Journalism in a Post-Literate Society
In a recent speech at Harvard, TPM founder Josh Marshall argued that the competition from the Internet is killing newspapers but improving journalism.
Stacy McCain, though, contends, “iIt’s not the Internet that’s killing journalism, it’s illiteracy.” Rather than former print consumers switching to digital media, “There is, instead, a shrinking readership of news, period, regardless of whether the news is delivered by computer or by print.”
Think about those surveys that tell us that under-30s get most of their political news from “The Daily Show” or Jay Leno’s monologues. People who cannot read fluently — that is, those who cannot process written information as effectively as they process the spoken word — will never constitute a readership for serious news, whether that news is delivered via print or computer.
Evidence clearly indicates that reading fluency has declined steadily in recent decades. To read well — to read complex material with both speed and comprehension — requires reading often. A good reader is a habitual reader. Over the past 30 or 40 years, American schools and parents have failed to inculcate the reading habit in children, producing a generation of young adults in which a majority is incapable of reading and comprehending an article from Newsweek, let alone an essay from Commentary or the New Criterion.
He goes on to argue that what the blogosphere has done is pair an elite community of people who write about current events with an elite readership, citing Marshall himself as an example. I agree.
My colleague Dave Schuler has often argued that we are transforming into a post-literate Visualcy Society. Just as we moved from an oral society to a written one, we’re changing into one that transmits its most important ideas in an audio-visual manner. And this has profound social consequences.
Communicators in a literate society tend to be subordinative, analytic, objective, and abstract.
Will a transition to a visual imagery society result in an analogous reordering of consciousness to that of the transition from oral to literate? I think there’s reason to believe that there is, it’s happening now, and the visual imagery society resembles the oral society more than the literate society that it supplants. Consider the political blogosphere.
Whatever the political blogosphere expresses it does not have the features of the expressions of a literate society, using analysis, abstraction, and objectivity to communicate and persuade. It is polemic not reasoned discourse. That’s part of what the post Endarkenment at QandO Blog comments on, lamenting “the declining ability of people to think critically and logically”.
The blogosphere simultaneously exacerbates and masks this trend. Some of the most trafficked blogs are unreadable for those outside the club; they simply promulgate outrage and hurl insults. At the same time, there are more high quality, reasoned discussions going on than there is time to read them.
Still, this could be a short-term shakeout as society assimilates new technologies. Indeed, there are signs of a rebirth of reading among teenagers.
Contrary to the depressing proclamations that American teens aren’t reading, the surprising truth is they are reading novels in unprecedented numbers. Young-adult fiction (ages 12-18) is enjoying a bona fide boom with sales up more than 25 percent in the past few years, according to a Children’s Book Council sales survey. Virtually every major publishing house now has a teen imprint, many bookstores and libraries have created teen reading groups and an infusion of talented new authors has energized the genre.
And the Internet might even be helping:
[B]ookstores and libraries are finally recognizing this niche and separating teen books from children’s books. “Teenagers don’t want to walk past the Curious George books to get to their books. They want and deserve their own section,” says Levithan, who points out that “because of MySpace, Facebook, blogs and authors’ and publishers’ Web sites, young readers are communicating interactively now with each other and with authors.” Another reason for the YA boom cited by Levithan and others is that teen books have become an integral part of today’s overall pop-culture entertainment menu. They segue into television series, movies, videogames, cartoons and the Internet. If teens see that, say, “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” is coming out in theaters, they’ll read the book in advance of the movie.
And, of course, there’s the Harry Potter phenomenon.
Jack Martin, assistant coordinator of YA services at the New York Public Library, says that the single most important fact is that young-adult books are simply better and more diverse than ever, and readers are responding. “There’s so much good writing now, that’s the key,” says Martin. “They’re telling better stories, and there is such variety, something for everyone.” And, yes, he admits, it started with the Harry Potter books, which have “generated a passion for reading in an entire generation of preteens and teens and many have taken that passion with them to other books.” Martin suggests that the Potter series has captured the interest of young readers who otherwise would never read fantasy, or read at all, and instilled in them an enthusiasm for reading in general. “Harry Potter has made kids trust the book as a source of information that is exciting, not just a school assignment,” he says, adding that the most popular books for teens now are fantasy. Also popular are graphic novels, adventure, romance, humor and, as has always been the case in the YA field, coming-of-age stories.
So, maybe, we’re not going to be “post-literate” after all.
To be sure, we’re unlikely to see the return of the influence of long-form writing to what we had in the pre-television era. We’re used to a snappier, breezier presentation. And people have always had different styles of processing information, so an all-oral, all-written, or all-visual format likely isn’t ideal, anyway. But whereas teens of fifteen or twenty years ago were telephoning each other constantly, they’re now texting. They’re keeping up with their friends’ comings and goings through Twitter. They’re also reading and writing via personal blogs and other social media outlets.
Will this trend lead to a revival of critical debate? Or just the ability to write snarky comments in 140 characters or less?