False idol

The scrooge of 'digital correctness'
July 1, 2014

(Nigel Buchanan)

For a Delacorte Lecture I gave in 2012, I described what I viewed as a headlong rush toward digital self-destruction in the publishing and journalism world. I criticized the jargon of the “free content” salesmen and their allies at Google, Facebook, and The Huffington Post. And I appealed to the larger community of writers and publishers to counterattack–to fight to save their craft, and their livelihoods, by rejecting the “digital publishing model” in favor of the older system of getting paid a fair price for the hard work of writing and reporting.

Ironically, that lecture went viral on the internet, via the non-paywalled New England blog of The Providence Journal, a newspaper for which I write a monthly column. I obviously don’t oppose the existence of the internet, or “hate” it, as some of my critics claim. It has its uses, especially as an efficient ordering mechanism. But I do seriously doubt that it will ever be an effective way to present a magazine to readers. For all the violent reaction, both pro and con, my speech did little to change the financial landscape that I believe is wrecking the media business. The free-content fanatics ridiculed me as a Luddite, while beleaguered writers tended to praise me. More important, among the dozens of emails and handwritten notes I received, none of them, as far as I can recall, included an offer to buy a subscription to Harper’s Magazine.

This troubled me, since one goal of my lecture was to raise people’s consciousness about the current plight of journalists, and of magazine and newspaper publishers. I concluded that my thesis needed refining, and thus came about my essay in the October 2013 issue of Harper’s. This piece aimed to persuade rather than provoke. I hoped it would start a discussion that might lead to the restoration of the fundamental relationship between writers and readers, unmediated by advertisers and unpolluted by the demands of publishers and editors pressed to conform to the often mindless whims of the marketplace. To support my thesis I cited no academic studies, no business school papers, just my own experience and Maxwell Perkins’ advice to Ernest Hemingway that “the utterly real thing in writing is the only thing that counts, + the whole racket melts down before it.”

Writers and readers are beginning to realize that internet publishing, including free content, is another version of The God That Failed.

Now I’d like to elaborate on that essay. In some ways, things have only gotten worse. It is a frightening sign of the times that, to save money, New York magazine, an iconic weekly, has gone biweekly, and Ladies’ Home Journal, a monthly founded in 1883, has switched to quarterly publication. I am even more disturbed to learn that my old college paper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, wants to go to weekly publication and devote more energy to its so-called digital focus. Google continues its scorched-earth march through copyright territories once controlled by publishers and writers, while Amazon puts more bookstores out of business and buys The Washington Post. And then there’s the very well reported story in the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “Who cares if it’s true?” I found it depressing to read in the article about all those good people at the York Record, a Pennsylvania daily, trying so hard to keep a stiff upper lip while trying to make the digital-print mix work. Their jobs, unfortunately, sound almost insane in their shredded, unfocused complexity. The bottom line is this, according to the writer Marc Fisher: “In the Record newsroom, veterans and newcomers alike care a great deal about truth and standards. But the Record‘s ambition is diminished, its daily coverage less comprehensive. The editors proudly showed me the stellar project work they’ve done of late–a series on diabetes; an admirable, long-term commitment to chronicling the travails of returning war veterans–but any notion of full, regular coverage of the region’s towns, once the Record‘s core function, has fallen away.” Meanwhile, print advertising continues to decline industry-wide.

Nevertheless, there are some encouraging signs as well. My Harper’s essay got me a lengthy interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition, for example, which suggests that people are paying attention to this debate. And I noted with pleasure the bracing news that four previously all-digital publications–the Los Angeles Review of Books, Politico, Pitchfork, and Pando–have launched print editions. Paywalls are sprouting up everywhere. Some are phony walls, like the new one at Slate, where the offer of a paid “Slate Plus” membership (granting “exclusive access to your favorite Slate writers and editors”) masks the continued free availability of all its writing. However, the nearly three-year-old paywall at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune is real. So is the one at Newsday. Over in France, the quarterly XXI and the weekly Le Canard Enchaîné continue to make healthy profits–without advertising or online availability. I have some hope that Europe will eventually lead the way in corralling Google, and force this immense parasite to pay all publications, authors, and photographers for the right to link to their articles and pictures. The law in Germany is the toughest, although it’s proving hard to enforce, as it requires publishers to seek compensation in court from Google for what publishers rightly view as theft.

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Crucially, writers and readers are beginning to realize that internet publishing, including free content, is another version of The God That Failed, a collection of essays by former communists who became disillusioned by the end result of Marxist or Soviet ideology. While their ultimate aims are very different from the aims of old-time communists, the proponents of supposedly democratic, all-digital, crowdsourced journalism share many of the same smug, obnoxious, and patronizing mannerisms of die-hard Marxists. I now refer to these people as the “digitally correct,” which is of course a play on “politically correct,” the term once used to criticize and mock the communist party line. Arthur Koestler, one of the essayists, described the German communist mentality:

Both morally and logically the Party was infallible: morally because its aims were right, that is, in accord with the Dialectic of History, and these aims justified all means; logically, because the Party was the vanguard of the Proletariat, and the Proletariat the embodiment of the active principle in History.

This recalls the slogan “Information Wants to Be Free,” which is pure cant, and the notion that print’s death is inevitable, which has so far been proven wrong.

My critics have been as opaque, occasionally as intolerant, and most certainly as humorless as a 1930s communist-party militant.

I won’t push this analogy further, but I must say that my critics have been as opaque, occasionally as intolerant, and most certainly as humorless as a 1930s communist-party militant. I’m still hearing the nonsense that somehow everything will work out for the best because free, unregulated content on the internet is a revolutionary and democratic concept located on the right side of history–a concept and a movement that are as inevitable as the demise of capitalism predicted by Marx. This condescending tone is everywhere these days. Recently, The Threepenny Review appealed to its readers to make up for the loss of $12,500 in grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts, which for more than 20 years has supported this high-quality literary magazine. According to editor Wendy Lesser, although the NEA bureaucrats still found the journal’s writing to be top-notch, “they nonetheless felt we were `too wedded to print.'” That’s the voice of a cultural commissar, not a lover of literature.

To be fully committed to digital correctness is to be largely hostage to monopolistic practices controlled by huge, multinational companies. The narrow-minded, true-believer tone of the Web ideologues needs to be examined and challenged. So, too, does the lemming-like behavior of advertisers, who have abandoned newspapers and magazines in droves for the promise of digital riches. There is a fundamental fallacy in a digital approach to advertising, given that advertisers prize, above all, retention and recall of a message. Advertisers, editors, and educators should pay close attention to the latest academic research showing that readers better comprehend sentences printed on paper than sentences constructed with pixels on screens.

Last year, three Norwegian scholars published the results of their study of reading comprehension among 15- and 16-year-olds, all middle class and attending high school. They found that “subjects who read the texts on paper performed significantly better than subjects who read the texts on the computer screen.”

Among the possible explanations were that “scrolling is known to hamper the process of reading”; “readers in the paper condition had immediate access to the text in its entirety”; or simply that, as another study they cite argues, “the common perception of screen presentation as an information source intended for shallow messages may reduce the mobilization of cognitive resources that is needed for effective self-regulation.” Or it might just be that the lighting used for LCD screens causes “fatigue.”

Another study, presented in 2011 by three University of Oregon doctoral candidates, found that “print news readers remember significantly more news stories than online news readers.” Recollection of headlines was about the same for screen and print, but this research demonstrates that “the development of dynamic online story forms in the past decade has had little effect toward making them more impressionable than print stories.” That’s bad news for the Web salesmen, who keep urging publishers to pour more money into a bottomless pit of internet “innovation.” Echoing the Norwegian study, the Oregon authors write:

Researchers have also pointed to not just the fixed nature of the print news story but how all the information is usually available on one or two pages. Online news stories, which are sometimes interrupted with an online ad in the middle of the text, are more apt to appear or be available on several pages of a newspaper’s Web site under different headings; the scattershot nature of the online news story coupled with its fleeting nature make the online news consumer’s experience quite different than that of a print reader.

But for my argument, I still prefer the salient anecdote to the scientific method. Back in 1998, Apple’s “Think Different” advertising campaign was appearing everywhere–on billboards, in magazines, in newspapers–everywhere, that is, but in Harper’s. Frustrated by Apple’s ad agency, I finally decided to write to the company’s acting chief executive, Steven P. Jobs–on a sheet of paper mailed in a stamped envelope. In the letter, dated January 22, 1998, I complained that the Think Different ads were running “in magazines that specialize, for the most part, in recycling orthodox opinion.” How about trying a “magazine for mavericks”? I asked. Two months later we received an insertion order for the Think Different campaign to run in our May issue. I think Steve Jobs read his printed mail. 

John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine