Riding the penny farthing down the information superhighway (Isn’t print media obsolete?)

“Isn’t print media obsolete?” a friend asked me the other day when we were talking about a radical newspaper. As someone who has over the years sent quite a lot of time and energy writing, printing and distributing words on bits of paper, I felt obliged to defend the medium.

Well you know, sometimes when you read some of our leading newspapers here in Australia you might wish its demise would hurry up. Unfortunately though I don’t think print media has a monopoly on bad journalism. It has been interesting though to watch the print media industry try to grapple with ever expanding growth of the digital world.

One thing I have followed with interest is the struggle of the street press to stay alive in this brave new world. For those unfamiliar with the term, street press is a free newspaper (financed mostly by advertising from music venues, promoters and artists), which lists upcoming live music or other cultural events amongst reviews and interviews. Ever since I first moved to the city (almost a decade ago!), I have regularly picked up and read the street presses of the various places I have lived or visited. I can remember a time when Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne each had two weekly street presses that were seemingly distributed everywhere.

While in Melbourne and Sydney a couple of papers manage to struggle on, in Brisbane street press is a seriously threatened species. Rave magazine closed down in June 2012. Scenestr (formerly Scene) comes out monthly but has never had much traction in the local music scene. Timeoff was incorporated into the national publication The Music in mid-2013, with only the gig guide and news section remaining specifically local. Also with the change came a new diversity of topics covered, with less of a focus on live music and new sections reviewing bars and restaurants, even interviewing Clive Palmer one week. The Music still survives, but recently has gone from a weekly publication to fortnightly. This is going to sound pretty harsh, but as someone who has read street press for a long time (and I know I’m not alone in saying this), I think at this stage there is very little of interest in any issue of The Music and it’s difficult to see it surviving much longer, at least as a print publication.

My analysis of the unfortunate decline of the street press though I think leads to a broader point to be made about print media. Because my critique of The Music is not so much that it writes about bands I don’t like, but that in its nationally syndicated articles and coverage of overseas touring acts, it has no specific relevance to the city where it is distributed. Like taking the “street” out of “street press”.

It’s not unreasonable to ask whether print is obsolete. Using the internet you can get information out to more people, in more places, quicker, with less environmental and economic cost. Given the potential unlimited reach of the internet (including social media where your consumers do your marketing for you, not to mention the income to be gained from selling readers’ data), producing printed media makes no sense. Unless, of course, your aim is to intentionally limit your reach and relevance.

It’s true, the internet has miraculously given us the ability to communicate instantly with people anywhere in the world. On this blog, I am even given the option to track which country people are reading it from. But what the internet doesn’t necessarily do is answer the question of whether every interaction should be broadcast to the world. Or whether, by constantly taking part in this global conversation, we are missing out on local conversations which could offer us different viewpoints and maybe even different topics altogether.

The sheer amount of information on the internet makes any kind of “conversation” even harder. It’s like having a conversation in a crowded room where everybody is shouting, there is a performance going on, and your phone keeps ringing in your pocket. It’s stimulus overload. Even as you read this, you probably have five or six other tabs open. And the newsfeed formats favoured by websites means we train ourselves to glance at little bites of information as we scroll down.

I’m definitely not the first person to point out that though we are more connected than ever to people on the other side of the world, we are less connected than ever to people in our own neighbourhoods. Or that even when we communicate with our local friends, it is often through a medium we have very little understanding of how it works, and is in fact controlled by massive corporations who make money off our every interaction. The question of how they use that control is not just hypothetical, as several friends of mine have found recently when Facebook suspended their accounts until they are able to provide proof that their “profile name”  is also their legal name.

And then there is paper. Quaint, anachronistic, obsolete. The penny farthing of the media world. In its early pennyfarthingdays it must have been truly revolutionary in the way it enabled ideas and information to travel and live on beyond the mind of the knowledge keeper. John Pairman Brown says it was a major turning point in the history of human freedom; because people could challenge unjust power knowing that even if they were killed, the ideas would live on. Of course, back then paper was expensive and painstaking to produce, as it has been for much of its history. It’s funny that just as new technology has made mass printing accessible to the average person, we are abandoning paper and ink.

Marshall McLuhan famously observed that “the medium is the message”, and now that paper is no longer our main way of sharing information, we are able to analyse what specific properties it offers that online media doesn’t. And I think that one such thing is that while the internet, existing in this ethereal realm we call “cyberspace”, is both global (accessible anywhere on the planet) but atomised (everyone accesses it on their own personal device); the physical nature of print can make it local (because it is limited to where the physical sheets of paper can travel to) and connected (because that physical item has to travel from the hand of the person who published it to the person reading it, and there is often not so many degrees of separation between the two).

Note the can in that last sentence. Just because something is printed on paper does not automatically make it either of these things, and in fact most books and magazines make no real attempt to do so. But I think when we talk about whether printed media has any continuing relevance, the answer won’t come from whether it can out-internet the internet. The question is if it can offer things that the world wide web can’t.

The slow decline of the street press I think is an interesting example. The SPA papers (in Brisbane Timeoff), faced with the challenge of competing with the internet, chose to become more centralised and more varied. The public response has been a lack of interest that means The Music is now a bi-weekly publication with a severely shortened life expectancy. The other option available to those street presses though was to ask what the internet; with its endless music blogs, streaming services and viral marketing campaigns; doesn’t offer. And to in response become more localised and specific to the physical places the paper is being picked up and the physical people who are reading it.

Not that I’m claiming I could have been the saviour of street press. These publications after all exist to make a profit, and whether getting more localised makes you more profitable is another question entirely. In my experience, the most valuable and worthwhile ideas almost never make economic sense, and this is probably no exception.

So rather than a successful business example, I’m going to point to the Zine and Indie Comic Symposium that next weekend is happening in Brisbane. The event features over 40 stalls, representing hundreds of different writers who for various reasons (and you’d have to ask each person individually to find out what they are) have decided, despite not having the support of a publishing company and in the face of all the promises offered by the world wide web, to continue publishing on paper. Judging by the nature of the event, we can assume that they also see a value in some way in connecting with people who might read their publications and with other people who are self-publishing. And it’s in these connections, as well as the actual content of the zines and comics, that we can maybe catch a glimpse of why paper and ink are still a valuable communication tool, even as we continue to hurtle down the information superhighway.

ps. Of course I’m aware of the irony of publishing this on the internet. But the point is not to claim that print is the ultimate medium and the internet is inferior. The point is that the two mediums offer different things. While I will probably make a paper copy of this, I put it on the internet because this topic is not specifically local and because I want it to reach out beyond the people who already seek out self-published political rants on bits of paper.

1 Comment

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One response to “Riding the penny farthing down the information superhighway (Isn’t print media obsolete?)

  1. Reblogged this on Workers BushTelegraph and commented:
    Print media remain but News Corp made a $200M loss this financial year. and Fairfax went backwards …

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