Yes, this is Samuel Morse. And, yes, incredibly, this is the guy who revolutionized modern communications with his fancy-dancy telegraphy thingy.
Three gargoyles are menacingly perched above my desk at work: a griffin, a dragon and a fierce-looking man-dog that reminds me of Cerberus, the multi-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades in Greek mythology.
Most people probably think gargoyles are hideous, even frightening. But I’ve always liked the ancient protective symbolism of gargoyles—they’re said to ward off evil—and I put this particular trio there a couple of weeks ago to help prevent me from getting laid off. I’m a writer and editor, and publishing, you might have read (or, more likely, seen and heard) is a rapidly dying profession, all but slain by the rapid rise of the Internet and even swifter fall of the economy. Advertising has steadily declined throughout the industry for years, including here in Colorado, where hundreds of highly experienced journalists—some of them old colleagues and friends—are already out of work and unable to find new jobs matching their skills. I don’t know whether my job is next, but sales are down markedly and I’m sure it could be.
I have mixed feelings about the death of print journalism.
On the one hand, I love words and the craft (occasionally art) of writing. Although words, like spouses, are often taken for granted, language is one of the first skills we acquire as children, and I believe our ability to organize words in written form is the engine that powers the forward progress of civilization. One idea leads to another, but without some way to preserve those ideas over long periods of time—in books, for example—societies would change very slowly, or worse, forever be hitting the reset button and starting over.
I also believe journalists fill an important role in society. We inform the public about politics, and help keep politicians honest. We keep tabs on important trends in law, health and religion. We help people decide what they ought to wear to work tomorrow if they don’t want to be too hot, cold, wet or windblown. We report the minutia and trivialities that give meaning and fun to our lives, from sports and cooking to fashion and gardening. We bring you Calvin & Hobbs, Dilbert and Zippy the Pinhead, not to mention the Jumble, Sudoku and the New York Times crossword puzzle. And I’m convinced that without well-paid professional journalists on the beat, much that goes on in our society would be misreported or missed altogether, despite the relentless, chattering presence of Facebook, Twitter and approximately 118 million blogs, most of which seem to rely heavily on so-called traditional media for their content, anyway.
Russell Crowe portrayed a reporter convincingly in the recent movie State of Play, right down to the frumpy sport coat, bad hair, questionable hygiene, poor diet and heightened sense of injustice.
On a much more personal level, the apparent death of print journalism leaves me feeling a little sad, and more than a little worried.
Writing stories for newspapers and magazines has provided me with a decent living and creative outlet for most of the last three decades. It hasn’t made me rich, unfortunately, but it has allowed me to hang out with some wonderfully intelligent, eccentric people who also love writing and the pursuit of a good story. I’ll never forget “Two-Phone” Stan, who seemed to like conducting simultaneous interviews–often shouting, and often standing on top of his desk. Or Dean, a brilliant, hyperactive, chain-smoking, hard-drinking editor who was usually hopped up on caffeine and anything else he get his hands on, legally or not. Or Patrick, an Irish cartoonist/writer/cyclist/renaissance man who was probably the toughest, best editor I ever worked with, and not only introduced me to the music of the genius Tom Waits, but also encouraged me to take up cycling even though I’m not very athletic because it’s rewarding. Or Jane, who was patient and thoughtful enough to mentor me when I became an editor. She went on to work for The Rocky Mountain News, which is now gone, like so many of our great dailies, and I’ve lost contact with her. Or Rick, the best friend I’ve ever had. He’s one of the wisest, most loving, most sensitive, kindest people I know, and his knowledge of the world is almost encyclopedic. How could I ever forget him? I couldn’t, and there are so many others like him that I could go on and on and on; Journalists believe they’re members of an exclusive club and, like cops, are a tight-knit, clannish lot.
Being a journalist has also allowed me to learn a little bit about a lot of subjects, ranging from everyday topics like politics and business to more arcane subject matter like ancient Native American rug weaving, global warming and how nutrients affect health. I have interviewed governors and capitalists, members of the mob and thieving politicians, brave soldiers and police officers, artists and musicians–in short, people from every walk of life, including scores of ordinary people who often lead very interesting, meaningful lives that go unnoticed unless a reporter looking for a human-interest story happens upon them.
In a word, writing has been fun. Not everyday, of course, but overall. Very few professions pay you to be a generalist and explore the world like journalism does, and I’d hate to be forced to become a specialist—an accountant or construction worker, for example—just to pay my mortgage. Other professions might be more profitable, perhaps even more honorable, but I wouldn’t enjoy them as much as I enjoy writing.
But that’s only what’s on the one hand.
Magazines like The Atlantic Monthly are still relevant, but how much longer can they hold out against the Internet?
On the other hand, I understand that neither time nor history give a damn about print journalism, let alone me and my desire to do what I like. We don’t like to admit it because it makes us feel small and irrelevant, but ultimately, everything under the sun is insignificant, except in a particular time and place, and even then usually only to specific individuals. That’s as true for print journalism as it is for everything else. And everything, including communication, is constantly changing, whether or not we want it to. When paper was invented, for instance, it suddenly didn’t seem quite so necessary to pick up our hammers and chisels to carve symbols and words into stone. Or, when workers stretched telegraph lines from one end of this nation to the other during the 1800s, the Pony Express soon rode into the sunset, taking with it a way of life that now survives only in romantic memory.
In fact, it was Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph a mere 165 years ago that revolutionized modern communication in the same way that Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the mechanical printing press in 1439 forever changed ancient communication. Morse must have sensed what he was doing, too. When he publicly tested his new device in 1844 under the watchful eye of the U.S. Congress, the first message that pulsed across the 40-mile-long copper wire strung between Baltimore, M.D., and Washington, D.C., was lifted from a passage in the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers, chapter 23, verse 23: “What hath God wrought?” It was an illuminating question because while everybody suspected the telegraph represented a quantum leap forward in human communications, nobody but God could have possibly foreseen how quickly the new technology, and a host of technologies that soon followed it, would change the ways in which we share ideas.
In the blink of an eye on the relative timeline of history, that first telegraph message—a series of simple dots and dashes known as Morse Code—heralded a multitude of technologies that sped by, merged with, and leapfrogged over one another in an orgy of scientific advancement that continues to radically make over human communication even now. Ballpoint pens replaced quills. Typewriters replaced pens. Personal computers killed the typewriter. The telephone took over the telegraph. Radio superceded telephones. Television outperformed radio. Cell phones gobbled up pagers and now they’re gobbling up landlines and are even nipping at the heels of the personal computer. Apple’s new iPhone, for example, is the eighth wonder of the world, able to provide its users with Internet access and e-mail, as well as a GPS satellite locater, portable sound system, electronic Rolodex, calendar, high-resolution camera, video player, gaming device and photo album. With the right applications installed, it also functions as a carpenter’s level, weather forecaster, spreadsheet, restaurant guide and a way to find potential mates in a crowded bar. Oh, and it’s also a mobile phone.
Apple's new iPhone instantly puts a world of information at our fingertips. If you've $99 and about $50 a month to pay for one. I'm a journalist, and therefore can't afford one.
But as a journalist, what really grabs my attention about the iPhone is that it’s also able to download newspapers, magazines and books, just like Amazon’s $300 Kindle, but in a device that fits into the palm of your hand and costs as little as $99. To me, that implies a lot about the Internet’s potential ultimate impact on print journalism—and my future.
Although it’s probably still a little too early to make pronouncements about the Internet’s role in history, I suspect time will prove it is to print media what the personal computer was to the typewriter. Traditional print journalists abhor the thought, and like most people they will instinctively resist change, but resistance, though frequently noble, is probably futile.
Print journalism and writing won’t vanish, of course. There will always be a market for books and magazines, just as there’s still a market for vinyl albums and even 8-track tapes. But I believe there will be fewer books and magazines, and they’ll look very different—less wordy, more visual.
It’s already happening, in fact.
Magazines once regularly ran news stories that were 2,000 to 10,000 words long, often with nary an illustration, subhead or quote to break up the text. Some magazines published entire short stories, even novels, although usually bit-by-bit over successive issues, like Charles Dickens’ famous book, Bleak House. Magazines from the golden age of publishing, such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, were beloved precisely because they were dense, grey and ponderous in an intellectually heady way that garnered admiration because they represented the finest of all things wordy. In a way, they were (and in many ways still are) all things to all writers: newsy, fictional, opinionated, poetic and humorous.
Gargoyle's sit atop some of the world's most beautiful churches, guarding them against evil. Will they do the same for my career? I doubt it, but I love the symbolism.
Today, of course, publishing is dramatically different thanks largely to the ubiquitous influence of the Internet. Most readers won’t (or perhaps can’t) attend to stories longer than 200 to 1,500 words. And who can blame them? We’re all inundated with information, from shopping cart advertisements and television shows to satellite radio and e-mails. As a result, newspaper and magazine stories have gotten shorter and shorter, dropping in some cases to aggrandized photo captions that are just 100 words long. Ideas are less complex, less well thought out. Pictures and graphics now rule the pages of most modern magazines, which increasingly try to link themselves to the virtual world of the Internet even it makes them look like senior citizens at a Green Day concert.
I don’t mean to sound critical, because I have to admit that I’m also a product of the times.
Last December, I was given a copy of David Wroblewski’s critically acclaimed book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, for Christmas. I actually interviewed the author and wrote a short, 300-word story (that’s rich!) about him for one of the magazines I work for. He took 10 years to write his book, and his perseverance, intellect and wit is impressive. His book sounds terrific, too. But I haven’t read it. It’s 608 pages long, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to focus on it long enough to appreciate it, let alone finish it. In fact, I haven’t read a single book in nearly a year now, not even one of those irresistibly compelling page-turners that writers like John Grisham and Scott Turow turn out. I still read newspapers and magazines, but I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’m neglecting a growing stack of periodicals featuring longer articles that I want to read but probably never will. I like to blame my new-found illiteracy on work, the demands of raising kids and trying to maintain my home. But lately I wonder if the Internet—which I affectionately refer to as the Short Attention Span Theater—hasn’t warped my brain, rendering it incapable of staying focused for more than 2 minutes at a time.
What’s really silly is that by not reading newspapers, magazines and books, or by not reading them as much, I am, in effect, contributing to the very problem that’s killing my industry. I am putting myself out of work.
If print journalism dies, nobody will be left to write about the bread lines in the next Great Depression because all of us journalists will be standing there hungry. Oh well, times change.
So could I jump to the Internet instead?
Maybe, but I doubt it.
There are writers—a few bloggers, editors and experts in search engine optimization—who are earning living wages working on the Internet. But millions of very good writers don’t make a dime. They give it away for free every day, because they love to write, or hobnob with other Internet writers, or perhaps because they’re hoping to be discovered. And millions more barely make more than a dime, generating a few bucks a month with Google ads or low-paying freelance gigs. Being nervous about my career in print journalism, I recently inquired about three separate job postings for Internet writers. The ads insisted these electronic publications needed flawless, 100 percent original content, and I assumed they’d pay accordingly. But I was appalled and, to be honest, somewhat offended to learn that these publishers—more like robber barons, if you ask me—pay just 1 to 3 cents a word. The magazines I work for pay 20 to 30 cents a word, and that’s considered the bottom of the barrel for freelance work. At 3 cents a word, a writer would earn $15 for an average Internet article, and if it were truly original and not just lifted from other sources such as, say, the Internet, it’d probably take at least 1 to 2 hours to research and write. I could do better pumping grape Slurpees at 7-Eleven.
So where does that leave me at this point in my 30-year career?
Frankly, I don’t know.
Unless my gargoyles work—and I don’t really believe in stone talismans, I just like the way they look and what they symbolize—I may be forced out of work soon with little or no hope of finding a new job in my field because my chosen profession is disappearing. And that’s scarier and more discouraging than almost anything I’ve ever faced.