At Large : News and technology
Of course, you're wondering who would spend the most splendid Saturday of the year in the Oak Bluffs Library, at a technology fair. I wondered too, because I had been invited to talk about the effects of the no-holds-barred technology blitz on the newspaper business. It's a well-trod topic, not something to draw folks away from their gardens, their golf games, their boats, or painting the trim. I thought the audience, if there were one, would be a mix of the tech-crazed and the just crazed.
You'll be surprised - I was surprised and also pleased - to find it was neither. It was a crowd of the curious and the anxious to learn who turned out.
Given the repetitive forecasts of doom for the news business, they were curious. And, given the relentless cavalcade of new software, hardware, and general digital gadgetry, they were anxious to learn how some of this stuff works. The brilliant notion behind the library's tech fair is that some of these new techno-marvels were available - in the flesh, as it were - to touch, see, and try. The fairgoers are interested, but they're not about to send $250 off to Amazon for a Kindle that they've never seen or used. They want to get the feel of it, before taking the leap.
My topic was the news business and its relationship to the changing technology that increasingly drives the way we communicate, socialize, learn, and comprehend the world in which we live.
My conclusion, adapted from Saturday's talk, is - it's dizzying, it's evolving, it will not be tomorrow what it is today, and how we fit in will be an enduring mystery.
My experience in newspapering is not a bad framework in which to fit a talk about the change that technology has wrought on the business. I began in 1972 with the Vineyard Gazette. I had no newspaper training at all. It was a fluke.
Until 1980, when I left to do some other things, I was managing editor. That paper existed only on newsprint, naturally enough, because there was no alternative. It was composed on Linotype machines which used heat to cast words into lead, which seems counter intuitive but wasn't. A great, black, greasy, noisy, slow flat-bed press, known as the Thunderer, forged six or seven thousand, eight-page copies over the course of four or five hours on a Friday morning. When the cast iron Thunderer was dismantled and sent off to the junkyard, I was a member of the sledge wielding crew.
In that distant past, news was transformed by the minds of reporters with pens and pads into typewritten stories on thick yellow reams of paper, and then by the Linotype operator into lead sticks of type.
Altogether, it was fun, slow moving, and - as a way to describe for people what was going on in their community lives - pre-eminent. The top of the heap. No other way to get the news.
When you consider the changes since the Thunderer - a decade later, in the offices of brand-new The Martha's Vineyard Times, the first Macs and Mac Pluses made the scene - it's worth remembering that some important parts in the whole process haven't changed. People like you do things, including birth, death, marriage, criminality - not the audience, of course, I hastened to add - dancing, debating, voting, admiring your children, celebrating holidays, playing baseball and basketball, darts, bingo, and on and on. It's all endlessly interesting to you and consequently to us in the news business. That living inventory of stuff that happens in a community hasn't changed.
The work of reporting hasn't changed much either. You still need to snoop, intrude, make friends, recognize a story worth telling, cultivate a human interest in the humans with whom you share your village, town, or island. You need to make their stories your stories and tell them so they bring a smile or a tear, but in condensed and sympathetic ways.
And, there are other important things that newspapers do, other important information that they provide, including advertising - which pays the bills, but which is also important information on which readers depend. Still, ultimately, nothing about any of this has changed much.
Around this core, everything has changed.
What do I mean? Mainly, two important things have changed. First, there is the monumental change in how all this stuff - this news - is delivered. And second, there is the consolidation of the commercial newsgathering and publishing business. Fewer newspapers, spending fewer dollars covering the nation, the region, the city, and the expanding news of the shrinking world.
And never mind the small town. Forget that. Less money spent by radio and television news departments gathering news - that's big news now. You might say, there are more, more, more, faster, faster, faster, astonishingly convenient means of delivering less news.
The Times has been building its website, and rebuilding it, for 15 years or so. Our judgment - and we weren't alone in looking at it this way - was that however people wanted to get their news and information or get their questions answered, we wanted to deliver it to them that way. Print, computer, phone, iPod, iPad, Kindle - if some tech company invents it, The Times content will be available through that technology. In general, as a business, it means playing technological catch-up day by day.
Newspapers have learned - and that includes us - that people visit websites operated by newspapers in huge numbers, greater numbers than visit most other kinds of websites. That is, leaving out the Yahoo, Google aggregators that collect news published on, say, the New York Times, and re-distribute it on their sites or as alerts, or search results.
But, newspapers have also learned that visitors to their websites want more than news. They want to know what's playing at the movies, what's the special at Alchemy, who's the DJ at Seasons. They want to make a reservation at a hotel, a reservation at a restaurant. They want to reserve a kayak for Sunday, a sailing lesson for Monday. They want video of the fireworks at Ocean Park. Or a video of Katie Mayhew singing with the Boston Pops. Visitors to mvtimes.com want and want and want.
For our part, we want to satisfy all those wants. So, in addition to covering the news - births, deaths, disputes, marriages, and so forth, which we must do and have always done - The Times has created a full-bodied search function that is part of our website. If you, or any other visitor from anywhere on earth, wants to know what the movie is tonight at the Island Theater, or the special at the Black Dog, or how much too expensive a waterfront house in Edgartown is, The Times search function will answer the question.
Our goal is to have every business on the Vineyard available to be searched, with photos, video, Twitter and Facebook links, reservation functions and every other tool that puts a person like you in touch with a business with which you'd like to be in touch.
In many other ways, the digital evolution has improved the fortunes of newspapers like The Times. At the same time, of course, the recession has damaged those fortunes. Still, we can keep in touch with newsmakers as well as customers via email. We can put up news almost as it happens on the site.
In all these ways, our little newspaper, on this little Island is like many newspapers across the country. You hear a lot about them. They do a lot of whining and complaining about their depressed fortunes.
But, in the most important ways, The Times is a beneficiary of the online revolution. That's because of our peculiar attributes. We're small. We're independent. We have a confined news territory that we know a lot about and that the Big Boys don't care much about - can't care much about, actually, because for them it's too expensive.
And, our territory, small as it is, has a lot of variety. We don't have to tell the story of the president and the Congress day in and day out. We don't have to argue over cap and trade night after night. We can write about the high school graduate who went on to graduate from the Naval academy. About the guy who sells coffee at Mocha Mott's. About the fight over a bike path in Edgartown or willow trees in Tisbury. It's small stuff, perhaps, but it's all ours. It's our inventory.
In these ways, the news biz is today, as it always has been, a people business, but now with a powerfully helpful high-tech foundation.