Newsweek announced Wednesday that it was ending its print edition and moving completely online. One of Britain’s flagship publications, The Guardian, is also “seriously considering,” according to reports, ending its print editions. And the Wall Street Journal seems to be losing money hand over fist.It might seem like a matter of time, as if it were written in stone, that publications would migrate to an online format. There are a few concerns though, three in particular, that we should be aware of, precisely because our new form of media isn’t written in stone.
– Number 1 — Security And The Free Press: Concentrating our media along one means of transport has its advantages, sure, but as we learned in Egypt, kill switches can quickly end all online communications. If our flagship publications, ones meant to inform the populace and keep the political arm in check, are suddenly vaporized by a government kill switch, we’ll all be searching for a printing press.
– Number 2 — Revisionist History: Online ad revenue just surpassed that of print publications. What does this mean? That online writing is now the preferred means of public ‘print’ information. The only problem with online writing is that it can be “edited live.” Anyone who runs a website knows what I mean — something put into print on the web certainly isn’t written in stone, it isn’t written at all, it’s live, and can be revised at the website’s or writer’s will.
Live editing opens the door to Orwell’s 1984 character Winston Smith and the Ministry of Information. Smith was the dystopic journalist, in charge of rewriting the past to fit the needs of the present.
People used to call The New York Times the publication of record, but that phrase hinges on an actual print edition of the newspaper. Print cannot be live edited. In the age of online writing, gone are the days of diligent journalists surfing through microfiche copies of newspapers in order to cobble together lengthy stories — everything can be easily changed after the fact, editing what would otherwise be written history — I shouldn’t need to mention how this could be used under the regime of secretive and suppressive governments.
(Some websites give you, the reader, the courtesy of admitting to “updates” or “edits” or “corrections” on the front of their articles, but this just reinforces the illusion of the web being a form of print media.)
– Number 3 — The Web Relies On Electricity: So does your ebook and your smart phone and all that other new age stuff we use to disseminate information. Recently we’ve been covering the susceptibility of infrastructure to terrorist cyber attacks. Without hard copies of news in circulation, a strike at our infrastructure would be a crippling blow to our most relied upon forms of communication.
Furthermore, with nothing really written, is it ever really recorded? Writing on rocks has survived for tens of thousands of years. Writing on the web wouldn’t survive a nanosecond without electricity. We should consider as we move our means of storing information to the digital world — whether it’s news, medical records, or scientific breakthroughs — that the maintenance of that information is not only dependent on the flow of energy, but that the loss of which would set us back to the years of our early dependency on the web.
Meanwhile, I have stacks of Time Magazine and the New York Times in my bedroom.
The Times, the U.S. publication of record, how long before the goes too? A conversation I once had with former Times editor Howell Raines indicates that it might be soon.
We should beware the transition.
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