Yes! takes on the news and, possibly, the future of print
April 3, 2009 · Updated 10:57 AM
As the print journalism industry cripples, this quarterly non-profit magazine is expanding, exemplifying the question: Can the Internet and the printing press coexist?
They don’t sell advertising. They aren’t turning a profit. Yet against the trend of print journalism gasping for air, with cutbacks and layoffs and death rattles across the country, the Bainbridge Island-based Yes! Magazine is expanding its operation.
The 13-year-old, internationally distributed quarterly publication of the non-profit Positive Futures Network is bringing on additional staff for an online initiative of blogs and commentary tailored to day’s national and international headlines which they’ve termed: “YES! Takes” on the news.
A “Yes! Take,” Yes! publisher and executive director of the Positive Futures Network Fran Korten says, recognizes the root causes of a wide-reaching issue, puts that issue into a larger context (usually either historic or global) and follows up by pointing to possible, practical solutions for positive change.
The new online initiative is a running compliment to the quarterly rhythm of the print publication and a venue for offering more frequent and timely “Yes! Takes,” designed to connect the magazine to the 21st Century’s 24/7 news cycle.
Which, given the frenzy of print journalists out there searching for a foothold on the world wide web right now, isn’t all too novel. But what’s potentially cutting edge about the 13-year-old Yes! organization, is that they’re not abandoning, nor cutting back on their traditional print model — a model that could become the future of print journalism, when posing the question: Can the Internet and the printing press coexist?
“Part of the question is, ‘When do we reach people in a fleeting way and when do we reach them in a deeper way,’ ” Yes! Magazine Executive Editor Sarah Van Gelder noted.
The web is an intensely ephemeral medium for information. It’s an ADD universe. With readers’ ability to click and link from story to story, Web site to Web site, the typical attention span is focused on short bits of information before moving onto the next bit amidst a growing list, and a constant flow, of sources.
The print medium, while still somewhat ephemeral, is much more leisurely and physically constrained — the original portable information device, some call it.
But a recent study conducted by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design notes that the average adult American spends more than eight hours a day in front of screens — computer monitors, televisions, cell phones and other devices — adding to a growing list of evidence that the print medium is being abandoned in the greater American consciousness.
A FUTURE WITHOUT DAILY NEWSPAPERS
On March 16, the renowned Mossback journalist Knute Berger posted an article on the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s print edition for the non-profit online Northwest news service Crosscut.com. It was called “What if a newspaper folded and nobody cared?”
In it, Berger put the PI’s folding into a larger, even more grim context, citing the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual “State of the News Media” report which found, in short, that newspapers are dying. Less than half of those polled (43 percent) said losing their daily newspaper would hurt a lot, and even less (33 percent) said they would miss reading their daily paper a lot if it went away.
Berger is part of the latter 33 percent, he said talking with What’s Up last week. He’s written in print for dailies and weeklies, in addition to having written a piece for Yes!, formerly In Context Magazine, 20 years ago, concerning the future of journalism at the dawn of the information age. He’s the type with ink running through his veins. And while he thinks that print will endure in some form, he now writes almost exclusively online.
“I love the printed page,” Berger said. “I love newspaper photography, and things printed in black and white and red, and the smell of newsprint. There are probably few people who love newsprint as much as I do ... but I don’t feel the same sort of tactile sense of excitement that I do with electronic technology.”
As a writer there’s more flexibility in both time and space online (on both ends of the spectrum) as compared to the deadlines and space restrictions of the daily newspaper. “And then you also have this process that just because you’ve finished a story doesn’t mean you’re finished with it,” Berger adds. “That has changed my life as a writer.”
For one, the online comment forum enabled by the Internet has ushered in an evolved dynamic of community interaction that reaches far beyond the traditional letters to the editor page.
“It’s almost a little like live performance,” Berger notes. Plus, the Internet enables the ability to effortlessly link to related work or performances that are already out there.
Contrary to the Internet’s transient nature, news stories actually seem to have a more extended lifespan for readers online. While in newsprint an article has an extended physical life, it’s often relegated to newspaper archives. In an online archive, an article written days, weeks, months, even years prior, can still continue to accrue readers every day.
And from a business standpoint, the cost of distribution online — simply posting a story to a Web site as opposed to manufacturing a multi-page paper (with ink, paper and printing costs), folding it and delivering it in trucks (with personnel and gas costs) and then to the door step (paperboys) — is also much more compelling, Berger notes.
With that said, he still believes that print journalism will survive in some form. Nothing ever completely disappears.
“The question really becomes what kind of journalism can online support?” he adds.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRINT
“A lot of people have probably read at least a headline that I’ve written online,” Van Gelder said, coming back to Yes! Magazine’s online initiative. “But in terms of depth, you really only get that when you read Yes! Magazine in print, because each edition is a very comprehensive look at a specific issue.”
Yes! tailors each of its print editions to a particular over arching theme like Climate Solutions, Education, Health Care, or the upcoming summer edition on The New Economy. The current issue, Spring 2009’s “Food for Everyone,” incorporates news stories on the country’s leading urban agriculture project and “The City that Ended Hunger,” along with helpful tips for action like “8 Ways to Join the Local Food Movement,” a diagram of how a community food system actually functions community profiles and more.
It’s a wealth of information, put into an immediate and powerful context by the physical boundaries of the magazine itself. Online, it’s not the same experience. While you can get the same content, it’s more fleeting and fragmented. But through that fragmented content on the web, Van Gelder said they’re hoping to funnel the fleeting traffic back to yesmagazine.com and hopefully to a subscription, which will in turn sustain the magazine.
Dissimilar to many newspapers, Yes! operates a lot like a print journalism type of public broadcasting. The non-profit relies on subscriptions, individual donations and foundation grants from its targeted market to sustain its quarterly publication.
Print copies of Yes! go out to some 28,000 subscribers with an additional 20-30,000 for newsstand distribution and free copies to activist groups, teachers and merchants across the country.
But because Yes! doesn’t sell space to advertisers (by design) and therefore doesn’t rely on advertising dollars to cover costs, the advent of free distribution of its content on the web has been more of a boon than a noose around its neck. Serendipitously converse to much of the print industry, the growing popularity of news on the web is likely to do more to support the Yes! print edition than threaten it.
Sadly, for those with ink for blood, Yes! is also likely to be an anomaly, while fates similar to that of the now all-online Seattle P-I are likely to become the norm.
“I think probably more important is the whole shift in how people get their information,” said Bainbridge Islander Mark Trahant, former editorial page editor of the Seattle P-I’s print edition. “As someone with ink stains through and through, that’s a bit harder to take than the loss of a job.”
While the loss of journalism jobs is one of the leading concerns connected to the death of the daily newspaper, (especially for those in the field), there is a greater civic issue involved in the flow of information to a community and the newspaper’s role in a working democracy.
Journalism is the watch dog for society. Korten notes it also as a community unifier. The question is whether it can continue to serve in those same capacities online as opposed to in daily newsprint.
“The theory and practice, the media of journalism is vital to our democracy,” said Olympic College journalism professor Michael Prince. “My opinion is: Good journalism is good journalism. When it gets down to it, it’s communicating, telling a story. The technology, the delivery method is just math.
“People want their information fast and for the most part they want it free,” he said.
The Internet has evolved to cover both of those bases in spades. The industry is now struggling to find a way to generate revenue from that free, fast content to sustain operations.
By nature, Prince is an optimistic fellow (somewhat surprisingly, many in the newspaper industry are). He thinks this is just another transition, akin to the advents of television and radio, that print journalism will weather.
However, “it’s not just paper versus electronic,” Berger notes. “It’s kind of like monotheism versus polytheism. I think the web is going to retrain people to be thinking that there can be a real benefit in multiple sources of information.”
The danger of the web is the ease with which people can funnel information only from the sources they choose.
“With the Internet people are self-selecting,” Trahant adds. “They’re in smaller groups and only talking to people who they already agree with ... and I think that’s dangerous to a democracy. I think you need to talk to people you don’t agree with.”
FOR MORE ON YES! MAGAZINE, go to www.yesmagazine.com.
FOR MORE ON THE STATE OF THE NEWS MEDIA, see the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual study at www.stateofthemedia.org.