Literary cage fight: print vs. online
Late last week, four days after the publication of the last print edition of The Washington Post Book World, Dick Meyer posted a lament on NPR.org about the demise of newspaper book sections. Bloggers, not surprisingly, took umbrage at his comments. M. J. Rose of Buzz, Balls & Hype and Ed Champion were particularly outspoken.
Meyer distinguishes between “professional reviews” and “amateur, unedited and niche reviews.” As someone who spent five years editing my school newspapers in high school and college, I don’t dispute the benefits of editorial oversight. But web reporting isn’t “unedited” — it’s edited by everyone. For those who doubt the collective wisdom of the online community, I would point you to the much-talked about study that showed Wikipedia to be nearly as accurate as the vaunted Encyclopedia Britannica (although, of course, the accuracy of the study itself has been disputed — not the least by Britannica).
What is clear also is that the lines between print and online journalists are blurring. Many literary bloggers write for print publications (or, alas, did before they folded / downsized). And book publicity firms kelley & hall and Phenix & Phenix Literary Publicists both posted about a recent study of print journalists from PWR New Media that found “60 percent of respondents said they now contribute to a blog or other online site. 39 percent of these journalists said they acquired these responsibilities in the past year and 71 percent added online work to their duties in the past two years.” In other words, print journalists aren’t checking out — they’re adapting.
Meyer’s analysis is actually more even handed than the alarmist “Literary Death Spiral” headline would have you believe and he is, after all, the Editorial Director of NPR Digital Media. Further, he brings up some thoughtful and important points about the wider cultural significance of books. Still, what frustrates me about complaints about a dying print culture is the accompanying small-mindedness and sense of superiority about reading. Are we in book publishing in the business of bringing literature to people and fostering appreciation of it? Or are we simply trying to promote page turning?