Thursday, November 17, 2016


The Shatzkin Files” is an on-line newsletter in which Mike Shatzkin ponders matters having to do with print, but not the writing of it.  He is the second generation of his family to be book sellers, not just in terms of shops but also in terms of sales and distribution systems.  Therefore he thinks about details most of us aren’t aware even exist.

The first time I woke up to these issues was a presentation that Russell Chatham made at the Montana Festival of the Book many years ago where he explained that a bound book is a commodity that is taxed, so printing and binding a lot of books in order to capture the lower prices of scale, meant exposing the books to warehouse misadventures in case of fire or flooding, but also losing value because of being taxed.  Therefore, he printed the pages of his books, but didn’t bind them.  The loose pages, which is where the factor of scale was in the paper and ink, were not taxable.

Another moment of realization was visiting the Fort Benton museum that has an attached bookstore and wondering why — since they were the guardians and exhibitors of Bob Scriver’s Blackfeet bronzes — they didn’t stock “Bronze Inside and Out,” which is the book I wrote about Bob and these specific bronzes.  Their explanation was “no one told us to do it.”  They were completely dependent on the system of publishers who send “drummers” around to bookstores, displaying and recommending what would sell.  No one explored what was available outside of that system or thought about the value it would add to stock the book.

In the last newsletter, Shatzkin was comparing book publishing to newspaper publishing, which he hadn’t really focused on before.  He figures that periodicals as we know them are doomed, because their income is not dependent on subscriptions but rather on advertising.  The two sources are interlinked since the amount advertisers will pay depends on how many readers there are and whether they are read by a demographic that will buy the product advertised.  As the young, who are the most likely to buy high-profit things like clothes and electronics, have wandered away from reading any print at all, they no longer subscribe to newspapers, but they will look at glossy bright images.

The months that I worked at the Prairie Star were educational.  The two salesmen there went out on the road to sell advertising, but they were required by law to print no more advertising than the bottom third of every page in order to qualify for certain advantages, like lower postage rates.  I had assumed that I would be there to do a certain amount of writing, but it turned out that the actual copy was simply downloaded from county agents and ag colleges.  It was valuable enough but free and accessible by anyone with a computer.  In 1999 not so many people had computers or knew how to access specific materials.  Since the readers of the paper were farmers and ranchers, they were outdoor people.  But they also did a lot of figuring about equipment and materials, so the major job of a clerk was logging in payment for the classified ads.  These, of course, soon migrated to the Internet.

The case of the big prestige newspapers was different.  The NYTimes and the Washington Post are active participants in the governing of the country, monitors of events we’d never know about otherwise.  Increased costs of a paper-and-ink distribution confronting a citizenship less and less able to read and analyze print, much less willing to participate in the machinery of running a country, means that readership goes down.  What advertisers remain are the ones who haven’t yet converted to Internet advertising, which they must eventually.  

As a countervailing force, digital advertising is now saturating everything online, aggressively intruding into articles and vids even as we read, so that even their own consumer research -- questions that must be answered in order to clear the screen -- obstruct the real articles.  Always the new annoyance and impediment.  It becomes less and less worth the effort.  I go to the library.

The major newspapers of the country impose limits on how many articles one can read (pay walls) without subscribing, which is legitimate from one point of view, but one can read the paper newspapers at the library.  More and more information depends on whether a person has the funds to be in the class advertisers want and we become numb to advertising-based commodification of something like the presidency.  To save money, the big papers skimp on overseas reporters who could keep us aware of the world and they shrink arts coverage.  For years every Sunday I read the arts section of the NYTimes.  For a long time I subscribed to the separately published Book Review section, but also it was given away free in the better bookstores.  The equivalent is not where I can find it online.

Journalism was the focus of Ivan Doig at Northwestern, with a strong element of history.  In time he found himself diverted to a kind of semi-literary fiction, popular, though none became movies.  He was not a digital guy.  At the same time I was getting a theatre education which slid over to religion, not surprising if you know the history of the relationship between the two.  History focuses on facts and forces in the real world.  It's print-friendly.  Theatre goes to possibilities and the forces beneath tragedy.  It loves Netflix.

Journalism is a print medium while theatre depends upon oral presentation.  Serious literary work is often both when sales depend upon readings.  Sid Gustafson’s many readings around the state to promote his book called “Swift Dam,” which also mixes reporting and fantasy, builds awareness but also trust, because the people can see the author in person and gauge his sincerity.  Video interviews would not be quite as effective.  His "audible" stories are somewhere in between.

Can journalism, like our many news hours and panels on video, ever come up to the standards of print, where thought and skill must be frozen into a version that can be dissected, footnoted, pinned down to a point in time?  Can print be stabilized, made into a contract-like entity?

Shatzkin points out that newspapers and magazines are compendiums, while a published book is a coherent argument or plot that can’t be chopped up, though some experiment with that.

“The aggregation created by each newspaper was intended to compete as an aggregation. In the 20th century, a consumer didn’t have the choice of reading the Times’s op-ed page and the News’s coverage of the Yankees unless s/he bought both newspapers. But, even with the paywalls that are up today (and weren’t up at the beginning), there is a lot of competition for almost every single individual piece of content in every newspaper. And it has also become just about impossible for a printed newspaper to deliver you any “surprises”: any news that is important to you personally that you won’t have seen first in an email or an online aggregator (including that own newspaper’s web site.) Any “scoop” will be “reported” by competitors and the information itself would be in the public domain very quickly after it is released.

“So, the fundamental distinction between the businesses is that publishers often sell an indivisible unit and newspapers (and magazines) sell aggregates of content nuggets, each of which is valued differently by different readers of the paper and each of which has its own array of competitors.”

Maybe the American people have learned to react to slogans rather than reasonable arguments.  Perhaps this explains why we're now hearing that Facebook and Google before the election were consciously allowing the online publication of lies in paid political form — which they now repudiate since the sale has been made and there’s no need for advertising anymore.  No profit.  Form follows profit.

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