Monday, May 09, 2005

May7-8, 2005

When Words Mattered

Some years ago I picked up a stack of old The Atlantic magazines. Got them for just a nickel each. They were dated from the late 1930’s through the late 1950s. In all they were about fifty issues and it turned out to be the best $2.50 I ever spent.

Not to be indelicate, but these old Atlantic magazines soon became my toilet reading of choice. And, one by one I poured through these wonderful paper-bond time capsules.

In the February 1937 issue Henry C. Wolfe, who authored a cautionary book entitle “The German Octopus: Hitler Bids for World Power, again sounded the alarm that too few would heed. The final sentence in his 1937 Atlantic article predicted,
“But the time will arrive when Hitler’s opponents will be compelled to resist his aggressive tactics or give way to him completely.”

And so, it came to pass. Reading Wolfe’s detailed Atlantic piece from 1937 leaves the reader with only one conclusion – Americans and Europeans had all the facts they needed to know what Hitler was up to and still failed to act. You see Wolfe’s essay, like all the others in the old Atlantic from my rummage sale collection, was long, nearly 2500 - 3000 words, as best I can tell.

And forget about new-capsules. In those days news was a serious business bordering on scholarship. These old articles were chockablock full of facts, figures, details and references. There was no attempt by the authors to talk down to the reader, or spare him/her the effort it took to truly grasp the important issues of the time.

Many of The Atlantic’s writers back then were also individuals with names that still ring with authority, brilliance, even genius.

* George F. Kennan, On US troops that fought during WWII in Russia
* Peter Ustinov -- a short story
* C.S. Lewis -- an essay entitled, “The Efficacy of Prayer”
* Walter Lippman – an essay “Lessons in Survival”
* T.S. Elliot -- a poem
* Archibald MacLeish -- a poem
* Bertrand Russell -- an essay, “Springs of Human Action”
* Thornton Wilder, an essay, “Toward an American Language”
* Robert Frost -- a poem
* James Reston -- an essay on journalism, “Secrecy and the Reporter”
* Henry Cabot Lodge -- an essay on the 1952 GOP nomination
* Edith Sitwell, an essay on Dylan Thomas
* Pearl S. Buck, on life in China
* Adlai Stevenson, article critical of the spread of gaming, “Who Runs the Gambling Machines”
* Conrad Akin – an essay on William Faulkner

I only mention this because, every time I pick up one of these old Atlantics, it makes me sad. They are a reminder that, in a time before television and the 24-hour news cycle, people had both the time and inclination to, not only learn what’s happening, but why.

This week we learned that newspaper circulation continues to plummet. This is largely because Generations X and Y are both products of an education system that failed to instill in them a passion for the printed word. My freshman year in high school, back in 1960, began by being handed a two-foot high stack of classics -- Shakespeare, Faulkner, Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson…. That began a love affair with the printed word and the art of writing that continues to this day.

Later educators started fiddling with experimental curriculums – many now discredited – that steered students away from “stale old Western literature,” and towards a more freeform, visual and “interactive” smorgasbord of learning activities.

The results of that little experiment were driven home for me during a four-year period during which I was part of an Internet start up back in the late 1990s. I and another veteran print journalist, Carol Pogash, had joined the company to produce written materials needed for the sites coverage of extreme outdoor events such as open ocean sailing and mountain climbing.

Almost immediately Carol and I were under attacked from our 20-something fellow employees. It seems they did not appreciate our style of journalism one little bit. Their main complaint – we “used too many words.” Even though we tried to keep our pieces to between 500 and 750 words, that was too many words for these kids.

“You guys are old media,” they would tell us dismissively during meetings. “This is new media where stories have to be told using visual content and fewer words. You two have to learn a different way to write.”

One day I had had enough of that and said, “Fine. I’m an old dog, but I can still learn new tricks. Stop telling me I have to learn a new way to write and show me what you mean.”

The lanky, grossly overpaid, arrogant little 20-something flashed a condescending smile and jumped up. “Okay, I will,” he said. “Wait here. I have to grab something off my desk.”

He disappeared for a minute and returned. “This is what I am talking about,” he said, slapping a booklet-sized item down in front of me. “This is how you tell a story visually.”

It was a comic book.

I walked by his desk later and noticed he had a lot of comics, as did many of the others around him. To them, that was “reading.”

They were smart kids, in a narrow, vertical sort of way. They knew how to produce colorful Web pages with things that went wiggle, wiggle and could hold the eye. What they could not do was tell a story.

But maybe even more importantly, they understood almost nothing about business cycles or human nature. Because neither subject could be reduced to pictures and speech bubbles.

The Internet company I was with, like most of the others, failed. Economists blame the Dot-com bust on over-exuberance. But they miss another, maybe more fundamental, reason.

What drove that frenzy? With that much money flying around there had be more than just 20-somethings involved. There had to be some old-timers too. Why did they let it all get so out of hand?

I can tell you -- because they let Dot-com-land buisness become a high-tech version of Lord of The Flies. They let these “unliterate” kids drive the process. Add to that this was also the generation who attending school during the days when maintaining a student’s self-esteem took precedence over demanding performance. That meant you couldn't criticize anything they did without running the risk of them either desolving in tears or storming out in clueless but righteous outrage.

I recall the day I “got” what was happening. I had just locked horns with a couple of these kids and our CEO approached me.

“Steve,” he said, “You can't talk to these kids like that, it just upsets them.”

I argued that the kids in question had just screwed up an entire project with graphic gadgets that did not work. The CEO paused, and then it came.

“Steve, do you know how to write code in Java or Flash? Well, neither do I. We need these kids. So, leave them alone.”

Our little company proceeded to “burn through” about $160 million in four years. The money was lavished on things that made no economic sense whatsoever, but sure were pretty on a screen.

Finally I folded my tent and left in a huff. It was March 1, 2000 and the company's stock was still in the double digits. One year to the day later the company was stone dead and its 450 employees on the street.

Anyway, that’s just my experience with the word-hating generation. Maybe they were right and I was wrong. Maybe not. I hope that since their "new media" fantasies went up in smoke at least a few of them have chucked the comics and are now curling up with books that have more words than pictures.

As for comparing today's MacNugget news products to venerable old publications, like The Atlantic, what can I say? There is no comparison that can be made that would be kind to today's news products. Still I suppose I should be happy to at least see folks reading USA Today on the train than a Batman comic.

But let’s not kid ourselves. What we call news today would have infuriated serious readers 50 years ago, leaving them asking, “Where’s the beef?”


Pope Snarky Goodfella of the undulating cable, JM, CK, POEE, KOTHASK, DSOCPL, EOTHP said...

Hail Eris!

He disappeared for a minute and returned. “This is what I am talking about,” he said, slapping a booklet-sized item down in front of me. “This is how you tell a story visually.”

It was a comic book.

Hey, wait a minute, have you ever read a comic book? The bad ones (and there are tonnes, I freely admit that) are crap as storytelling, but the good ones, such as Spider-Man, the X-Men (particularly the Claremont-era), are brilliant. They don't just "tell stories", they have plots, themes, pathos, poetry -- they're art, and the pictures have even more to say than the words, which usually need to be concise, because there are only so many pages to a comic, and a fair number need to be filled with ads so the publishers can keep making them (hence the attitudes of the afore-mentioned kids -- comic-book editors are behind those attitudes, which were (partly?) driven by concerns of profit). As Sturgeon said, 90% of *everything* is crap, which includes 90% of everything published in The Atlantic, as well as in comics...


Pope Snarky Goodfella of the undulating cable, JM, CK, POEE, KOTHASK, DSOCPL, EOTHP said...

Hail Eris!

Damn. It.