The Digital Journalist

The Death of Print?
Editorial by Dan Okrent

(The following essay was delivered as a lecture at Columbia University.) 

Looking out at an audience of so many people who would forgo tonight’s episode of  Dharma and Greg or Rivera Live to come hear me talk, I feel highly responsible to provide  you with entertainment or elucidation sufficient to justify your sacrifice. I also feel the  burden to live up to the provocative title that the J-school’s lecture producers and I have  cooked up to get you out of your apartments and into this hall: "The Death of Print?" has  both a nice, millenarian finality to it, and a perfect op-ed page sort of cop-out attached to it,  namely that temporizing question mark.  

"The Death of Print" also makes it pretty clear that I’m not going to be talking about the  shrinking news staffs at the major networks, or the increasing tendency of local television news shows to devote their time to either highway mayhem or idiotic, grinning man-or-woman on the street interviews with people whose only qualification for demanding our attention is that they are, in fact, on the street. If you sense a certain antipathy to television journalism in my tone, you’re right. This is one way that I hope to establish my credentials with you as a paragon of print, an ink-stained wretch, someone with printer’s ink coursing through his veins – pick your print media cliché, and it applies to me. I even spent some time looking through George Will’s entire library of quotation dictionaries trying to find some apposite quote about the importance of print journalism, to show how widely read – in Quotation Dictionaries – I am. But all I could find was a sequence of pomposities and self-evidencies uttered decades ago by Walter Lippmann, our profession’s most predicable Capital G Capital M Great Man. That’s the problem with talking about the future of media or journalism, the tendency to float away on the helium of one’s own pretentiousness. 

So here goes. I am going to take a portion of my time this evening to sing a hymn of praise to print, to its irreplaceable role in our lives. 

Newspapers, magazines, books -- all those other wonderful creatures made possible by Gutenberg five centuries ago – are, I’m sure you’ll agree, the media that matter. I’ve spent my entire career engaged by them -- going back to working on a daily newspaper when I was in college, then nine years in the book business, several more as a writer of books, and finally, until 1996, 14 years as a magazine editor. Forgive me the three years I spent on the web, navigating a turbulent sea of bits and bytes as Time Inc.’s editor of new media. I touched land several months ago, and now I’m writing and editing again. It’s nice to be back. 

Newspapers, magazines books: A newspaper gives you timeliness, a magazine perspective, a book lasting value. Each is a firm, palpable entity, a presence in our lives, a companion to our days. I remember what it was like when I was a child, and my father brought home the newspaper after work. My mother would take what we called in those distant, benighted days the women’s section -- recipes, fashion news, the advice columns. My older brother, who was readying himself for a business career -- he took the stock market pages. I reached for sports, the news of the athletic wonders committed daily by my heroes. My father had the general news section, and we’d each disappear into our own engagements with the wider world, regrouping in time for dinner and a shared conversation about what we had encountered in the daily paper. What could possibly replace something so comfortable, so safe, so adaptable as a daily newspaper? 

As for magazines -- well, I work for the world’s largest magazine company, so it shouldn’t be hard for me to make a case for the magazine. There are nearly 10,000 different magazines available in the U.S. today. Great, giant, mass circulation magazines like those Time Inc. publishes -- Time, Life, People, Fortune, and so on -- and tiny, narrowly focused magazines to cater to the reader’s most special interest. I’m a scuba diver. I subscribe to two different scuba diving magazines, and if I wanted to I could subscribe to a dozen more. Interested in orchids? There are magazines for you. Guitars? I have a 19-year-old friend who subscribes to three guitar magazines. Magazines of every stripe and substance are there to build connections among those of us of a particular interest, or to set the terms of the national conversation on subjects of importance to all of us. Through the pages of Ocean Realm magazine I share a set of knowledge on our common passion with a scuba diver who lives 3,000 miles away from me. Through the pages of TIME, I participate in a dialogue with him on matters of national concern -- and with all of his neighbors, as well. Magazines bring us together into real communities, coming into our house as regular, periodic welcome visitors, requiring us to do nothing more than make a once-a-year request to the publisher to keep them coming. What could be easier than that? 

Books? Every one of us in this room could write an anthem to the book. The feel of a fine binding, the smell of newly opened pages, the satisfying heft of a book in your hands -- can anything top it? When I get home at night, before dinner I sit with a drink in my hand in a room full of books, each one of them an old friend who has accompanied me on part of my life voyage. The book of poems I loved in college, the biography that first introduced me to a great historical figure twenty years ago, the novel that entertained me on a vacation, or maybe the one that explained a piece of the world to me. As I was thinking about this talk, I happened to notice on my bookshelf a copy of the best novel about journalism ever written, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a book which I re-read every ten years or so to make certain that, if I stay in this business, I need to remain very, very careful. 

As you can see, I can get sentimental about these things we call, by inference, the old media. They mean a lot to me, emotionally as well as economically -- and I suspect they do to all of you, too. I believe they are, after food, clothing and shelter, and after our family relations and our friendships, the most important things in our lives. 

And I believe one more thing: I believe they, and all forms of print, are dead. Finished. Over. Perhaps not in my professional lifetime, but certainly in that of the youngest people in this room. Remove the question mark from the title of this talk. The Death of Print, full stop. 

Twenty, thirty, at the outside forty years from now, we will look back on the print media the way we look back on travel by horse and carriage, or by wind-powered ship. In fact, that carriage, and that ship, will have their own print counterparts, which I will get to later. But first I would like to tell you why I am so convinced that those media to which I have devoted my 30 years of professional life are as relevant to our future as the carrier pigeon. 

And please understand: I did not come to this conclusion as a zealot. Until I moved into my job as editor of new media for Time Inc., the Internet was merely a place for me to get late stock market news, or the baseball box scores. I didn’t move into my current job out of passion, or conviction, or technological facility, or even a particular interest in the subject. When I asked Don Logan, Time Inc.’s CEO, why he and Norman Pearlstine, our editor-in-chief, thought I was right for this job, Don said, "Because we need a little gray hair in that organization." In other words, I qualified because I was old. 

So, to the point: why is print dead? It’s a two part argument, the first part fairly simple but worth some elaboration, the second part as obvious as the morning sun. 

Part one, in a phrase, is that we have, I believe, finally learned not to underestimate the march of technological progress. A little over thirty years ago, I saw my first electronic calculator. It was about the shape of a laptop computer, maybe three inches deep, it weighed eight or nine pounds, and it cost my father’s law firm $500 – in 1967 dollars. Today, you can buy calculators the size and heft of a credit card in a convenience store for two dollars. I purchased my first computer, an Apple 2E, in 1980. What a wonder it was! White type -- capital letters only -- dropped out of a black screen; it processed words at a speed less than 1% as fast as the three-pound laptop that has become the locus, the library, and the lever of my entire professional life. Its built-in memory couldn’t accommodate a long magazine article. And my friends and neighbors -- sophisticated, educated people -- would come over evenings to watch me move blocks of text from HERE to THERE on it. It was that new, that extraordinary. I don’t need to tell you what the average computer can do today, nor do I need to tell you similar stories about telephones, or audio equipment, or any other piece of technology. If we imagine it, they will build it. 

So imagine this (and if you find it hard to imagine, trust me: I’ve seen it already, in the development office of a well-established Japanese computer electronics company): Imagine a tablet, maybe half an inch thick, shaped when held one way like an open book or magazine, when turned sideways much like a single page of a newspaper. It weighs six ounces. It’s somewhat flexible, which makes it easy to transport. (The truly flexible one, which you’ll be able to roll up and put in your pocket, is still a couple of years away, so this one will have to do). It’s screen, utterly glare-free, neither flickers nor fades nor grows dull. To move beyond the first screen in whatever it is that you’re reading, you run your finger across the top of the tablet LIKE THIS -- a physical metaphor for the turning of the page. You are sitting on a beach on a Saturday afternoon with this little wonder, and you’re reading this week’s Time magazine. Then you decide you’d like something a little more, oh, entertaining. You press a series of buttons HERE, and a cellular hookup to a satellite-connected database instantaneously delivers you --- well, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. And when you’ve had enough of that -- click, click -- you move on, to the football news, or the office memoranda you didn’t finish reading on Friday afternoon, or whatever it is that you want. Click, click again: each download, coming to you at dazzling speeds, and a central rights-clearance computer charges your account, much like a telephone account, for what you’ve read or listened to. The satellite operator keeps a small portion of the income, and the rest goes to the "publisher" -- that is, to the agency that either created the material you are reading, or that represents the interests of those who created it. Or imagine this: another message comes to you, from -- let’s say Coca Cola. It’s an advertising message, and you have been paid to read it. You have been targeted by Coca Cola, the marketers from that company have found you on the beach, and for the privilege of getting their message in front of you they have paid the satellite operator a carriage fee. The satellite operator, wanting to guarantee the advertising agency that the impression has been made, credits your master account a few cents. For reading the one-minute message from Coca Cola, you get the first five minutes of tomorrow’s electronic newspaper for free. Everyone’s happy. 

As I said, this technology already exists. It’s far too expensive today, and the critical elements of payment systems and copyright protection and royalty accounting have not yet been created. But, I guarantee you that such systems are either in development today or soon will be. 

But, you say, who wants to read a good novel on a computer screen, now matter how clear and snappy and portable it is? Who wants to forgo the tactile engagement with a newspaper or magazine, or even moreso the deeper, more gratifying physical connection with a book, and replace it with this potentially alienating form of modern technology? 

Well, that brings me to part two of my argument, the part I promised was as obvious as the morning sun. And that is this: last year, Time Inc., spent $1 billion dollars on paper and postage. 

End of argument. 

Or, if you’d like, let me put it this way: you may prefer to ride across town in horse-and-carriage, or across a lake in a wind-powered yacht, but no one makes that carriage or that yacht for you anymore, at least not at a reasonable price. So too with the book: in the future that I am imagining with you tonight, the book becomes an elite item for the very few, an objet, a collectible -- valuable not for the words on the page, but for the vessel that contains those words. Will it matter to the book-loving litterateurs who stalk Morningside Heights? Probably so, though I can’t imagine why. Will it matter to the millions who buy a John Grisham paperback and toss it when it’s done? Not a chance. 

Nor should it. For we -- we who work today by accident in paper and ink; who demand, however sheepishly, that vast forests be cut down to make our paper, for vast sums to be invested in hypermodern printing presses and bindery machines that consume megawatts of environment-befouling energy -- we should be happy. For we know -- we MUST know -- that the words and pictures and ideas and images and notions and substance that we produce is what matters -- and NOT the vessel that they arrive in. 

I want to step back for a few moments here to elaborate on business models, consumer prejudices, and what a hope is a somewhat sober-sided consideration of a few of the risks this new world will pose. 

First, business models. To date, we have seen very few media institutions find a way to charge for their digitally-delivered content: the Wall Street Journal, which is as close as one gets in American journalism to being both unique and essential, has been the leader to date. I admire the Journal hugely, both in print and online, but I do want to share with you the real reason for its success, the thing that makes it essential. This was explained to by my boss, Norm Pearlstine, several years ago when he was the Journal’s editor: the paper’s indispensability, he said, is predicated on the mortal fear, shared by every middle manager in American business, that the boss will say to him or her, "Did you see the piece in the Journal this morning about X?" 

Well, that works online, too, and several hundred thousand people are now paying Dow-Jones for the online paper. But note that they are paying $59 for an annual subscription to the online edition, while the print edition costs $175. That’s partly because the physical costs – the nearly one billion a year, in our case, that Time Inc. spends on manufacturing and distribution – have evaporated. In other words, savings have been passed on to the reader, and everybody wins. Except, of course, the paper manufacturers, the delivery services, and the US Post Office – so all of you who have been planning careers at International Paper or with the Postal Service, forget it. 

But the real power of the business model resides in the potential of digital advertising. Except for direct mail, until the Internet came along no advertising medium existed in which the advertiser could be sure his message was received by his targeted audience. We go to the bathroom during commercials, we flip the pages past magazine and newspaper ads, radio and billboards are white noise. But with a truly interactive medium – with say, a question about the advertisement asked next to the button that gives you your thirty cent credit against the cost of reading your Wall Street Journal – the effectiveness of media advertising changes radically. And if you don’t think advertisers influence the direction of American mass media, you ought to talk to Tom Goldstein about the curriculum here at the J-school. 

Second digression: consumer prejudices. Inevitably, whenever and wherever I talk about the Death of Print, someone jumps up and says, "But I hate reading on a computer." This is after I have already explained that the technology will change, that economic incentive will create consumer-friendly reading devices, that my father once paid as much for a four-function telephone book-sized calculator as he did for a low-end used car. Or that Oscar Dystel, the former chairman of Bantam Books and one of the founders of the American paperback book industry in the 1940s, once said, "In due course, the word 'paperback' will lose its taint of unpleasantness." And he said that in 1984. 

No, you won’t be reading on a cathode ray tube sitting on your desk. No, the screen won’t flicker, and the type won’t have visible ragged edges. It won’t feel anything like a computer. It won’t even feel like those early avatars of the form, the Rocket eBook and the SoftBook Reader, that are already showing up in Christmas catalogs and in consumer electronics stores – not any more than a Model T feels or looks or drives like a 1999 BMW Z3. There’s even a guy at MIT, an engineering genius named Jacobson, who’s devised something called electronic ink, a palette of digitally changeable molecules that sit on a surface very much like a sheet of paper, and rearrange themselves sequentially into actual sentences and paragraphs. 

Ah, but you say, who will be able to afford such wonderful devices? In fact, nearly everyone. Because we – the big media companies like Time Warner, the eight or ten major copyright oligarchs, as I like to call them, who control so much of the nation’s supply of worthwhile content – we will give them away, for all practical purposes, on the cell phone model. Agree to subscribe to TIME and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for two years, as well as to listen to a certain amount of, say, Warner Bros. Music, and we’ll give you the device. We aren’t interested in making money off of hardware; we make money off of what you read and watch and listen to. 

Last digression: risk. Yes, there are risks. Disaggregated content has already been somewhat socially injurious, and it’s only going to get worse, at least insofar as we like to imagine a citizenry that is not only informed, but informed across a range of subjects. The ability to be your own editor – to pick just what news on what topics you wish to read – destroys the potential for serendipity, and the ease with which we achieve balance. I don’t know how we’ll solve this one, but we must. 

Similarly, there’s a risk in the mutability of digital content. The good news is that if you libel someone at 9 a.m., you can correct it at 9:10 or at noon or whenever it is that you learn of your mistake; it’s not like sending out a fleet of trucks with a million copies of the Times and then realizing what you did wrong. But by the same token, if the words are never written in stone, or at least in ink, what happens to the notion of historical record? 

But, of course, that cat is already out of the bag. If great writers are producing their works on computer, as most now do, first drafts no longer exist for the study of future scholars – just as the hurried prose of a daily newspaper, "the first rough draft of history," as it has been called, may disappear to the corrections of lawyers. 

Yet I think we can live with these things, largely because we must. 

I will assert once again that The Death of Print is going to happen, far sooner than many of you may think. The word "Internet" was all but unknown in the U.S. six years ago, and Time Inc., which had not yet even imagined its potential impact, had no one working in the Internet arena. Today, the Internet is inescapable; through the advent of Email, it is ubiquitous. In the financial markets, it as essential as dollars. Throughout Time Warner, more than 1,000 people are developing copyrighted internet product, or marketing it to consumers. Someday, we may even make money at it.  

For now, though, all of this is destabilizing, particularly for those of us who are investing substantially in a future so tantalizingly clear in the ultimate goal, but the path to which is so tangled in thickets of doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Yet I, for one, take a strange kind of solace in this. What I know to be true is that the human species is hungry for information. That the quality, timeliness, and reliability of information is paramount. And that those of us who grew up in print, who look at the technological future through unconfident eyes, will be asked to do tomorrow exactly what we have done in the past, which is to reach people -- intellectually, viscerally, any way we can -- on matters they care about it. My colleagues and I did not grow up wanting to be in the ink and paper and staples business; we wanted to be in – we ARE in – the business of words and sentences and pictures and ideas. Don’t worry about the future of newspapers or magazines or books any more than you would worry about corrugated boxes or shrink-wrap. They are containers; the substance resides elsewhere – for instance, in this room. So thank you for your attention; you may now throw tomatoes at me. 

Time Inc. 

Daniel Okrent was named Time Inc. Editor-at-Large in March 1999,  after serving two years as Editor of New Media, and four years as Managing Editor of LIFE magazine. 

 Prior to coming to Time Inc. in 1991, Okrent worked extensively in book and magazine publishing as an editor, writer and consultant.  In the book industry, he was an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and at the Viking Press, and editor-in-chief of general books at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.  In magazines, he was the founding editor of New England Monthly (twice consecutively winner of the National Magazine Award for General Excellence).  On television, he was a featured commentator on Ken Burns’s PBS series, Baseball.   As a writer, he has published four books, and his articles have appeared in most major American magazines.  He is also co-creative director of Our Times, an illustrated encyclopedia of the twentieth century, published in 1995; inventor/founder of Rotisserie League Baseball; and appears in a speaking part in the forthcoming Woody Allen film, Sweet and Lowdown. 

 A native of Detroit, and a graduate of the University of Michigan, Okrent lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. 

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