiences. Good writing was alive and well, we thought. Reports of its demise were premature and, we believed, greatly exaggerated.

Or were they?

Death can come suddenly, but far more often, it creeps up on us. It hides in the shadows of our own denial. Lurking there, it bides its time, numbing us to the signs of its looming presence. We barely notice that we’ve embarked upon a long, slow walk toward our demise. Our decline is subtle, our transformation gradual.

One day, we stop running. Farther down the road, we labor to walk … and then to stand. If we notice this regression, we do so reluctantly. Fatigue whispers in one ear and apathy in the other: “Accept it. Ignore it. It’s not really as bad as it seems.” And so forth. We acclimate to a “new normal” and forget what the old normal was, because it’s too painful to remember and even more painful to pursue — until, at last, it eludes our grasp entirely.

Movies weren’t the end of books, and television didn’t kill magazines or newspapers, but the regression from the age of literacy continues apace — indeed, accelerates. This is no seasonal illness; it’s become a chronic condition, and the symptoms are no longer just a few, but myriad.

  • We favor sound bites over policy proposals.
  • We accept tweets as our favored form of prose and elect their foremost proponent as our president.
  • We shutter bookstores, and we learn about novels only when Hollywood makes them movies; then we don’t bother to read them, because we’ve seen the ending on the big screen.
  • We value “keywords” over complete sentences.
  • When we go online, it isn’t to read; it’s to “game” or to veg out on YouTube.
  • Romantics used to send love letters by parcel post; now players send “dick pics” by email.
  • Editors? Who needs them when we’ve forgotten proper grammar? Who has time for them when we demand our information now.
  • Newspapers? Ink on your hands and waste for the landfill.
  • Magazines? Exiled online, if they survive at all, ghosts in the same machine that slew them.

If literacy isn’t dead, it’s on life support. You can’t read if there aren’t any writers, and there won’t be any writers if no one pays them — if they’re too busy marketing, posting and promoting to knock out that sequel you’ve been waiting for. The more time writers spend doing the work of agents and editors, publicists and promoters used to do, the less time they’ll have to actually write. The more rushed and the less robust their stories will be.

How can we create memorable prose when it disappears in the blink of an eye on Snapchat? Will any library preserve the tweets and texts of this impulsive generation?

Readers have it in our power to provide the answers. It is we who create the demand, or refuse to, and the supply increases or dries up in response to our decisions. That’s just the way it works.

Downhill trajectory

In the world we’re fashioning, we value tweets and memes and Facebook Live. Quality writing? Not so much. You might want to debate that point, but until you’re willing to do so with your pocketbook, it’s all just empty noise. Yes, there are exceptions. Some people still make a living by writing, even a comfortable one. This proves nothing. A patient with a chronic, wasting illness still enjoys occasional “good days” and periodic bursts of energy. They’re no proof that the patient is any less ill, the condition any less serious.

Such “good days” will become less frequent with the passage of time, until at last they’re whittled down from few to none.

Is that what will happen to literacy? Time will tell. It would be cruelly ironic if some hothead’s reckless tweets were to result in a catastrophic war — a war that might reduce our “information superhighway” to cyber-rubble. Such a tragedy would obliterate our carefully crafted virtual world of denial and convenience, and if that were to happen, we might need writing again, just to communicate.

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. ... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.
— Kofi Annan

This is not to suggest that our only choice lies between a nuclear and literary wasteland. Far from it. With some luck and just a little restraint, the nuclear button will never be pushed, and we can avert a literary apocalypse, as well. There are, after all, alternatives. Most notably, we could celebrate writing again — something we haven’t been doing.

We denigrate reporters as purveyors of “fake news,” dismiss authors as hobbyists and degrade those who instruct us in the language by quipping, “Those who can’t, teach.” Is writing really a marketable skill? Shouldn’t university students be taking practical courses like business, engineering or computer technology?

Such thinking could lead us to a real-life Tower of Babel, that engineering marvel from the realm of lore that remained unfinished because all those talented architects and builders forgot how to communicate ... just as we're doing right now.

But what if, instead of devaluing the written word, we exalted it once more and encouraged those who sought to master it? What if we invested in the authors and reporters and editors and English teachers who have made it their passion? The more we value writing, the more people will aspire to fill these roles; the more accomplished those people will become, and the greater the rewards will be, not only for those who read their work, but for society as a whole.

That’s not fake news. You have my word(s) on it.