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June 4, 2009

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Luxuriating In Print

We slapped Dave Eggers around a little bit for his “nothing has changed” speech to the Authors’ Guild, but his mass email for lovers of print is way more nuanced and inspiring in a constructive, non-cheerleaderish way:

Publishing has, for most of its life, been a place of small but somewhat profit margins, and the people involved in publishing were happy to be doing what they loved. It’s only recently, when large conglomerates bought so many publishing companies and newspapers, that demands for certain margins squeezed some of the joy out of the business.

Pretty soon, on the McSweeney’s website—— we’ll be showing some of our work on this upcoming issue, which will be in newspaper form. The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive. We’re convinced that the best way to ensure the future of journalism is to create a workable model where journalists are paid well for reporting here and abroad. And that starts with paying for the physical paper. And paying for the physical paper begins with creating a physical object that doesn’t retreat, but instead luxuriates in the beauties of print. We believe that if you use the hell out of the medium, if you give investigative journalism space, if you give photojournalists space, if you give graphic artists and cartoonists space — if you really truly give readers an experience that can’t be duplicated on the web — then they will spend $1 for a copy. And that $1 per copy, plus the revenue from some (but not all that many) ads, will keep the enterprise afloat.

As long as newspapers offer less each day— less news, less great writing, less graphic innovation, fewer photos— then they’re giving readers few reasons to pay for the paper itself. With our prototype, we aim to make the physical object so beautiful and luxurious that it will seem a bargain at $1. The web obviously presents all kinds of advantages for breaking news, but the printed newspaper does and will always have a slew of advantages, too. It’s our admittedly unorthodox opinion that the two can coexist, and in fact should coexist. But they need to do different things. To survive, the newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web. Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive. Again, this is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page. Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they’ll pay for it.

Eggers is basically now saying not that nothing has changed, but that EVERYTHING has to change. But it needs to change not because we’ve just progressed forward from print to digital, but that by first betting on the infinitely expanding profit potential of mass publishing and then paring the experience back to try to meet that bet, we’ve made a huge mistake.

So, in some sense, we need to go back to basics; but in another, we need to rethink our direction forward based on what’s best for the people and the product, not the margins. We were pushing so hard for so long in one direction that we capsized the boat.

It’s still a conservative vision, but it’s a David Simon/Michael Moore kind of conservative — i.e., a nostalgic but critical liberalism, in the tradition of John Ruskin. And that’s a good mood to strike, if not for everybody — not least because it’s not at all intended to be a model for everybody.



I don't want to sound like a hater, b/c I am not -- I love Eggers' work, in all its forms -- but the deiliberately restricted scale of vision here is such a bummer. A one-off, super-precious, beautifully-designed newspaper will prove nothing.

On the other hand, Dave Eggers putting his creativity, talent, and promotional power behind some new product -- some new system -- that has the ambition to be scalable & sustainable? Even if it didn't work out, that would be something.

I think it depends on whether you see the McSweeney's paper as a one-off or a manifesto. But it's probably not scalable beyond the local paper or small magazine. He's giving up on print as a mass industry. It's a boutique operation from here on out.

I'd be way more excited if he was, indeed, making a local paper. Or even a quarterly "oh this is so cute" McSweeney's newspaper. Maybe those are open as options; I hope so.

This world has enough manifestos! Ha! It needs credible new ventures.

So, um, any indication that Eggers is planning to sell his one-off for $1? Because a "normal" issue of McSweeney's costs a great deal more than that. (I've seen anywhere from $15-30, and a 4-issue subscription costs $55.)

If Dave Eggers' solution to declining newspaper circulation is improve the product and lower the price then the only missing element is execution.

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