A Slice of Fried Gold

Slowly going the way of the Buffalo

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

In 1997, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson created a comic book series for DC called Transmetropolitan. It was the story of a journalist named Spider Jerusalem who had given up on the world and went to live in the woods like a crazy hermit person, until he ran out of money and had to go back to his life as a writer. After he returned, the world was like he remembered, except worse, and it was full of corruption and power hungry politicians. It was the story of Spider trying to take them out, and to effectively save the world, albeit through complete and utter anarchy.

Very good series, but it was also an extremely prescient series. Spider was a journalist who received all of his information from "feeds" that funneled huge amounts of information into him, he typed his stories directly into the feed (where all news and traditional print existed), and anything and everything you could ever want was on the net. The story never actually revealed when it took place (well, Spider said no one was really sure what year it was...at least we know that), but it might as well have been today.

This leads into today's topic: the death knell of print.

Today, I went to check the mail for my parents as I have been on a daily basis since they took their lengthy vacation from these here frosty lands of Alaska. As per usual, nothing I've been waiting for showed up, but excitingly enough, a new Entertainment Weekly had come out. I'm always excited for EW, but this week I noticed something.

Their "Exclusive!" first story was the "First Look" at Tropic Thunder, and to be more specific, the first look at how Robert Downey Jr. plays a black man in the movie (as seen below). Next couple pages in, they have the analysis about the rumored cast of the upcoming Justice League movie (don't even get me started), along with their picks of who would be better. Their Must List of things to love this week included "Garfield Minus Garfield," a website that recreates Garfield comics minus the titular character, making it a mostly one man show starring the criminally depressed Jon Arbuckle.

Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., and Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder

Of course there is this. And this. And this. The first link takes you to a website that released the "exclusive" shot of Tropic Thunder a full week before my EW arrived (which looks pretty much awesome I may add). The second discusses the Justice League choices (and even scoops on one other role) back on February 25th, more than two weeks ago. The third was the Garfield site hyped on Penny-Arcade on February 27th. All new stories from EW that were a week or older in Internet time.

These of course are just a few of the examples of the things that they were scooped by the internet, but when reading it I kept finding myself going back to Spider Jerusalem's future. Is this a path we're headed down? As most anyone who reads this likely knows, the feeds from Spider's future are in existence right now (feel free to subscribe to my RSS feed...kthx!). Web based news sites and opinion/news blogs are rocketing upwards in hits, while traditional print news continues to decline (a great example of this is the New York Times, whose website jumped 7.5 million viewers quarter to quarter last year but the newspaper continues to steadily decline, albeit at a less dramatic rate than other traditional newspapers). We can buy groceries, cars, organs, children, new hair, illegal substances, and life size cutouts of Han Solo with just the click of a button.

It's all happening.

Later on, while browsing the daily music news at frequent haunt Absolute Punk, I saw a story about how legendary rock magazine NME is now down to just 64,000 issues in circulation a month. It's weekly sales used to be at 300,000. Nowadays, NME maintains relevance by having an extremely popular website, using its branded name on tours, and having one of the most popular concerts yearly in the NME Awards, but it's still far down from its once lofty heights.

We aren't heading down the path towards Spider's futre. We are there.

Of course, every print magazine and newspaper could definitely take a play out of NME, New York Times, and EW's playbooks. They've all successfully shifted a lot of their focus over to the online world, heavily developing their presence online while maintaining the actual printed work as the flagship (figurehead may be a more accurate term).

EW especially has been successful at shifting their print space away from "news" to things they can win at, such as interviews and clever opinion pieces like this weeks fantastic "25 Wild Pop Culture Debates." Their news section continues to decrease in size, and they continue to expand into new templates of stories - it could be argued that the previously mentioned "Debates" section was their published representation of a forum discussion about such taboo subjects as "What's better? Star Wars or Star Trek?" These types of moves have been very successful and necessary for EW to remain relevant in the marketplace.

Other giants such as Marvel Comics have shifted their focus to the digital revolution, with Marvel recently releasing an intense online publishing initiative to buoy their flagging comic sales. As an example of how far comics have fallen - in 1991 X-Men #1 came out and sold over 1 million copies. Now? Top sellers in the industry hover around the 10,000 issues sold mark. Even though Spider-Man and X-Men movies in the past have been some of the biggest in the world, and this summer's Iron Man and Incredible Hulk look likely to recapture that glory, the industry is at an all time low in sales. Are Marvel's attempts to use the digital medium to get back to form likely feasible? Maybe, maybe not. Remains to be seen (although I know I did my job at contributing - 24 comics bought today - good lord).

So there are plenty of examples of big time publishers shifting away from print and moving towards online ventures out of sheer necessity. The question is, is print really going away, or will it always exist?

Certain things I believe will not be replaced in print, at least in the near future. Books, regardless of how much Amazon would like you to buy Kindle, will be around for a long time. People genuinely connect with books, they cherish favorite books, they fall asleep with them, they protect them from harm. There is some connection that books have with us as readers that other forms of print do not receive, a nostalgic assault they put on our senses. They're like old friends who never go away, so long as we treat them right (sort of like real old friends I suppose).

Really, the primary section of print that I believe will slowly disappear will be news based. Newspapers and magazines will begin being phased out in favor of electronic versions, and you'll see plenty of others simply go under. But the more creative print outlets will continue to survive, whatever Warren Ellis and his in-print embodiment Spider Jerusalem believe. The creative spirit deserves a more tangible representation than a visual recreation on a screen, and I believe it will continue to receive it at least throughout my lifetime.

In short, the clock is ticking, but we still haven't reached midnight. Well, in some time zones.


Matt Dimassi said...

Tropic Thunder looks badass. It will be better than Zoolander.

David Harper said...

Dude, it so totally does. I can't wait for it. I think its going to be hilarious.

But better than Zoolander? Bold words my friend. Bold words.

Katie said...

that reminded me of when erik and I found out about the shootings in moscow on GENMAY hours before it was on the news.

Very interesting, my dear man.

Patty said...

Hello from Moab, Utah. We are NOT enjoying the rain and snow. BTW, Albert Hammond Jr. is a new one.

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