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April 21, 2010, 10 a.m.

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.

POSTED     April 21, 2010, 10 a.m.
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