One week in the drama of the printed word

Just a quick alert to those of you who may not follow these matters as obsessively as I do: This is a cacophonous week even by the standards of the echo chamber that houses the pundits who hold forth about “the future of the newspaper” and such matters.

For once, I cannot really weigh in until The Economist‘s next issue is out (on Thursday night), because I am writing on one aspect of this. But I wanted at least to point you to various angles at whose intersection you may independently find … a thought:

  1. Amazon yesterday announced its Kindle 2 (ie, its electronic reading device for books*). I have been trying the Kindle 1 and am on the list to get the Kindle 2. I cannot say more for now.
  2. Google is making available over one million out-of-copyright books for reading on your mobile phone, thus joining many others apps, such as Stanza, that let you do that already.
  3. In case it’s not obvious*, the Kindle lets you receive (wirelessly–yucky word) and read not only books but also newspapers and magazines. In fact, I am about to unsubscribe from my last remaining print newspaper, the New York Times, in order to read only the Kindle, iPhone and web versions.
  4. Into this maelstrom, Walter Isaacson (whose biography of Einstein is in the bibliography of my forthcoming book) has written a cover story in Time Magazine in which he argues that “micro-payments” will save the journalism industry. (Here he is kidding around with Jon Stewart about it.)
  5. Other stalwarts of the industry, such as Michael Kinsley, are already busy dismantling every part of Isaacson’s argument.
  6. To summarize, for those hibernating in an igloo without WiFi: We were confused at the beginning of the week, we are confused in the middle of it, and we will be confused at the end of it.

As I said, I will today try to make sense of at least one part of this mess, and you can read the result in The Economist on Thursday night. It’s one of those rare occurrences when my private interests as a writer and aspiring author overlap with my day job of covering my beat. Yesterday, for instance, I was interviewing the boss of Penguin, John Makinson, about the topic–we began by kidding around, because Penguin, of course, owns Riverhead, where an editor is right now looking at my manuscript.

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4 thoughts on “One week in the drama of the printed word

  1. I found you via Cheri Block Sabraw’s blog and have bookmarked your site.

    The future of journalism is similar to the future of all other reproducible products that can be accessed through the web. It is spiralling out of control, yet it is also reinventing its main purpose.

    We now have access to movies, music and stories that are free and unedited. We must be our own critics and selectors, just as if we were at a big banquet eating our way through tables and tables of good, superb and bad food, all equally presented and cleverly displayed without any discernible difference.

    When we get food poisoning, we’ll rethink about the advantages of selection without guidance.

    I’m guessing, we’re going to prefer our peanut-butter products to be tested and regulated before they show up on our shelves to kill us softly.

  2. Where did I see a full page add this week declaring a legal action pertaining to Google books? (The Economist? Junk e-mail?) My interpretation is that this is your last chance to own your book – if you can find it on Google books.

    Can I have your old Kindle (1)?

  3. Fascinating topic. Since Kinsley rubbishes Isaacson’s argument, I assume Slate – an exclusively online journal (which I think Kinsley is still professionally associated with) – is making enough money to survive.

    Since I haven’t heard the Guardian (UK) or the Economist complain, I assume these two august journals are still making ends meet (am I assuming correctly?).

    So, if the Guardian and Economist can still make ends meet, why not the New York Times?

    That said, if the Guardian and Economist required $2 dollars from me each 30 days, I would pay because my life would seem bereft otherwise. But I might not pay $2 to read the NYT because, although I do often read some of it, it’s not nearly as important to me as the Guardian or Economist.

    As for me, so it may be for most others. We’ll pay if the journal (or “newspaper”) is sufficiently important to us. If not sufficiently important, we won’t.

    Here’s another solution for the NYT: ask for voluntary donations, as does Wikipedia.

  4. Welcome to the Hannibal Blog, Rosaria.
    Regarding the risk of food-poisoning in the online buffet of information: I haven’t been afflicted yet. I find that between my trusted sources and the “social” recommendation networks online, I get more interesting stuff more often.

    Mr Crotchety, I would love to bequeath my Kindle 1 to you. Alas, it is a review copy on loan to me from Amazon. I have to return it. (the Kindle 2, however, will be mine.)

    Christopher: Thanks for the vote of confidence in The Economist. We’re doing fine, as you guessed. The Guardian is a more interesting case. It is part of non-profit trust. People like my mentor Orville Schell often hold it up as a model for US newspapers.

    The Wikipedia model: very close to the NPR model, no? But it gets dangerously close to the BBC model of mandatory TV-license fees. (It takes more capital to run a news organization than a user-generated encyclopedia.) But I think that’s generally where we are headed….

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