Digital Future?

Sorry to sound a Grinch, but this discussion has been recurring for 20 years, ever since Folio: magazine pronounced print dead in 1993, yet people still confuse terms hopelessly.

Currently, digital is cited for its speed. Print, with its 24-hour news cycle, cannot keep up, digital advocates claim. This confuses newspapers with magazines. Very few magazines try or tried to compete with newspapers on a news cycle.

Worse, the instant-relay factor of “news” in a digital world has recently led to dozens, if not hundreds, of embarrassing errors on the parts of television news anchors. Of interest, in large part, the anchors did not make the errors; they reported them. Still, they are held accountable.

Before Gutenberg, documents were reproduced by scribes, each of whom was accountable for the quality and accuracy of his work. After Gutenberg, the publisher was held accountable. So, here’s a question: if the original Gutenberg Bible was produced digitally, who could vouch for its accuracy today?

Nobody.

Going back to cuneiform and papyrus, the reason for creating a document has been to create an authoritative archive – a record. Does digital achieve that objective?

Not only does it not, but it never has. While the business world is scurrying around, trying to legitimize its association with the internet’s love of pornography and million-dollar deals from Nigeria, the plagiarists, the liars and the frauds are snarking around in web-crawling maggots, poking and searching for anything of value, including your wife’s bra size.

The magazine-circulation auditing boards are furiously trying to find a way to legitimize e-distribution, lest they lose their “market,” yet all will admit off-the-record there is no way to keep a liar from lying on the internet. There is no accountability.

It is also a false distinction to separate digital from print. I assume you can get the Gutenberg Bible in audio format and braille. To a blind person, braille or audio would be helpful. Is it, then, proper to ask whether advertisers prefer print to braille? If you note, the discussion, here, seems targeted at advertisers. The only audience that matters is the reader. If you do everything an advertiser wishes and can’t produce a reader, the advertiser will leave, even if you give him everything for free. Conversely, if you can’t find an advertiser willing to endorse your audience with his dollars (a patron, in Gutenberg’s time), the problem is not necessarily the advertiser. Such titles as Mad, Consumer Reports, Cooks Illustrated and Touchstone some to mind. No advertising by design.

Actually, it is easy to see the value of technology for the sake of technology. Simply list the number of books and magazines you have at home in microfiche.

Finally, where’s the money? I know; Bill Gates got rich on digital. However, I heard the then-editor of Men’s Health congratulating himself on the digital success of the magazine, saying, “It’s very successful. We are already breaking even.”

I trust that was simply an ill-advised slip. However, as noted, digital has attracted swarms of advertisers, buzzing over the chance at something for nothing. I am always willing to learn, but I would like to see some evidence that philosophy has suddenly started to work. I believe some of those old papyrus scrolls had a word about it back then.

Naturally, our company has web sites, blogs, e-mail and servers, and we put out digital editions. However, it is a cost, not a benefit. Where other people see a goose that might, someday, lay a golden egg, I see a snot-nosed urchin with his hand in my pocket, telling me he will mow my lawn tomorrow, but needs payment in advance.

Like the Apple Revolution in the ’80s, making everybody an instant desktop publisher, the digiblog world is now replete with international publishers with a Mac and WordPress standing up to say, “I am an internet publisher. All I need is some content and some ads.”

With respect, Mr. and Ms. Internet Publisher, you should consult with my yard guy and quit misleading my advertisers. Nobody is being served.

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