Requiem for the printed word

In Thoughts on December 10, 2012 at 7:55 am

The German language has an addage, which loosely translated runs: What you are owning black-on-white, you can assuredly carry home. Times are not looking good for this principle. A while ago, Newsweek announced that they were giving up on a print edition by the end of the year, and that alone had prompted me to write something here. But on top of it, I have heard this week, that in Germany, the daily Frankfurter Rundschau, a scion of working class publishing is going into insolvency, and the Financial Times Deutschland, a relatively young daily newspaper, which had managed to take a fairly neutral and professional position in a market typically characterized by strong ideological standpoints, has also stopping the presses.
Now this is where I notice that I am getting old, or just totally off the mainstream. I like print. The airline is not asking you to switch off or stow your magazine or newspaper during take-off and landing, a printed publication is easily deposited for casual browsing in a bathroom, and they can be rolled up to fit in any external pocket of a common bag, without attracting undue attention or running out of battery. And while I can understand that a printed publication has difficulties competing with much faster online news, especially if the later is free of charge, there are aspects worth considering.
Firstly the weekly format cannot be current, but on the flip side, it can offer the bigger picture. And that is something I have always appreciated about Newsweek. They had the ability to listen to the daily noise and extract the broader trend and offer an in-depth analysis, and printed in a letter format, the reader would not be interrupted by mailbox pop-ups or have to knock out his neighbour in economy class to turn the page. And that is something rarely found in the world of the neverending news cycle. And this aspect will be sorely missed.
Now how can this work economically? The Financial Times Deutschland editors lamented that they had not been able to find a business model to compete with online offerings. But they could have found an example not too far away in Duesseldorf, and on a much lower journalistic level. The VDI Nachrichten is a weekly print newspaper, targeted at engineers and people in technical professions and is affiliated with the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure, Germany’s largest association of engineers and similar professionals. So this paper comes as an included benefit in the membership fees, and is in turn funded by these. The large number of members guarantees a budget, although the paper is also available for sale at news stands around the country. And that seems to be working fairly well. I wish the Financial Times Deutschland would have found a partner, and on returning to Germany, I might have found myself a member of an association not related to my discipline in any way.
But not wanting to go into publishing, where does that leave me? The brilliant William Gibson has pointed me to Wired magazine, which seems to embrace the more reflective, analytical approach that makes a low-frequency magazine great. I might just give that a shot.


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