Shannon's Thirst

Rambling notes on the departure of traditional fashion in newspapers and libraries.

I. Newspapers.

With Murdoch nipping at the heels of The Wall Street Journal, the crescendo of stories on the death of newspapers may be approaching a point of local maximum. Most of these stories focus on the incredibly poor economics of newspapers, and the rise of the production (very rarely) and consumption (more commonly) of news on the Internet. Like most obsessions of the moment, the bigger issues unfortunately seem so much gloss. If we are not very careful, perhaps the most critical of these may be a drought in our ability to access carefully considered, independently-held, minimally commercial perspectives on news, information, and thought.

This week, an excellent consideration of the newspaper industry appeared in the guise of a book review at one of the consistently best sources for thoughtful analysis, The New York Review of Books. The piece, by Russell Baker, is entitled “Goodbye to Newspapers?.”

The opening of the essay is the now standard recitation of the Things Wrong with Newspapers:

Its advertising and circulation are being drained away by the Internet, and its owners seem stricken by a failure of the entrepreneurial imagination needed to prosper in the electronic age. Surveys showing that more and more young people get their news from television and computers breed a melancholy sense that the press is yesteryear’s thing, a horse-drawn buggy on an eight-lane interstate.

Mr. Baker then begins to address a deeper malaise in the body-discourse, using as his primary vehicle a speech given last year by John S. Carroll, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times, entitled “What will become of Newspapers?” [pdf]. As Mr. Baker recounts, Carroll notes there has been a profound transformation in the underlying financial environment in which newspapers perform:

[Carroll] was especially alarmed about the breakdown of understanding between owners and working journalists and about the loss of common purpose that once united them. This has come about, he said, because the functions that were once the realm of strong publishers have been taken over by Wall Street money managers. The breakdown at the top began some forty years ago when local owners began selling their papers to corporations. As the nature of markets changed, power shifted from the corporations to investment funds, which make money by investing other people’s money in ways that make it multiply. It became hard to say anymore who or what a newspaper owner was.

Mr. Baker itemizes the inevitable results:

Journalism was being whittled away by a Wall Street theory that profits can be maximized by minimizing the product. Papers everywhere felt relentless demands for improved stock performance. The resulting policy of slash-and-burn cost-cutting has left the landscape littered with frail, failing, or gravely wounded newspapers which are increasingly useless to any reader who cares about what is happening in the world, the country, and the local community.

This is not a lack of imagination by editors and journalists; it is a wholesale pillaging of privately-encapsulated entities that provide a profoundly important public good — an informed citizenry. Mr. Baker notes Carroll’s premise that free-market capitalism “does not really work very well in the newspaper business, and if rigorously applied, tends to destroy it.”

The panacea for this transition is inevitably held to be the flowering of alternative forms of discourse on the Internet, which unfortunately for their own longevity still largely obtain their news and information from the same traditional sources that have been torn asunder by disruptive technology, leaving our social understanding wallowing far behind in its wake. As one veteran SF Bay Area reporter recently commented:

Most people don’t read bylines and probably don’t care that so many reporters are out of work. But I regard this as the deliberate dismantling of an industry with repercussions we don’t yet understand. While many of these reporters will continue to publish, either as freelancers or as staff writers, the institution of newspapers has been seriously weakened.

II. Libraries.

I cannot help but sense that Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are helping — rather inadvertently, through the law of unintended consequences — to effect a similar rough transition for libraries, particularly the public libraries that serve our communities and public state universities. Books digitized, harvested, electronically shredded, and commoditized have left dis-intermediated libraries wondering how to better market themselves to a population unevenly aware of their existence, and the services they offer.

There are conditions within the publicly accessible contracts that Google and university libraries have committed themselves to, that restrict the ability of libraries to aggregate the digital copies of their books across institutions and thence provide their own services, lest Google wind up with competition from those that have long tenure in the service of providing information under a rather different business model. I might approach this with more equanimity if the information held in books and online journals had not already been paid for in some form by the commonweal, often first through Federally-funded research, and a second time through its acquisition from commercial publishers. It is troubling that Google’s library partners have significant technical and financial considerations in even accepting back the digital copies of the files to which they have contractual rights, either for the historically inadequate but improving quality of the digitization, or because running significant disk farms for large amounts of digital material was not considered a library subsidy with any primacy by their universities.

It therefore raises a weary spirit to learn that the Libraries of the University of California, perhaps the greatest public research university in the world, have issued a resolution on the importance of holding in public trust that material which flows to them at uncertain cost:

The University Librarians unanimously agree that digitally reformatted books created from their libraries’ holdings be placed in a timely manner in a digital preservation repository under University of California control. The active management of those files, including those created in partnership with Google Book Search and the Microsoft/Open Content Alliance, is mission critical both to the Libraries and the University to which they contribute. It enables the Libraries to continue their stewardship of historic collections that are developed with public funds and managed as public goods, and ensures those collections remain accessible in perpetuity in conformance with copyright law and with respect to fair use. 6.15.07

As we stand on the threshold of a world where Google and the publishers may well sell us back access to the information whose acquisition for libraries we — as a society — have already publicly supported, it seems increasingly risque to note that we may be losing some cultural forms fundamentally crucial to our well-being. Their departure may be profoundly damaging in ways that we cannot yet imagine, for they have served as the silent sources of liquidity for social change. A thriving press and public libraries have always been so accounted.

It is an increase in our social wealth that I may search for information across the world’s news and books online, even at the cost of its privatization funded through a constant stream of personalized advertising. Yet the cost may yet be unimaginably higher than mere annoyance and a loss of privacy if our traditional systems for distributing critical thought, and making it widely available, falter and are not adequately reborn to suit the rightful expectations of a digitized age.

For the future of books, it should be a stunning failure of imagination to suppose that the sole avenue of free access might be had by walking into a public library if, in this hour of need, our public libraries are not themselves supported through a difficult transition that they must now envision. This waiting metamorphosis must see us to a place where the old information that libraries can now only make available within their walls, resting in an increasingly desperate solitude inside of shelved books, be borne beyond their buildings and into our awakening digital grasp.