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Calmness, curation, cat porn: Dave Eggers’ joys of print

Dave Eggers really likes newspapers. And he really — really, really — likes the medium they use to tell their stories. “I love print,” he said repeatedly, almost insistently, during a talk at ASNE’s conference last week. “I just love the form.”

But what became clear during the talk (moderated by On the Media‘s Brooke Gladstone) is that it’s not just print itself — ink, paper, the tactile nature of text — that the author admires. It’s the sense of comprehensiveness and direction — physically, and, he suggests, psychologically — that print represents. “I like…the calmness, the authority, the curation of a daily paper, where I know I’m not going to be sent into something totally trivial and non-germane,” Eggers said.

“Print” has become a loaded, somewhat political term; though most of us still love a good print magazine — and even a good print newspaper, like Eggers’ Panorama (“an homage to the form”) or the Sunday Times — we often associate a declared admiration for print with nostalgia and/or reluctance and/or Luddism. So why would a future-of-news-focused outlet — an online-only one, no less — concern itself with the views of a passionately printophilic novelist?

Because the ideas Eggers highlighted in his defense of print…are actually readily applicable to the web. They offer insights into what many consumers want out of news in general, regardless of platform; and — to the extent that the broad qualities of print can be distinguished from the specific thing-ness of print — they offer a challenge to (and, more optimistically, a vision for) news organizations and web designers alike. Add the print-medium values Eggers praised to “strong content” and “creative digital storytelling,” and that makes for a powerful combination in a news site.

With that in mind, here are four broad ideas Eggers associates with print:

1. Comprehensiveness and containment

“It’s too exciting and distracting online,” Eggers said. While print — especially long-form print — encourages hunkering down and cuddling up, online journalism fosters a kind of low-grade, perpetual ADD. Online, “there’s always some button that wants you to click to cat porn,” he said, as the audience laughed. “You try to read something, and it’s flashing, it’s telling you to go somewhere else.”

2. Length and thoughtfulness

“People still want to read long-form, literary journalism — nonfiction, etc.,” Eggers pointed out, noting the Panorama/Public Press investigation into the workings and finances of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge (which clocked in, all told, at nearly 20,000 words). They also want journalism that has taken a little time to marinate. “And so why can’t the print medium do that, and be that home, and leave the Internet to do the more quick-thinking and quick-reacting things?”

3. Professionalism and expert curation

“I want a printed newspaper curated and edited by professionals that have been in the trade for decades,” Eggers said. “I am in eternal deference to expertise.” Eggers likes the idea of branded — which is to say, vetted — news outlets shaping his view of the world. “I entrust my daily news input to the professionals,” he said. Later, he noted: “There’s a room there for the less experienced journalists, but mostly I want to hear from the people that know how to get at the facts, that know where the bodies are buried, that know inside and out of every city hall and government bureaucracy and tell me what I need to know. That’s what I go to a newspaper for.”

4. Physicality and variety

“I don’t want to read online,” Eggers said. “I don’t want to wake up and look at a screen. I feel like as a society, we try to put everything on that same goddamn screen, and pretty soon we’re going to be eating on the screen or, like, making love through the screen. It’s just sort of like: ‘Why does everything have to be on the screen?’

So: “I do think that it’s a time to make the paper form more robust and more surprising and beautiful and expansive,” Eggers concluded.

Of course, the same may be said of the web.

                                   
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  • http://hilobrow.com Peggy Nelson

    Megan – great piece. You are right when you observe that “more robust and more surprising and beautiful and expansive” is equally applicable the web. And the converse holds as well. For example, the ubiquitous ad boxes and columns of easily digestible bullet points in the paper are analogous to the web’s distracting “flashing buttons.” Eggers’ venture into newspapers can be understood as repackaging the newspaper as a luxury item – beautiful and *rare perhaps, but because of that, not necessarily *relevant and perhaps not necessarily *news. Something to be “curled up with” in an off moment, not something consumed on the train on the way to the office.

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  • http://www.wordyard.com Scott Rosenberg

    Megan, your last line is right on — but I think you resist following its implications, which really undermine most of Eggers’ case for *distinguishing* print from the Web.

    I like what Dave is trying to do; McSweeney’s is a great project. Still, I have to argue here. There is nothing that Dave observes about print that is not possible, and in fact widely pursued, online.

    There are plenty of websites that do not try to distract you with “cat porn.” Most commonly the sites that try to distract you are commercial sites. If the site is a product of your passion then it is far less likely to do anything but try to engage you with its content. So the “too much distraction” objection is an objection to the business of web publishing as constituted today, not the form of the medium.

    Length and thoughtfulness? One reason I was so glad to leave print for the Web in 1995 was: no more cutting from the bottom! There is *no space limit* in this medium. That can give bores a long rope, but it also lets talents flower.

    Professionalism and curation? Again, there is nothing inherent to the *form* of the Web that makes it inhospitable to either of these concepts. Curation, certainly, is far easier to practice online than in print. Professionalism has been harder to pursue because the Web is still young — and also, more importantly, because the Web business remains a tough game, so it’s hard to support yourself in the style to which journalism professionals have become accustomed through web work. But nothing about the web keeps you from behaving like a professional if you happen to know what that is.

    Finally, physicality and variety: Well, the Web is the greatest cornucopia of variety — and machine for serendipity — that humanity has yet been able to invent. It gives print a run for the money on this score, and print has a centuries-long lead. As for physicality–OK, there’s no winning on this one. If you simply feel “I don’t want to read online” then there’s not much of a retort possible on behalf of the Web. Here’s one anyone: screens are physical, too.

  • Megan Garber

    @Peggy: That’s a great point; definitely, one of the most significant aspects of Panorama was (and is) its repurposing of the newspaper from a vernacular to a luxury good — and, I’d add, from a primarily informational object to a primarily aesthetic one. Panorama’s medium is also its message: it’s a newspaper that treats print not only as a platform, but also as content itself.

    @Scott: Thanks for writing. I agree with you that the broad qualities I highlighted from Eggers’ talk are readily transferable to the web; we see examples of those qualities online every day (even, I like to think, at Nieman Lab!). Ultimately, I wanted to highlight Eggers’ talk not only because he’s a smart guy whose work I admire and whose ideas deserve to be heard, but also (and more so) because of the phenomenon I mentioned, though only briefly, in the post: the politicization of print as a medium. “Print” has become such a loaded term — and such a loaded idea in general — that it’s taken on a kind of platform-based partisanship: an emotional aspect, a kind of wistful defensiveness. The precise kind that Eggers highlighted in his talk.

    Too often, I think, that emotional aspect leads us to conflate the qualities of print with the commodity of print — and to forget, more to the point, that those qualities aren’t unique to the medium by any stretch. While I agree with Eggers that there are some things that print can do uniquely well (call it Luddism, but it’s still hard for me to get too excited about sitting next to a warm fire, curled up with a good…e-book), I also think that the vast majority of the qualities print enthusiasts cite when praising the form are ones that can exist just as readily — and, often, more readily — on the web. We talk about platform agnosticism; but there’s something to be said for medium agnosticism, as well.

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  • rudy

    These are enormously significant points that Eggers makes about the virtues of print.

    What is needed is the combination of these virtues with the advantage of digital distribution.

    The only one doing it so far is Kindle, whose inventor, Bezos, deliberately set out to duplicate the print experience in digital form.

    The ballyhooed iPad merely perpetuates the problem of “perpetual ADD.”

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  • raju saju

    Well, well…what do we have here? The porn industry asking for
    help?? First of all, I have a couple of questions and no, is not your
    sexual ambitions…

    Did California tax you guys? Because if they didn’t, I’ll be ticked
    off. Second, Congress is not a place to look for “pleasure” is a place
    for business(at least, that’s how is portrayed) . And I don’t know if
    they wanna pay you for…well, you know, this.

    Boy, you guys sure are horny people…