"The future business of journalism will resemble the past and will also be unlike it," proclaims journalist-cum-professor George Brock as he begins the final chapter of Out of Print, an enlightening and engaging exploration of how journalism got to be what it is through trial and error that also calls upon the industry to maintain its spirit of flexible experimentation if it wishes to thrive in the 21st century. It's a line that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of a book that is part history/part dissection/part prescriptive measure for the current state of journalism, an industry in upheaval that has been struggling with outdated business models in this hyper-personalized, swiftly moving era that bears little resemblance to the world a decade prior, to say nothing of the centuries before when the only available medium, still in its fledgling state, was adapting to the needs and wants of an increasingly informed public.
I've officially been out of print journalism longer than I was in it but, hey: You can take the girl out of the newsroom but you can't take the newsroom out of the girl. Especially when she fled job satisfaction for job security and resents the decision on a fairly regular basis. At the time, anything was preferable to fearing for my job every three months and not being able to hear myself think over what sounded suspiciously like the death rattle of an industry I arrived at just in time to watch it crumble around me. In hindsight, I do wish I'd stuck around a little longer to administer palliative care to something I truly loved being a part of, though I think I got out just in time to be able to justify recalling my newspaper days with perhaps a tad too much nostalgia rather than the exhausted, overworked frustration that punctuated those last months.
So when I heard about Out of Print--which examines the interlocking past, present and uncertain future of journalism with a focus on newspapers--I felt like it was one of those rare times when I was actually part of the target audience. Perhaps for that reason, or because the book maintains an unflinching but rationally optimistic attitude about what's in store for journalism, I found it to be the perfect example of the educated tome one needs to read in order to form both a credible, well-informed opinion on the state of journalism today and an idea of what it will take to ensure that we'll one day look back on these times as a turning point rather than a terminus.
With his book, Brock effectively dismantles the myths born of lazily connected, coincidental cause and effect, presenting a much-needed reminder that what a thing is and how it looks are rarely the same. Two easy examples: One, the dawn of the internet didn't really strike the death blows to more traditional media, especially print, so much as it merely exposed their long-festering issues, like how advertising dollars have been on the decline since the '80s but were easily mitigated by cinching editorial budgets, a decline in competition, and predominantly stable developed-world economic conditions; two, hindsight offers us the luxury of looking at the whole in retrospect to create a history by linking media milestones but actually living in the middle of one--without the comfort of flipping to the end of the chapter to see how the turbulent present fits with the paradigm-shifting moments of the past that led to this current transition--feels more like standing on unstable ground than witnessing another historical epoch from the inside. As someone who used to vehemently, bitterly complain how those damnably stubborn dinosaurs before me destroyed print journalism with their refusal to either adapt to newer models or embrace the internet as a supplement to rather than replacement of the newspaper, it was strangely comforting to see the extent of just how wrong I was in that regard, to finally understand that it's not easy to consider the implications of new technology when the daily, immediate demands of having a job to do often demand one's full attention.
Furthermore, Brock points out that every sudden expansion of information has ripple effects that are both long-lasting and often delayed. When the rise of the internet's accessibility didn't have immediate effects, it was hard to anticipate either the full impact or the personal and practical application of these modern connections that have rapidly decreased the size of world while mind-bogglingly increasing every individual's opportunity to access information both ancient and up-to-the-second current. As someone who has been using the internet since elementary school, it's easy to forget that such far-reaching connectivity was daunting in its scope to anyone not looking at it for the first time with an adult perspective rather than a child's easy acceptance of new discoveries.
I can't speak for someone who never experienced that odd combination of personal excitement and deadline-driven occupational pressure that comes with watching historical events unfold from the strange vantage point of a newsroom, surrounded by like-minded people in that surreal suspension of time between waiting for results and scrambling in unison to create a product that not only passes along but elaborates on such information for public consumption, but as a former journalist with an admittedly romantic notion of what the industry can accomplish (with a shameless bias for newspapers, whatever the lacking regard many seem to have for them), Out of Print offers plenty of rational reassurance that we're not facing the death of something but rather its rebirth--should it choose to adapt rather than stagnate. The book is optimistic without being sentimental, thought-provoking without being pretentious and realistic without being harsh, which makes it comforting for someone with a keen interest in seeing journalism prevail and hopefully eye-opening for those who wish to better understand it.(less)
Once upon an occupationally happier time, I was an award-winning journalist. The "award-winning" part wasn’t all that important (though obviously not...moreOnce upon an occupationally happier time, I was an award-winning journalist. The "award-winning" part wasn’t all that important (though obviously not some unwelcome kudos) because I have loved print journalism in ways one should never love an inanimate intangible ever since the gateway drug that was my mediocre private university's labor-of-love, student-run newspaper showed me what I was meant to do with my life, a certainty that was cemented by the soaring pride I felt when our Little Paper That Could beat the piss out of Princeton's college paper in the New Jersey Press Awards the year I was opinion editor.
When I graduated as a bright-eyed, enthusiastic young drunk, the only tears I shed during the ceremonial severance from the first place that ever felt like home were over saying goodbye to the paper that had directed me to my future path (and, for bonus sentimentalization, introduced me to my husband). At the time, I had no idea that I would spend the rest of my professional career desperately seeking the same sense of personal pride and professional satisfaction that has, so far, been exclusive to my days as a collegiate journalist.
I am grateful that I got to spend a little more than three years in newspapers; unfortunately, my dream job exists in an industry that has been manhandled literally to death since the rise of the internet. My last paper was under the control of a company whose corporate-bigwigs’ salaries reached numbers that I still can't believe actually exist and whose stock is doing well enough to reliably earn a spot in certain mutual funds' top-ten holdings. So, naturally, the newsrooms themselves -- the places where the actual product is miraculously birthed seven days a week as the few remaining editors and reporters and behind-the-scenes staff pick up yet another unceremoniously laid-off comrade's smorgasbord of responsibility -- face cut after cut, furlough after furlough, bloodbath layoff after bloodbath layoff and are still expected to perform as they did in the golden days of print journalism.
When I bid adieu to the newspapering life, I was disillusioned and demoralized. What began as the personal satisfaction of working in the very world I set out to immerse myself in ended with overworked anguish as I found myself moving farther from the very things that drew me to journalism in the first place. It had been ages since I last wrote an article or attended a meeting or snapped a photo or did any of the things that made me love coming home with newspaper ink under my fingernails. That, combined with hearing the industry's death rattle grow louder with every passing day, was what finally drove me to more stable ground.
For those and myriad other reasons, “The Imperfectionists” is a hard book for me to approach objectively: With absolutely no regard for reality, my newsroom nostalgia is a thing now steeped in shamelessly over-romantic fondness and colors anything that stirs it in a wistfully rosy hue. There are little things in here that betray the author's keen awareness of universal newsroom truths -- the bitter divide between editorial and corporate; the misunderstood self-righteousness of those tasked with maintaining some modicum of integrity in an industry that doesn't always put such an admirable endeavor above sensationalism and the almighty dollar (also: there are papers that still have corrections editors!?); the self-sacrifice and seeming dehumanization required to ascend in rank while keeping the paper's best interest at heart -- that hit all the notes of a sad song I know too well. The fictional focus of "The Imperfectionists" is the ballad of just one more newspaper on the brink of obsolescence and it is filled with the slow panic that is now endemic to any publication left standing these days.
The very human personalities pouring from these pages are what I imagine would make this a compelling story for those who haven't given their hearts to the cruel mistress of print journalism: This is, ultimately, a workplace tragicomedy that delves into the characters' personal lives, too. In newspapers as in any manically paced work environment, it is all too easy to form alliances that blind one to a compatriot's flaws, just as it's even easier to vilify the ad rep who constantly delays the release of dummy pages, the copy editor who inserts errors into flawless stories, the section editor who demands unreasonable word counts, the reporter who thinks her shit doesn't stink. Disregarding the non-professional side of one's coworkers makes it easier to despise them and launch ongoing battles, as well as serving as a much-needed distraction from the bigger, less controlled ugliness of shrinking ad sales and rapidly declining subscription numbers.
For being a dude-penned tale, the plight of being a lady journalist was explored with a surprising reverence. I wasn't always crazy about the way the female employees were represented here but Kathleen, the paper's executive editor, was a too-spot-on example of what it's like to be a woman playing in the boys' club (which, judging by some of the horror stories I've heard about newsrooms of yore, isn't nearly as bad as it used to be but, good God, some of the old-head editors I've worked with made it clear that it wasn't always my passion and journalistic acumen that got me hired). The lone female copy editor here, Ruby, paints a lonely picture of what it's like to care too much when a deserved pat on the back is swapped for constant animosity and serving as the go-to scapegoat: A woman who lives both alone and for the paper that employs her strikes a more poignant chord of melancholy than a man in the same position, and Ruby is the perfect vehicle for giving such aching sadness a place in the world outside the newspaper's walls.
Placing an English-language paper in Italy and staffing it with uprooted Americans was a nice touch. There is such a divide between Newspaper Life and Real Life that it's a difficult thing to translate for people who don't live for their work like any overly passionate journalist does, and the emphasized chasm of a cultural difference that lives just outside the office walls captures that dichotomy perfectly. There were other little flourishes that made my long-dormant inner journalist perk up with recognition, like how all of the news editor's thoughts are in headlines ("Keys in pocket, sources say") and the way all the non-flashback chapters are told in the present tense.
The closing chapters of this book broke my heart. Just. Destroyed it. It's obvious where the story's going pretty early on but it doesn't mitigate the ending's impact. Kind of like how that one last look at the newspaper office -- the very place that's become a second home after all the twelve-hour days and countless late nights, where you cried over Election Night results because there's no other place in the world you'd rather be when your candidate delivers a victory speech, where you swore in equal measures that you'd never work in this industry again because fuck this bullshit and couldn't imagine feeling this completely at home in any other workplace -- on your last day of being a journalist is always an increasingly close reality but is a terrible mix of freedom and defeat as the familiar building grows smaller and smaller in your rear-view mirror that final time.(less)
I started reading this at work last week and, 40 pages in, had already realized that I was only going to finish the book in the privacy of my own home...moreI started reading this at work last week and, 40 pages in, had already realized that I was only going to finish the book in the privacy of my own home, where I was free to get as weepy as I wanted over the mind-boggling array of tragedies and triumphs depicted throughout Eggers's painstaking portrayal of a post-Katrina Muslim family.
This was as powerful as it was subtle, as human as its horrors were impossible to fathom (though, since I still can't shake a lot of what "People's History" threw at me, I was a little less shocked at how badly the poor and foreign-born are treated in this country). I was completely sucked in from the first page and, as I got more absorbed in both the history of the Zeitouns and the immediate impact of Katrina on their lives, I could not believe how quickly the book moved.
Eggers's storytelling is top-notch, and his ability to avoid the sentimental trappings that would tempt a lesser writer all too well is crucial to the integrity of the narrative.
The only thing that was harder than putting down this book was the inevitability of arriving at its end. (less)
This is the first lengthy piece of Hunter S. Thompson's writing that I've actually read, though, because he's my fiance's literary hero, the number of...moreThis is the first lengthy piece of Hunter S. Thompson's writing that I've actually read, though, because he's my fiance's literary hero, the number of Thompson-related movies, documentaries and shorter writings I'm familiar with is staggering in number. So I did come into this novel with a pretty keen idea of what to expect.
And I walked away from it feeling completely cheated for having spent almost no time with Thompson's writing while he was still alive. As a journalist, as a writer, as a casual alcoholic and as a bibliophile, I really wished I had read "The Rum Diaries" while I was still a wide-eyed college freshman. Though I think being introduced to it now worked out well for my ability to relate to the piece.
A handful of post-1945 ones aside, I am not naturally a fan of American writers in general. I've always preferred scribes from the British Isle or whose works had to be translated to English from their native Spanish. Thompson's style here, even though it's merely hinting at the Gonzo to come here, is what could have changed all that had I discovered him sooner.
Thompson's curt, straight-to-the-point sentences reek of journalistic training; his word choice and ability to turn a sharply biting phrase screams of a gifted writer. I loved his masterful use of rhythm, metaphor, liberally sprinkled adverbs (which was an example of how any writer worth his ink knows that the rules exist to be broken expertly), imagery and precisely economised language. He doesn't bullshit his reader, and his blunt honesty is refreshing. And I loved how easily I could imagine Thompson reciting passages from this novel in that choppy voice of his, which lended an unexpected realism and dimension to this piece.
Two things hooked me immediately: being a story about print journalists was one. The other was that my fiance, who could probably talk for days about the nuances of Thompson, had prefaced my encounter with this book by telling me it's a fictionalised account of the time Thompson had spent in Puerto Rico; seeing that the story's based primarily in San Juan, that's not really surprising. I absolutely love tropical climates, and I could honestly feel the promise of the mornings and the humidity of the days as Thompson described them and wove them into his tale. Being able to so easily fall into the atmosphere of the story was just an enjoyable bonus.
The recurring themes of journalism, often addressed with a tinge of despair (the grumblings of "... it's no fun anymore -- our luck's all running out at the same time" and "I have my own problems"), were comforting. Seeing what little has changed in how journalists regard the craft, how newspapers have always been struggling and even in the timelessly stereotypical -- but not cliched -- representation of the journalist personality added a sympathetic familiarity to the novel.
My fiance told me I'd miss Thompson's writing once I finished "The Rum Diary," and he was right. If I hadn't immediately pounced on works by two of my own favourite authors (Tom Robbins and Mark Dunn -- and yes, they're both Americans) and if we hadn't so recently watched the film adaptation, I would have made a beeline for "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." But I feel like I'll be picking up my fiance's lovingly beat-up and painstakingly dog-eared copy of that book in the near future anyway because Thompson's writing is as addicting as the drugs that fueled him. (less)