The people who are most likely to engage in conversations about the future of media routinely fail to talk about what matters most.
As we’re putting the May-June issue to bed, people are still queuing up at their local Apple Store in hopes of scoring an iPad 2 before the next iPhone is on the cover of Time. “Maybe [the new iPad] won’t make you feel the way it makes me feel,” raved Matt Buchanan, editor at gizmodo.com. “Maybe it could be even thinner and lighter and faster. But there is nothing else like it.”
On cue, the initial hype surrounding the product’s sexy new measurements quickly morphed into an unsightly combination of paranoid handwringing and hyperbolic prognostication. Media critics wondered whether Silicon Valley’s latest innovation would be the savior of, or the final death blow for, books, newspapers, and magazines. Young entrepreneurs argued that the growing popularity of tablet computing was further evidence that “consumers” no longer want what “old media” have to offer.
It’s a misguided debate. IPads, smartphones, transistor radios, and stone tablets are delivery systems. Their design alters the way information is transmitted. This is nothing new. When my mom was a kid, she got the news by going to the movies. I just watched all of this year’s Oscar nominees on DVD while I was reading Google headlines on my laptop. Yet modern-day media makers still allow themselves to get suckered by the most ancient of canards: That the way we choose to present our stories—in words, with pictures, over the air, or in a stand-alone application—will ultimately become more important than the stories themselves.
When I was a kid, there was no shortage of junk fiction, brain-dead TV, and tabloid newspapers. Now we can add to that list a bevy of vacuous websites and irresponsible bloggers—not because digital devices are inherently shallow, but because there will always be high art and low art, balanced and biased news, creative souls and cynical opportunists.
At Utne Reader, our delivery system of choice is the printed word, which is why we annually celebrate the year’s best periodicals with the Utne Independent Press Awards (2011 nominees here).
But make no mistake. We judge our 64 nominees not on the delivery system, but on the way it’s used. Some of our honorees are printed on glossy paper, others on newsprint. Some feature little or no art; others are lushly designed. Whatever devices a particular magazine chooses to use in the name of reporting the news or registering an opinion or evoking an emotion are governed by its conscience and its resources.
What matters to us is that there’s integrity, depth, and care put into that choice and reflected on every page; that, regardless of the bells and whistles, editors find ways to engage, enlighten, and entertain.
In other words, we celebrate the craft, not the tools.
Even if we’re all reading everything on a screen in 10 years, that standard should not and will not change.
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.