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Against digital competition, publishers make books beautiful, while print news still looks for an edge

By Michael Hurtig
Wednesday, January 4th, 2012
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Publishing houses want readers to judge a book by its cover, not to mention colored endpapers and deckle edges, the Times’ Julie Bosman reported recently. Unfortunately, beleaguered newspapers cannot adapt this survival strategy.

Recently, the economics of print journalism have become more dire than traditional publishing. The reversal would have seemed ludicrous ten years ago, when newspapers still littered apartment lobbies, brownstone stoops and small-town sidewalks even as the umpteenth death knell was sounded for the novel and, less somberly, the hardcover non-fiction doorstop.

E-books (and “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”) improbably brightened literary print’s prognosis. People were reading again, even if the industry’s lifeblood was funneled through the once-disreputable young adult genre. Still, the situation is dire enough to warrant a new, or renewed, emphasis on books as tactile treasures rather than displays on a minimalist tablet. “If e-books are about ease and expedience,” writes Bosman, “then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning, not just reading. ”

The 925 pages of Haruki Murakami’s much-hyped “1Q84” come wrapped in a translucent jacket sheathing the enigmatic face of a pretty young woman on the cover. “11/22/63,” the latest from Stephen King (who hardly lacks selling power), includes photographs, a rarity for fiction. The oldies are dolled up too, with a fresh translation of “The Iliad” flaunting a silk placeholder, embossing and “extra-heavy” paper stock.

In contrast, newspapers have shed weight, width and luster—the papers still in circulation, that is. The Times shrunk one-and-a-half inches width-wise in 2008 (and the Wall Street Journal by twice that) ditched its New York section and folded Sports into Business on weekdays. The next year, it sold advertising space on the once-sacrosanct front page. The paper did ramp up the Thursday Styles section and the glossy T Magazine Sunday supplement, but this was clearly a leaner, if not meaner, paper.

Shrinking circulations and stroke-inducing balance sheets alone don’t account for print journalism’s inability to mimic publishers that cling to design as a life raft. The fourth estate is indispensable. But, unlike a handsome volume of Homer, a paper is fit for the recycling bin the moment its news becomes old, maybe an hour after the typical reader cracks the fold and gives his preferred sections a skim. Aside from the early editions on the rare epochal day—recall the line forming around the block for issues of the Times the morning after Barack Obama was elected first black president—reader ownership does not apply to news.

Another setback is that concise news articles are easily consumed, for free, across a plethora of internet aggregators and an echo chamber of links, recaps and reactions. Despite the Oprah-led revival of the book club, literature is an individual and time-consuming pursuit, and for now unattainable through a two-second Google search. Then there’s the gadget culture that craves slick iPads, Kindles and Nooks, the costly devices that transmit books.  Conversely, newspaper articles ricochet about the web able to be intercepted by any Web browser.

Back when it was a young punk upstart, the internet was admired for combining the immediacy of television and the depth of print. The paradox is that the digital realm has preserved and made journalism more accessible—Google News is more convenient than a trip to the newsstand—but at the price of threatening the field’s ability to gather and report news in the first place.

by Billy Gray