April 10, 2013

The death of print has been greatly exaggerated


Egon pronounced print dead in Ghostbusters.

Could we please agree to stop using the word “dead” in headlines about print media and publishing? I’m convinced “the death of print” has been around for at least 130 years, and I’m sick of reading about it.

At least ten print-related things have been pronounced dead this month:

1. The American author is dying slowly, according to Scott Turow in The New York Times.

2. The American weekly magazine is dying slowly, according to Joshua Macht in the Atlantic.

3. The Book is dead, according to ABC News.

4. Google Reader is dead, according to Forbes. [ed. note: this is the only thing on the list that is actually dead, and it will be missed. RIP.]

5. Brick-and-mortar retail is dead, says PandoDaily. (We’ve written about showrooming and B&N here, too.)

6. The online eBook store is dead, says Good eReader.

7. Newspapers are so dead, people are making beers to commemorate them (“Unemployed Reporter Porter”).

8. Travel guides are dead, according to NBC.

9. “Foreign language learning” is dead now that we’re using pictographs instead of signs, the Telegraph reports.

10. Cursive is dead, Jezebel says in response to the LA Times.

My patience may be worn thin after the rush to turn the end of Newsweek into the end of everything earlier his year. The Guardian‘s Michael Rosenberg went so far as to proclaim the magazine’s closure part of “digital mass extinction.” His hyperbole is impressive, but where does our discussion go from there?

We’ve been predicting the end of print for generations. In Alessandro Ludovico’s Post-Digital Print, the author points to an illustrated book by Octave Uzanne and Albert Robida published in 1894. Uzanne suggested the future of publishing would not be in the “static” form of a printed page, but replaced by voice, available in a sort of “on demand” platform transmitted by through a cylindrical recording mechanism. Frankly, this anxiety is reflected in writings about the rise of radio, television, or even the film cartridge central to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

In interviews through the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan described humans as “moving out of a print culture,” though I can’t find any evidence that he used the word “death” to describe the change in media, and his tone is never alarmist. He is frequently cited as the inspiration for Egon Spengler‘s famous line in Ghostbusters, released in 1984.

Last year Leah Price of the New York Times traced the death of the book back even further to 1835, when novelist Théophile Gautier declared in his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin that “the newspaper is killing the book, as the book killed architecture.” This echoed the anxiety of an archdeacon from Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame, who believed the book would kill the cathedral, as Gutenberg’s printing press might put scribes out of work, though it’s worth nothing that the book, which is set in the 15th century, was published with the benefit of eagle-eyed hindsight in 1841.

I understand that it is often the editors, not the writers, coming up with these headlines and that they may be working with limited space. “Is X dead?” is a concise, dramatic way to gain readers’ attention, but recent changes to the world of print isn’t going to be answered with a yes or a no. There may be pressure on these news sources to make the content seem immediate to the reader, and transforming industry news into a life-or-death issue is an tried and true way to gain attention (and pageviews).

Regardless, it’s exhausting. We need a different framework to discuss the evolution of this industry.

A few writers who have elegantly avoided this trope: Evan Hughes managed to dodge a life-or-death headline in his recent Wired article about changes in the publishing industry; Nicole Bernier addressed the business of paperback publishing for The Millions without guessing at the format’s pulse; and Michael Roston wrote an obituary for Roger Ebert in the New York Times without linking his literal demise to the death of criticism.

Let’s take a cue from McLuhan about discussing the changing role of print media in an even-handed way:

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.