The Tactile Experience in the Digital Age

Yesterday, Rosie DiManno wrote a column for the Toronto Star bemoaning the move from newsprint to digital media. And while I agree with a lot of her points, there are others that just don’t jibe.

DiManno equates the move to a digital platform over newsprint with a dumbing down of the news. That’s fair enough, to an extent, and yes, there is plenty of fluff out there. As someone who writes what would likely be considered “fluff” for the Star (face it, restaurant news is seldom hard-hitting journalism), I’ll go so far as to agree with that sentiment (can we get over all the celebrity crap, please?). But let’s not equate lack of quality writing with the topic of the articles.

When Greg and I ran TasteTO, we made every attempt to emulate a mainstream publication, even though our publication was online. Articles were were fact-checked and edited and we had a strict ethical policy. We regularly refused to run articles by other writers because they didn’t meet our level of quality. This left us with a few pissed-off writers, but we couldn’t with good conscience run these pieces.

In one case, a writer with a journalism degree from Ryerson submitted a piece of work that was so poorly written that I actually sent it to my high school English teacher, asking her to assess the grade level. This writer, with a Ryerson degree, wrote at a Grade 9 – 10 level (apparently if you pay the money, show up for class, and make some effort to do the work – even if that effort sucks – you’ll graduate the program. This is info from a former journalism professor, it’s not just me talking out of my ass.). And this is the quality of writer that mainstream media is hiring when they boot out (or buy out) longstanding journalists and reporters. Because young’uns will work for cheap, and will whip off copy fast, even if it is crap.

I will agree with DiManno that the expectation for writers to now also be photographers and videographers, as well as preparing articles for print, radio or online video clips is not only frustrating for the writer (still thinking of patenting that “writer’s toolbelt” with hooks and hoops for camera, notepad, recorders of various types… and a wine glass), it’s also not a great experience for the media consumer. Pity the poor print journalist forced to star in an online video clip as they interview a subject. It’s not pretty.

DiManno also touches on the issue of advertising, suggesting that online ads “wag the dog”. Not all online publications indulge in advertorials, although many do, especially blogs that write about free swag. This definitely puts pressure on publications with ethics who wish to keep ads and editorial content separate, but it’s a fight that many of us must wage. Just keep saying no, and more importantly, pointing out that it’s unethical and unprofessional. Theoretically, most subjects/advertisers will get the point eventually.

And when it comes to paper versus computer, from my own experience in trying to sell ads on TasteTO, people still want that tactile experience. They want to be able to hold a physical copy of their ad, and often refused to run an ad with us because they “would have nothing to show for it”.

I really don’t think we’re going to see the end of the newspaper any time soon. Heck, even someone like me, who writes almost exclusively for online publications, and who has a vested interest in supporting and promoting digital media, still gets the morning paper every day of the week. Yes, it leaves black smears everywhere (all the technology available and we still can’t do anything about that??), but I can’t imagine the husband and I sitting down to breakfast with iPhones or e-readers instead.