Content December 2006

Get Me Rewrite!

A modest proposal for reinventing newspapers for the digital age

If the twenty-first-century news business has a Zapruder film, it’s an eight-minute Flash-based movie called EPIC 2014. For reasons that will soon become obvious, it has not received a lot of attention in the mainstream media (MSM in “Web-ese”), but has propagated quietly among news geeks since it was released online in late 2004. I first saw it last year at a “Whither the News” klatch at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, where glum top editors from the major dailies and news networks gathered with sallow, unmistakably smug representatives of the digital world.

EPIC, which is composed almost entirely of simple text, graphics, and narration, launched the proceedings, and I think it would be fair to say that it rocked the world of the MSM mandarins. This was because, speaking from the prospective perch of 2014, it mapped out in calm detail exactly how the MSM would meet its doom. Eighteen months, and hundreds of millenarian prophesies later, EPIC 2014 (and its updated version, EPIC 2015, released in 2005) already seems quaint, even a bit absurd. And its camp retro-futurism (Toffler by way of Epcot) is much funnier now that I’m watching it on my computer and not with ashen-faced news execs. The movie, ostensibly a product of the fictional Museum of Media History, begins:

In the year 2014, people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age. Everyone contributes in some way. Everyone participates to create a living, breathing mediascape. However, the press, as you know it, has ceased to exist. The Fourth Estate’s fortunes have waned. Twentieth-century news organizations are an afterthought, a lonely remnant of a not-too-distant past.

In 2008, we learn, Amazon and Google merged to form Googlezon, which allowed this most excellently named new conglomerate to use its “detailed knowledge of every user’s social network, demographics, consumption habits, and interests to provide total customization of content and advertising.” Six years later, Googlezon has launched the ultimate killer app: EPIC, or “Evolving Personalized Information Construct,” a “system by which our sprawling, chaotic mediascape is filtered, ordered, and delivered.” Under EPIC, anyone can create news, the users subscribe to independent editors based on their interests, and everyone is paid from the billions in advertising Googlezon sells across this vast mediaverse. The film ends with an Orwellian prediction—“EPIC is what we wanted, it is what we chose, and its commercial success preempted any discussions of media and democracy or journalistic ethics”—and a joke:

Today in 2014, The New York Times has gone offline, in feeble protest to Googlezon’s hegemony. The Times has become a print-only newsletter for the elite and the elderly.

As a piece of pop futurism, EPIC 2014 is both brilliant and brilliantly self-subverting (at once inevitable and preposterous). But what’s remarkable is how many of its ten-years-out predictions have already come true—if not materially, then de facto: the mass migration of everything to the Web, the explosion of blogging, the near-instant embrace of social media (see YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia), the growing sophistication of Google’s AdWords and AdSense (the latter soon to be extended to user-customized RSS file format and other feeds), the TiVo-ization of television, and on and on. Instead of buying Amazon, Google bought YouTube, an Evolving Personalized Information Construct that didn’t exist in 2004—GoogleTube instead of Googlezon. Thus does two-year-old futurism already seem hopelessly recherché.

The Times Company hasn’t thrown in the towel, but it is inarguably in extremis. It plans to cut more than 1,000 jobs in the next two years, and its profits continue to fall along with its stock price; only the most purblind of optimists could deny that this is a harbinger of further miseries. A study released in late October by the Audit Bureau of Circulations showed that daily newspaper circulation had dropped about 2.8 percent over the previous year, while Sunday circ dropped 3.4 percent. More worrisome, the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted in its annual report on newspaper audiences, this slide is both persistent and accelerating:

In 2004, the newspaper circulation losses that had been building slowly over 15 years began to accelerate. In 2005 things got roughly three times worse.

This would seem like the moment to get on my high horse and defend the daily newspaper, with its omnibus approach to everything from your town to the world, its high/low pastiche, its editorial ordering function that allows readers to weigh and sort multitudinous news inputs into a coherent worldview. But this is what I would call, to borrow a Wall Street term, sell-side logic. It flatters the people who have a vested interest in preserving the gatekeeper function and the economic margins provided by dead-tree media, or who see news­papers as a cultural bulwark against the barbarians. The barbarians, on the other hand, don’t seem to care; they’d rather get the news they want, not the news the mandarins say is good for them.

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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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