Journalistic anemia 

It's not just a disease of the daily papers

Talk about unpleasant coincidences.

Two weeks ago, this column focused on the way the Internet, which is replacing the printed word in many ways, may be making us stupid even as it overinforms us.

John Sugg's column that week discussed the way daily newspapers, including the AJC, are becoming simple-minded, giving up investigative reporting, sometimes dying, sometimes trying to resurrect themselves on the Internet.

Then, on Tuesday, Aug. 12, I received an e-mail from CL Senior Editor Scott Freeman, author of that week's cover story and editor of this column for the last few years. He informed me that he'd been laid off, along with Senior Writer David Lee Simmons.

Obviously, it isn't just the dailies that are growing anemic.

Journalism's decline has been evident for some time. Ever since USA Today appeared in 1982 with its color-coded, breezy content of short articles mainly directed to consumers, the quality of journalism has been in decline.

Nor was the Internet's potential news to some publishers. Deborah Eason, founding publisher of CL, was completely prescient on this score. During the years in the '80s when I was editor of the paper, editorial staff listened to her talk excitedly about the Internet. We looked at her blankly. She even installed someone in the editorial department to "write code." We had no idea what he was doing.

Although I scour the Net obsessively, I still prefer the printed newspaper page. You can blame my age and my work in the field. The shift to the Internet is not the first major technological change I've watched.

I had the good fortune to work for the state's last letterpress operation, The Elberton Star, when I finished undergrad. This means all the typewritten copy was cast in lead by linotype operators. Then it was bolted into a metal frame and placed on a flatbed press. I had to make my own photo engravings.

Such letterpress operations had already given way to "offset" printing everywhere else. In subsequent jobs, I turned my typewritten copy over to someone operating a phototypesetter instead of a linotype machine. Then that step was eliminated altogether. Copy is submitted to editors and production by way of computers. Design of pages is also done on a computer screen.

This is a history of increasing efficiency and "disembodiment" of the word. With the Internet's triumph over the printed page, that process seems to be nearing completion.

It is always folly to separate content from process. As I wrote last week, studies have demonstrated that our dependence on the Internet for information keeps our reading shallow. It's not that there isn't more information available. The problem is that we literally rewire our brains' capacity to focus.

Also, a printed newspaper (hopefully) maps the day's stories in terms of their newsworthiness. The Internet tends to highlight quick reads of what is of personal interest. For example, two Wednesdays ago, the AJC's home page led with flashing graphics of a cat and some condos.

The lead stories were a stabbing (with a pencil) on a school bus, sexual misconduct by a Cobb court official, a teen's arrest on a drug charge and a "shocking" tale of a man who held his family captive. Such stories are not usually on the front pages of reputable daily newspapers. If you depended on the AJC's home page to learn what's happening in the world, you could very easily miss the day's most important events.

Another phenomenon of online news is both a liability and an asset. Internet publications, like TV news, can be updated at any time, thus speeding up the news cycle dramatically. A newspaper is printed only once a day, so that in some senses, its content is outdated as soon as you pick it up. On the other hand, I'm convinced the paper's slower news cycle is more conducive to thoughtful consideration of what's occurring in the world.

Some publications are trying to handle these concerns in their online incarnations. But most, like the AJC, are making no such effort, appealing to the lowest common denominator instead of honoring the tradition of the Fourth Estate.

I hope CL doesn't take that route, too.

Please read Editor Ken Edelstein's post on this subject, titled "Bummer," at Fresh Loaf.

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