I have a friend who works at a local television station. We argue occasionally about whose mistakes are more embarrassing, and I guess by extension, whose job is more important.
“Look,” she says, “I understand you have deadlines, and I’m sure that’s very stressful, but the stuff we do is live. We’ve got to do our jobs correctly to the second because if we don’t, it’ll mess everything up, and everyone will notice. And unlike newspapers, we actually have an audience.”
And she has a good point. Television news certainly has to have a greater sense of urgency because it’s immediate and it’s a performance as much as anything (though I’d like to point out comparing our circulation to any local station’s ratings doesn’t work in their favor).
But I still disagree.
“When you mess up, everyone sees,” I concede, “but no one remembers. In newspapers, everything is forever. A misspelling in a label on television disappears in two seconds, but a misspelling in a print headline is permanent.
“Ours is the medium of archive and memory. When a researcher wants to see how city council voted, he or she will browse newspaper records. They’re available and easy to search. The typos will still be there, but so will the words of the reporter who covered it. No one really cares what a newsreader said last week, much less 20 years ago.
“Surely more people learned Barack Obama won the election through the television than through newspapers, but I bet more people bought copies of the Chicago Tribune, New York Times or their local paper than did record CNN’s coverage of that night. I bet even less printed a screen of any website’s announcement.
“They may be interesting, but there’s no sense of record to having them.
“Recently, e-readers have become practical. Basically, they’re portable electronic libraries. You can download dozens of books to put on one handheld device. With time, they’ll only be able to hold more information, have full Internet browsing, and, when electronic paper becomes cheap and widespread, you’ll be able to fold the whole thing up and carry it in your back pocket.
“In this environment, written journalism will survive, maybe even prosper. But the newspaper will be dead, and this is a sad thing.
“Before Guttenberg and the printing press, only the very rich could afford to have books because of the relatively large amount of resources that had to be devoted to hand-copying it. Within 50 years, this will be true of physically printed materials.
“People will still write, but the ‘book,’ the finished product of a particular author at a moment of time, will be gone. Our intellectual property laws are already strained; technology won’t regress for the sake of artists. There’s nothing wrong with collaborative projects, but what if you can’t stop them?
“Perhaps more frightening is the idea that authors will be able to act like George Lucas and re-release their ‘original visions’ while denying access to their original products. This with fiction. What of fact?
“Mistakes in the newspaper are displayed prominently for all time. We can correct them online; we can only issue corrections in print. Once it’s at your doorstep or newspaper stand, no copy editor, reporter or graphics designer can do a thing about it. This won’t always be.
“I fear the change inexorable.
“Then again, the Sumerians would be shocked we don’t care enough about what we say to inscribe it in fired clay.
“This is just the way of things, I suppose.”
And I win the argument because she walked away about five minutes earlier.