Saturday, 13 December 2008

“Martyrs of pies and relics of the bum.” (John Dryden)

Or fish-and-chip wrappers, as we would call them today. If publishers are in deep crisis, newspapers – especially serious newspapers – appear to be on death watch. This week we heard of major cuts and redundancies at the Telegraph, the Independent and the Guardian. The book-review pages are shrinking by the day, and literary editors are being laid off.

In a world where content and speed of communication have taken over, information quality is not so valued any more. “Real-time” and “ready-at-your-fingertips” are the new bywords. Accuracy is so passé. Enter Wikipedia, the great revolution of twentieth-century Western knowledge, and a paradise for self promoters. In it, an unknown living artist will look much more important and influential than a fifteenth-century master. Lack of context, rules and critical approach – this is Wikipedia – the epitome and the highest achievement of the world wide web.

If there’s a free web encyclopedia that everybody uses and accepts as the Bible, then only a fool or an idealist will invest in a traditional encyclopedia. The result will be cuts in commissioning serious research and a monopoly of reference information, with no one in charge of content and no one checking the quality of the information provided. My knowledge is extremely limited, but whenever I use Wikipedia, I can spot hundreds of mistakes, inaccuracies, generalizations, oversemplifications, slants and deformations of the truth.

With the Internet pouring out a gazillion words every day, is it any surprise that traditional newspapers are going under? People don’t really care whether they are reading a self-published, self-styled online journalist who has copied and pasted information from other unchecked sources or a commissioned piece by a respectable author. They just want easy headlines – now. But by destroying hierarchy and authority in the name of democracy, we are also transforming knowledge into hearsay, information into gossip. Printing news on paper is still very important. Buy the paper next weekend, don’t read it online.

The publishing world will probably suffer a similar decline in the next few years. This is not necessarily bad – some people will think – as it might cure our generation of the recent excesses we have witnessed. But it is much more likely that the decline in books will simply mean less investment in risky or literary projects, and fewer and fewer people reading fewer and fewer “big” titles. Oh well – have a nice weekend.

AG

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