Publics and Publishing: Final Essay

Question 1:

‘It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves—the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public—has stopped being a problem.’ (Clay Shirky, ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’, http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/ newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/). Are digital and networked media dismantling the “publishing industry”? Is it being replaced? If so, what is replacing it? If not, what is the publishing industry becoming, and how is it doing so? Are there new difficulties and complexities or expenses involved?

Word Count: 2000

Since the technological development of digital media and the Internet has taken place in our society, the consequential impact on various publishing industries and the resulting effects for society has become increasingly apparent. It is therefore important to outline characteristics of particular publishing industries to determine and analyse their effects, developments and functions in a digital age.

Publishing generally means to make something publically known and available which was unknown before (Wikipedia, 2014). This process has occurred for thousands of years in numerous forms, such as cave paintings, stone circles, hieroglyphics, writing, the printing press and the computer. Such examples are different publishing forms that humans from all different cultures and centuries have executed to fulfil publishing’s remaining fundamental purpose. Education and culture publishing has always adjusted its technique according to technological development. Thus, it is important to clarify that digital and networked media did not impact on “the publishing industry” but rather on the previous, most popular Western publishing form, the print publishing industry.

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As every new publishing invention has always had societal consequences, print publishing also significantly impacted on society. Eisenstein (1979) outlines how print media has made education available for everyone through major changes, such as “increased output and altered intake, private reading and cross cultural interchanges” (Eisenstein, 1979). This insight exemplifies how characteristics of a new publishing medium might carry significant advantages for society, so that it is not only adapted but also completely overshadows previously accepted publishing forms.

Similarly, digital publishing caused the major publishing adaption of digital media and therefore initially dismantled the print publishing industry. Digital publishing arguably suited and partly caused our society’s fast paced lifestyle. Its independent network-characteristics met the demands of the people so that demands for traditional print media rapidly decreased. Mike Shatzkin (2012) along with many other writers, economists and publishers, evaluates how the introduction of digital publishing caused print to become too expensive and not profitable. If one focuses on the terminology of replacement, digital publishing therefore replaced media that was publishing in print before.

One of the essential characteristics of digital publishing is the Internet, which enables numerous novel opportunities for people to autonomously engage and produce publishable content. Rainie and Wellman (2012) evaluate one of the main facets that makes an online appearance and thus digital publishing so attractive. “Networked Individualism” (Rainie & Wellman, 2012) describes the individual’s shift from being a member in a bound local group to being an autonomously acting individual in shifting networks. One can be an individual user in many different networks and thus has greater information sources and communities that individually suit one’s demands and preferences. A networked individual can thus autonomously publish content online without depending on a secondary publishing institution.

Anderberg (2006) supports this claim and states: “The Internet is certainly challenging the traditional print model. More people are going to the Web for information, blogs are becoming a news source and online ad revenues for news-related sites are increasing. Meanwhile, newspaper circulations are in a steady decline, as are ad revenues, and newsrooms are being gutted of reporters” (Anderberg, 2006). Shatzkin (2012) evaluates how a book today competes with more books in two weeks than it would have 50 years ago in a whole year. He emphasises that in digital there is “unlimited shelf-space” while the “bookstore shelf space is declining” (Shatzkin, 2012).

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Although digital publishing has arguably dismantled parts of the print publishing industry, print publishing has however started to adapt. Every form of publishing has always changed and furthered itself according to new technological opportunities. The print publishing industry therefore started to transform into partly digital formats to meet new requirements and suit society’s demands. Coscarelli (2012) displays how declining newspaper revenues determine the introduction of digital advertising and online subscriptions to stay competitive. Doctor (2013) similarly refers to the newspaper industry’s change by stating that “it has transitioned its print subscribers to an all-access model — and gotten an astounding number to link their print subscriptions to digital accounts” (Doctor, 2013). Shatzkin (2012) explains how publishers who own the rights of particular books simply started publishing them as an electronic version to secure their existence. Thus it becomes obvious that the print publishing industry is not simply being replaced but adjusts to meet demands of society and technological opportunities but also remains with its original ethics.

The shift towards digital publishing causes various new difficulties, complexities and expenses that arguably still need to be explored and regulated. As digital publishing predominantly appears through the global phenomenon the Internet it is difficult to control. There are no international laws that apply for the regulation of publishing of digital content.

Due to the absence of international laws, it is impossible to secure copyright, prevent defamation and protect oneself from trolling. The fact that every user can publish and access the same content and website independently from time and space makes it very difficult and complicated to control a space, such as the global anarchic cyberspace.

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One approach to control particular content is paywalls. However these incorporate controversy as Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief at The Guardian, outlines by claiming that despite the economic benefit, paywalls reject “the idea of free journalism and the new sociological engagement with online information” (Busfield, 2010). Paywalls are nevertheless not the only way of adjustment to/with digital publishing. To satisfy the Internet’s interactive demands, numerous publishing institutions now not only appear with equal content online, but also transform into interactive, mobile communication bodies that appear on social network websites, such as Twitter, to offer their audience interaction and personal engagement.

Another major complexity of print publishing’s shift to digital is the new form of archiving and its implied authority. Paywalls are one such example how newspapers organise and regulate their information and thus execute authority about their readers’ access to information. Derrida (1995) explains that all media in the one hand constructs archives and simultaneously destroys others. Digital publishing introduces numerous forms of new archives. Users are their own archivists and regulate the information that they publish online and therefore function as what Parikka (2013) terms “miniarchivists”. Websites, such as Twitter, are archiving all these individual archives while they are regulated by law systems. Although the Internet is a global phenomenon, it is still subordinate to individual countries’ regulations. Certain countries might restrict social networks, which exemplifies their greater executing power through regulating digital archives. Digital archives, however, simplify the re-organisation and re-storing of information to meet individual needs and therefore destroy old (possibly print) archives.

Nevertheless, these novel forms of archives do not only create new authorial power execution and a top-down control system of the government controlling the people (surveillance). It also enables mutual control (co-veillance) and a bottom-up approach (sous-veillance), where the people can now watch their authorities (Rainie & Wellman, 2012).

The environmental impact of print publishing also transforms with the shift to digital publishing, which decreases the demand for paper and therefore positively impacts on the destruction of forests. On the other hand it requires increasingly more Coltan, a mineral that is used to build digital technologies, which causes increasing conflicts and ecological damage in Africa (Parra, 2010).

Other critics focus on digital’s increasing impact on the content of published information. Self (2014) points out how the quality of digital content declines in comparison to traditional print publications, as challenging reading and information are increasingly vanishing. Contributing to this argument, Lehrer (2010) explains how modern technologies simplify the perception of information and that intellectual engagement therefore becomes too flat.

Agent of Change

There has been a lot of academic research conducted to clarify these new ways of engagement with digital content. Baron (2013) evaluates how there are new preferences in reading genres. She claims that a digitally published novel would not be one’s preferred choice to digitally consume. Additionally she refers to research that has shown that young people believe they learn more from print (e.g., Baron, in press a, in press b; Dominick, 2005; Student Monitor, 2011) compared to digital.

In the networked world of digital publishing everyone who can access the platform can participate, which creates a more democratic social landscape but simultaneously constructs a space for unreliable information distribution. This decreased validity displays a major weakness in digital publishing. Content can also be constantly edited which makes it lesser reliable than print media. As digital content can be published regardless of trustworthy information sources, digitally published information is arguably more unreliable than print. Doctor (2013) talks about the evidence for people’s trust in reliable information sources such as newspapers, which have become apparent through the success of online paywalls.

To continue to successfully transform into an adjusted print publishing industry, institutions such as newspapers do not only have to change technology but adjust their employees. The new affordances of digital publishing are predominantly requiring re-education of staff for new positions, such as online advertisers or graphic designers. This costs time and money, both of which are highly valued commodities in digital publishing.

It is not only the industry itself that has to adjust. It is also the users. With the majority of content appearing solely in digital form, there is a new requirement: the ability to access digital information and afford technology to access this information. How should an older generation who does not know how to deal with technology access digital data? Many argue that the reading experience in digital changes drastically as it requires re-education, coping with a missing tactile experience and new issues such as battery lives.

It is apparent that print and digital publishing differ in their regulations, affordances and standards in attempting to fulfil the expectations of their mediums. It becomes impossible to measure one with the values of the other. Print publishing offers greater credibility, indepth information, is stable and long lasting and therefore arguably of higher quality. “The book, after all, is a time-tested technology. We know that it can endure, and that the information we encode in volutes of ink on pulped trees can last for centuries” (Lehrer, 2010).

Digital publishing on the other hand offers more information, thus quantity, as well as numerous aforementioned sub-functions, such as creating networked individualism, social networking sites and “a permanent record of event” (Ogle,2010). “It’s never been easier to buy books, read books, or read about books you might want to buy. How can that not be good?” (Lehrer, 2010). Brannon (2007) articulates a prediction by saying: “Five hundred years ago, Eisenstein claims, the invention of rigid metal types helped to stabilise the texts, and thus ideas, in the emerging modern world; today, I propose, the unfixing of typography creates an opposite movement, a destabilisation of text” (Brannon, 2007).

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This analysis of the battle “book vs e-book” will not have an outstanding winner. Regarding expressive problems that the publishing industry has solved so far, one has to acknowledge looking back on the problems that different publishing methodologies have solved. Hand-written books exemplify the solution for user-generated publishing with autonomous control but difficult distribution. Print publishing however simplified the distribution but implied the publisher’s authority over the content. Despite technological restrictions, such as character count limit, digital publishing solves both issues, as it is user generated and easy to distribute. Nevertheless, it is important to respect that users have the power to consciously decide which technology will deliver the requested information.

It makes therefore sense to conclude this essay by referring to Orr (1998), who states that “Print and electronic media both can survive into the next century, each serving the needs of the public at different times and for different purposes. Reasons why these media will be able to co-exist include: 1. Print is tactile. 2. Print is portable. 3. Print wins in graphics. 4. Print is reliable. 5. Electronic media is fun. 6. Electronic media is searchable. 7. Electronic media is fast and it is the ultimate in convenience” (Orr, 1998). There is a clear trend towards increasing digital publishing but it is also arguably obvious that print publishing will never cease.
Reference List:

  1. Anderberg, K. (2006). Print is dead. Communications News, 43(9), pp.4 (1).
  2. Baron, N. (2013). Do mobile technologies reshape speaking, writing, or reading?. Mobile Media & Communication, 1(1), pp.134-140.
  3. Brannon, Barbara A. (2007) ‘The Laser Printer as an Agent of Change’ in Baron, Sabrina et al., (eds.) Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press: 353-364
  4. Busfield, Steve (2010) ‘Guardian editor hits back at paywalls’, The Guardian, January 25, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jan/25/guardian-editor-paywalls>
  5. Coscarelli, Joe (2012) ‘The New York Times Is Now Supported by Readers, Not Advertisers’, New York Magazine, June 26, <http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2012/07/new-york-times-supported-by-readers-not-advertisers.html>.
  6. Derrida, J. (1995) ‘Archive Fever – A Freudian Impression’, Diacritics, 25 (2), pp 9-63.
  7. Doctor, K. (2013)  ‘The newsonomics of The New York Times’ Paywalls 2.0’, Nieman Journalism Lab, November 21, <http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/11/the-newsonomics-of-the-new-york-times-paywalls-2-0/>.
  8. Eisenstein, E. (1979) ‘Defining the initial shift: some features of print culture’, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1, pp 43-163
  9. Lehrer, J. (2010) ‘The Future of Reading’, Wired, September 8, <http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/the-future-of-reading-2>
  10. Ogle, M. (2010) ‘Archive Fever: A love letter to the post real-time web’, mattogle.com, December 16, <http://mattogle.com/archivefever/>.
  11. Orr, A. (1998) “You can’t take a laptop into the bathtub”, Target Marketing, 21 (8), p 1.
  12. Parikka, J. (2013) ‘Archival Media Theory: An Introduction to Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeology’, Ernst, Wolfgang Digital Memory and the Archive Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 1-22.
  13. Parra, J. (2014). Congo: The Coltan Conflict is in Our Hands (and Cellphones). [online] Global Voices. Available at: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2010/02/20/congo-the-coltan-conflict-is-in-our-hands-and-cellphones/ [Accessed 27 Oct. 2014].
  14. Rainie, L., & Wellman, B. (2012) Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
  15. Self, Will (2014) ‘The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)’, The Guardian, May 2, <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/02/will-self-novel-dead-literary-fiction>
  16. Shatzkin, Mike (2012) ‘Some things that were true about publishing for decades aren’t true anymore’, The Idea Logical Company, January 12, <http://www.idealog.com/blog/some-things-that-were-trueaboutpublishing-for-decades-arent-true-anymore>
  17. Wikipedia, (2014). Publishing. [online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publishing [Accessed 30 Oct. 2014].

Images: All by author