Saturday, March 24, 2012

'Internet con men' hurt publishing: Harper's MacArthur

Providence Journal writer Robert Whitcomb posted a lecture by Harper's magazine publisher (and PJ contributor) John R. MacArthur that was presented at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and expresses deep doubts about the usefulness of the Internet to publishing.

He's no Luddite, but offers an often-overlooked perspective: What are writers getting out of the World Wide Web? Here are a few sharp observations from the very insightful 4,000-word speech:

"Youthful members of my editorial staff were imploring me, demanding even, that I meet the Internet revolution head-on by posting free what they also described as 'content' on our brand-new Harper's web site. The Internet, I told them, wasn't much more than a gigantic Xerox machine (albeit with inhuman 'memory'), and thus posed the same old threat to copyright and to the livelihoods of writers and publishers alike."

"Print advertising is remembered longer and more clearly for the simple reason that readers spend more time with a printed article in a magazine than with pieces posted on web sites."

"Out of physical sight, out of mind. At some point you've got to turn off your computer or your iPad, but the mail and the brochures and printed matter just keep coming. Advertising on the Internet is just too easy to avoid. Unless the Tea Party and the Democrats kill off the U.S. Post Office, I wouldn't bet against print."

"As Daniel Defoe wrote in 1709, unauthorized reprints of his work by pirate printers meant that 'a Man, who has studied several years to perform this most elaborate work... has his labor destroyed, his expenses lost, and his copy reprinted by sham and piratical booksellers and printers, who eat the gain of the poor man's labor...' The same is true today with illegal downloads."

"The Internet huckster/philosophers are first cousins -- in both their ideology and their sales tactics -- to the present-day promoters of 'free trade'."

"In the long run, I think I'll be vindicated, since clearly the advertising 'model' has failed and readers are going to have to pay (in opposition to Google's bias against paid sites) if they want to see anything more complex than a blog, a classified ad or a sex act."

"As much as I object to free content, I am even more offended by the online sensibility and its anti-democratic, anti-emotional, even anti-intellectual effect. Devotees of the Internet like to say that the web is a bottom-up phenomenon that wondrously bypasses the traditional gatekeepers in publishing and politics who allegedly snuff out true debate. But much of what I see is unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness."

"Can it be seriously argued that popular government in America -- with our two-party oligarchy, 90 percent-plus re-election rates, and money-laundered politics -- has progressed in the age of the Internet? Have WikiLeak's disclosures on Afghanistan moved us any closer to withdrawal from that country? Would America be any less democratic without e-mail?"

"All those millions of eyeballs glued to Facebook do not a revolution make, or even a reform movement. The energy devoted to the 'net is an astonishing waste. This is time that obviously could be better spent talking to a friend or a child, reading a good book, or marching in a political demonstration."

"I'm still offended by the whole Internet pretension of universality, freedom, and democracy."