Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lamentate exultate

Having just taken issue with one Shorenstein Center report, let me hasten to pay homage to another: a long, elegant essay by William Powers entitled "Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal."

This is not your standard elegiacal lamentation by an aging newspaperman–the kind linked to six times a day from Romenesko and honed to perfection by one of our best here. Powers is a savvy, modern media consumer, more internet literate than most and far more thoughtful. His column of media criticism in the National Journal frequently delivers a tough love message for the media masses.

Thus it is reassuring to find in this useful essay the kind of considered, well-grounded contrarianism that makes his work important to people who care about news. His basic thesis is self-evident: paper must be pretty useful to have lasted so long and remained so ubiquitous. The payoff comes in his exposition of why that's true, including:

  • the difference between communication and storage;
  • differing roles for technologies in connecting us to information and mediating our relationship with it;
  • envisioning paper as the piñata's covering, something that grows even as the piñata's interior volume expands;
  • contrasting the quality of attention derived from the "battle for control" involved watching video with the "embrace" of reading; and,
  • examining ways in which the finite nature of printed information helps promote a sense of order, refining data into knowledge.

We've talked about many of these things in musing about newspapers here before – for example, Data Isn't Knowledge; Publishing, Primates and Pattern Recognition; and, more recently, Saying No to Abandonistas.

Powers' arguments and explications yield a solid foundation for predicting a long and productive role for printed journalism in the future–if we understand and play to its strengths.

Powers does us all great service in making a cogent, coherent case for that proposition in this essay. I commend it highly.

P.S. The link takes you to a pdf document; as Powers himself suggests in a related article, it's better to print it out and read it on paper.

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