What’s Black and White and Darn Near Obsolete?
For those of you who aren’t in Seattle―or are, but have been in a coma for the past several days―there has been a veritable shitstorm brewing at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Stranger has full coverage of the story, but in a nutshell, the P-I’s parent company Hearst Corporation has placed the newspaper up for sale. In the highly likely event that no buyer comes forward within 60 days the company plans to cease publishing, possibly moving to an online-only format (if any). For the P-I’s employees―whose severance-guaranteeing union contract just expired!―many questions remain unanswered. Meanwhile, reading the paper’s coverage of its own demise feels a little like looking at Hannah Wilke’s Intra-Venus, the series in which the artist documented her own deterioration and death from cancer.
The impending death of the P-I is a complex issue with lots of causes and even more implications. To be sure, there is a trend of American newspapers ceasing publication in the past several months, and it will no doubt get worse. Like the failing auto industry, newspaper companies have far too many of their resources tied up in manufacturing a physical product that is rapidly becoming obsolete. Which also happens to be an environmentalist’s nightmare: according to estimates from 2001, there are just over 100 pounds of newspaper printed per person per year in the U.S.
But while the newspaper industry is flailing, the demand for “news” is increasing. Much of the slack has been picked up by news websites and independent bloggers, many of whom further complicate the issue by our perplexing willingness to provide content for free. Must this broadening of sources come at the price of paid positions within the institutions with the most overhead? Maybe so, especially for the arts and culture writers, often deemed nonessential by the masses. Earlier this month Emily White wrote a controversial (and more than a bit institutionally biased) feature on this topic for City Arts Magazine, where she offers this endearing gem concerning the loss of newspaper culture critics:
Some say: forget the daily papers, the really great arts criticism is happening on blogs. I have searched and searched Planet Blogosphere and have yet to find this to be true. Of course blogs, twitter, myspace, all of it is in some sense revolutionary (Obama’s win proved this). But the blogosphere is not a place that produces great, careful writing. Perhaps this is because bloggers don’t generally craft and revise their work: it’s all about back-and-forth discussion, diary entries, lists.
(“Planet Blogosphere” to Emily White: Um, LOL.)
Jen Graves weighed in with a rebuttal of White’s essay for The Stranger. Indeed, as Jen blogged today, longtime P-I art critic and Seattle institution Regina Hackett will probably end up working―and yes, blogging―for herself. I am personally heartened to hear that Regina plans to continue writing about art in Seattle with or without the P-I because as Jen points out, she is so obviously not just in it for the money. Consider her enthusiastic willingness to use her position of prominence to promote my blog while it was in its infancy, despite the oft-expressed view that independent blogs are increasingly encroaching on newspapers’ turf.
Like so many aspects of American society, there is a tremendous upheaval playing out right now in the information industry. It’s anyone’s guess what will come of it, but it has become clear that many of the paradigms we’ve taken for granted for more than a century are drastically in need of revision. I just wonder if we’ll ever learn to make gradual changes over time so that our systems of doing things are able to grow and adjust, instead of waiting for our institutions to implode before acknowledging there are problems in need of addressing.