Thursday, October 20, 2016

Digital Life and Newsprint Death

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation Lost in Space
With no time left to start again
From American Pie by Don McLean

Hello reader,
got digital?

So there I was, at a Canadian Thanksgiving supper, in mid-October, where our host and cook was a grandmother named Judy. How strange, because “Judy” is a name I once associated with daughters like on Lost in Space and The Jetsons. Then again, we’re older now: those shows aired back in the vacuum tube days as TV changed from black-and-white to color: Strange, now, to watch daily reruns of Lost in Space going from the first season with futuristic space clothing being in black and white, and then to the next season showing space clothes in living color.

Grandma Judy’s rule for the thanksgiving supper table was: No baseball caps, and no digital devices.

A good rule. We all talked. After the women and children moved to the living room we remaining males, including three grown sons and the grandfather, talked some more. Often we noted with surprise and pleasure—and told Judy—that we were talking more than we have all year. This included wonderful turbulent talk about Yankee politics. Judy’s rule worked very well, partly because we couldn’t turn any swirling discussion into dead still water… not by some wise guy merely turning to his smart phone to look up a stupid fact.

Back at my house, smartphone functions are displayed on my laptop, where I have some blogs bookmarked: This means if a blogger’s creative philosophy or concept is just too new to me to believe, then I can return to his blog and try again, trying to assimilate his new view of our strange digital world.

I’m fascinated by some blog essays of Professor Clay Shirky. He’s a computer genius; smart like Bill Gates, but with much wider social interests. Today I’m thinking of his thoughts on how journalism is changing

Here’s the link, still current as I write this, to a web page of Shirky. At the top is a public tweet broadcast by a man Shirky had criticized, saying to the public that he can’t respond because he’s on vacation, “…but for now, F--- you, Shirky.” (Dashes mine)

You see, Shirky had earlier wrote from a position of anger at seeing that man, a noted expert, being so knowingly dishonest about the chances for success of a wealthy old guy in California. The hapless old guy was idealistically trying to save print journalism by starting up a good newspaper—not realizing it was mission impossible. The paper folded. You can read it for yourself, as Shirky includes his original essay.

What fascinates me is not the human relations between Shirky and the expert, forget that noise. Instead, consider Shirky’s concept that traditional journalism is not on a decline, not on sloping path to one day level out at some new level of lesser relevance: No, because it’s on a death spiral.

Makes sense to me, because my old university student newspaper, which, according to my memory, would be normally be at least 36 cramped pages at this time of year, is only at a loose 18. The students at the paper know full well their young peers, for all their school spirit, would rather go on-line than read newsprint. I truly don’t like this change, and I re-e-e-eally don’t like to think that traditional newspapers are not sustainable… but then I read on his blog where Shirky, a university professor, writes that “for obvious reasons” at his campus you can no longer major in journalism, but you can still minor in it. A death spiral. Terminal.

Sure, I want to adjust to this reality, but I also want to be like that old guy thinking newsprint can still be saved. After all, as a boy I had a paper route; as an adult I was a student newspaper reporter. Back then, we would have been offended at the idea of our paper having a “fact checker.” To us, “journalistic ethics” meant we were always on “Scout’s honor.” As “gentlemen of the press” we were expected to be just as honest as any of our fellow students we saw walking on campus. Meaning: No matter how exciting a fact was, if we couldn’t attribute it (document) or have someone saying it, (quote) then we left it out. Such honesty was common sense.

Not now. For decades, of course, television “news,” being “moving pictures” with concern for Neilson ratings, has long been “infotainment.” Now, in our crowded digital age, I can see that new digital media, social and otherwise, ain’t just newsprint cut and pasted to the screen. No, because now I see junk journalism—no Scout’s honor. I see exciting link bait, “Ten things about X” and so forth, where getting your attention is more important than giving, as Detective Joe Friday said flatly, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

You may recall that Joe Friday was on the weekly radio cop show Dragnet, later a TV show. (And even a 1987 movie, lovingly reviewed by Roger Ebert) I can’t resist adding that Dragnet was taken from actual police files, where “only the names have been changed to protect the innocent,” and note how the deadpan Friday had no charisma at all. None. Not like a modern vivacious news anchor, or even some poor nerdy TV weatherman, wishing to stay intent on his introverted interest in isotherm lines, who now has to smile-smile-smile. In the digital age, plain truth without flashy exaggeration won’t sell. Duuum, dee-DUM dum. (Dragnet theme)

Here’s how I can adjust: By charitably reflecting that my neighbors have a right to give in to their weakness. Just like folks in my day. Back then, most students didn’t read our newspaper, or join any student club or leisure activity. Most would never find their school spirit at a corner cafeteria or in the still moonlight on the quadrangle. Forget saying excelsior! Even today, at the campus Olympic speed skating oval, the vending machines sell the athletic students “junk food” and “sugar water.” At the food court idealistic students can find fried food counters, but no vegetable bar. Folks would mostly wish to have ideals, for their lives, and for their digital media too, but the few who actually live up to their potential… are the exceptions. ’Twas always so.

Back when I was of student age, younger and more hormonal, I could get damp eyes, late at night, reading from an old collection of Poems Worth Knowing. The poems are still there, but lately I’ve allowed myself to be distracted. —Hey, at least I don’t drive distracted. But let’s face it: Nobody can make a living writing poetry full time anymore. I can accept this. An age without poetry or serious journalism? Seriously possible.

As some rock dude would sing:
“Where have you gone, Joe Fri-i-day,
our lonely nation turns it’s eyes to you,
boo hoo hoo…
‘just the facts’ has left and gone away”

It’s so lonely to face the truth about our new, improved, good-for-the-kids digital world, but at least I know one way to be less lonely: No smart phones at the supper table.

Sean Crawford

~My big look at Media Ethics was archived November 2012.

~I suppose Lost in Space came from the gold key comics Space Family Robinson, which came from the classic Swiss Family Robinson about a family of island castaways.

~Headline: More wretched news for newspapers; link to informative yet boring article.

~ In Canada, unlike in certain U.S. newspapers, in a story on Bill Gates, we wouldn’t put “many people believe Bill Gates is the smartest man in America” unless we could attribute it to a pollster saying it: As a fact, not an editorial opinion.

Therefore it was out of deference to my U.S. readers that I put Shirky “is smart like” Bill Gates. I didn’t want some Yankee looking up from his screen with, “But they say Bill Gates is the smartest!” … As print journalists know: Some of the biggest lies start with ‘they say’. Always attribute.

~If you still have a pre-digital age attention span, then you can attend past the lengthy beginning of this (link) MTV parody of the first music video ever broadcast, as Amy Burrel sings Digital life has changed who were are. She made it for her night school class. The cute kid in the video is Amy’s.

~The song being parodied, Video Killed the Radio Star, is one I have essayed about, attracting four “likes,” as Activists and Music Videos, archived December 2013.


  1. Ah Dear Sean. I find myself two weeks behind but not the least disappointed. I wish I were Thanksgiving Judy.... and I appreciate your views on printed word, young people and nostalgia.

  2. Thank you Judy; I thought of you as I wrote it.