At lunch, a friend volunteered that writing emails and texting seemed to have reduced her attention span. I knew what she meant. I, too, grow impatient with suspense novels that exceed the point of reasonable tension, or folks who tell a story but have trouble getting to the point. But blaming electronic devices may be unfair. We humans are inclined toward brevity. We invented contractions to cut out extra letters. “It’s” for “it is” or “wasn’t” for “was not” are two examples. Certain words are dropped as unnecessary. Today, “that” is headed for extinction. “The man that I met,” is usually expressed as “The man I met.”
Perhaps one day we’ll become so efficient, we’ll talk in numbers and symbols. An old joke touches upon this idea. I don’t remember the punch line, but it’s about a group of comedians who sit around a table and call out numbers that represent their favorite stories, “16, 73, 97…” Everybody laughs despite the absence of words.
John R. McArthur, the publisher of Harper’s wonders if our society isn’t becoming too reductive. He blames the trend on advertisers who are hungry for “eyeballs” but care little about content. (Publisher’s Letter,” by John R. MacArthur, Harper’s, pgs. 7-9) The trend in magazine publishing, he says, is to reduce the number and length of articles to allow for more ads. (Ibid, pg. 8) The result is the “impoverishment of writers; the alarming decline of editorial standards for accuracy and grammar, and coherent thought; and the dumbing down of journalism across the board.” (Ibid, pg. 8)
McArthur’s editorial is his call to arms. Harper’s, he insists, refuses to join the scramble for advertising dollars and encourages his readers not to chase after free web material, the main purpose of which is to expose them to more and more advertising. If we’re willing to pay two or three dollars for a cup of coffee, he reasons, we should be willing to pay for quality information. Good content is expensive, he reminds us. Harper’s recent photo essay on Tehran cost $25,000, not to mention the dangers photographers faced to obtain those images.
McArthur is right, of course. The only way to win against journalistic degradation is to pay for what we value. We are in control. Free isn’t always the best price.
(photo of John R. McArthur courtesy of google.com)