Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Out of Print

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I bought this book with my own hard-won dollars as soon as I heard about it.)

Out of Print, George Brock
Read: 24 to 26 November 2013 
4.5 / 5 stars  

"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prescriptive measure for the current state of journalism, an industry in upheaval that has been struggling with outdated business models in this hyper-personalized, swiftly moving era that bears little resemblance to the world a decade prior, to say nothing of the centuries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 likeminded 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.

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