Tuesday, September 14, 2010

'Frankenpapers' in Taiwan? It could happen here

Pick up any newspaper in Taiwan, from the Chinese-language Liberty Times to the Apple Daily tabloid, and almost
every day there will be an article about the iPad, the iPhone and host of other tablets. Ken Doctor, a media analyst in California,
is predicting that "by mid-2011, tens of
thousands of [people worldwide] will be tabletizing, as some ready themselves
to move to tablet reading
of news -- and newspapers -- and away from that old habit of print."

It's safe to say, with Doctor, that the tablet era is upon us. But is this really a good thing?
As the iPad and other device readers
replace print newspapers -- as news migrates to screens -- what will be the impact
on civil discourse and society at large?

That's the question I want to look into here. Why? Well, I'm not so sure this impending migration of news
readers from print to screen,
from newsprint to pixels, is a good thing. In fact, I'm so worried about this possible
mass migration that I call these
new digital newspapers "frankenpapers." It's not a term of endearment.

Remember Dr Frankenstein's monster? Frankenpapers might not deliver a
better product, and they might not
be the panacea their boosters are promoting.

Frankenpapers, sleek and cool and trendy and convenient, as Apple and
Amazon and Rupert Murdoch say they
will be, might turn out to be 21st Century monsters, the equivalent of
digital hell.

Sure, print newspapers are struggling, all over the world, and in Taiwan, too. Sure,
print advertising revenue has been decling for several
years worldwide. Sure, the Steven Jobs generation want their news fast and
immediate, 24/7, screenable and mobile,
instantaneous and portable.

Well, be careful what you wish for. Frankenpapers might turn out to be
another turn in the screw that seals the
decline of freedom and democracy. Think about it. With no agreed-upon national
consensus, on political, economic, cultural and religious issues,
delivered in the past by a team of unaffiliated and diverse print
newspapers and magazines, Tawian might become a deeply
divided republic of 500-plus news channels and screens. Where once it
was possible to have a national discussion delivered carefully and
judiciously by the plodding print media, with both political parties represented, the future might turn out to
be a national shouting match, a digital free-for-all. Some pundits
say we are already there.

I like reading the news in the Taipei Times on newsprint, picking the headlines I want to
dive into, turning the pages manually, clipping out articles I want
to read again later. I also like "thinking" -- at newsprint speed,
which means slowly -- about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it.

With frankenpapers delivered electronically at high speeds and edited
for the screen rather than the broadsheet page, I fear we will
lose something important. I fear we will go from a world once defined
by the national literati to a new world defined by the
national digerati, from a world defined by a relay team of
''thinkers'' to a cacauphonous team of ''linkers''. Google this,
google that. Who needs editors or fact-checkers?

Yes, even with frankenpapers, there will be news, there will be
leadership, but it will be divided into 500 screens, shouting at each
other in a digital screaming match. A digital screening match.

The monster of frankenpapers will, I fear, transform Taiwan and other nations into
irrretrievably-divided nations.

The "tablet era" might be democratic countries' undoing as nations, even though the
tablets sure look cool and sleek and shiny.

But before we all migrate from newsprint to pixels, from paper to E
Ink, maybe we should pause for a moment and
push the "rethink" button before we push headlong
into the digital newspaper world.

Do we really want a future defined by ''frankenpapers''? What I worry
about is that once we cross the bridge, there might
not be any going back.

Dr Frankenstein's monster was just that: a monster. Frankenpapers,
sleek as they seem, might deliver
us to the wrong address and turn democracy into a mere memory.

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