Let me tell you a story…

A poor life this, if full of care,

We have no time to stop and stare.

                                      –  William Henry Davies

I love the Internet. Love it with a passion. To me it’s a gateway to a world of knowledge and people that otherwise would ever remain a secret. I see it as a great emancipator, which empowers the weak and chastens the strong. It is a playground, a wonderland, the finest learning tool ever created, and largest high street that can be imagined. Where else could you watch free videos that teach you how to play Hendrix riffs on guitar, interact with friends on several continents simultaneously, then settle down to a torrent of abuse from twelve year old Americans with virtual machine guns while they teabag your prone body? Truly it is the marvel of the modern age.

Hmmmm, Tetleys.

It is with great dismay then that I’ve been noticing a downside recently that has me quite worried about where we’re heading. As a working journalist I’ve long been observing how print media is changing and will of course eventually be replaced by digital and online content. The problem here is that the change in pace at which news must be delivered is, I think, causing problems with the quality of writing/content that is being produced. The recent release of the iPhone 5 was a prime example. Such is the need for page hits and Google rankings now that content producers are all involved in a mad race to be the first out the door in regards to reviews. The thinking seems to be that if you don’t catch the initial buzz then people will have already read other reviews and yours is dead in the water. So reporters are filing content faster and faster in the need to be seen, which can only suggest that they aren’t spending any significant time with a product at all before telling you their findings. High quality is being compromised in favour of high velocity.

Of course top publications are privy to advanced releases and then embargoed on their reviews until a set date, but it seems these privileges are only being granted to a favoured few while the rest scrabble around for the scraps. This is not an entirely new phenomena, but the pressure of the increased pace now suggests that this might become more significant as times goes on. After all if a handful of sites always have the first news and reviews or the latest products then it could mean that others just never get visitors and eventually fade away.

The argument against this theory is that if you have quality then you will have an audience, something I always believed, but recent events have shaken my faith. Last month saw the closure of PC Plus, a UK computer magazine that had been around for twenty six years. It’s not the only victim of the decline in print media, but to me it was an important moment. You see for the past couple of years I’ve been bemoaning the death of quality features in magazines, which instead favour product reviews and celebrity interviews. In many ways those are the things that are better suited to the Internet, due to their structure and shorter nature, whereas features are more the meat of a magazine as they take advantage of the longer form and visual embellishments that a good layout will create. PC Plus had, to my mind, some of the most interesting and informative features of any technology magazine around and even when I didn’t have a PC I would still find myself picking up a copy just to read what they were exploring. Its closure now strengthens the argument against these types of creations and I worry that it might be another nail in the coffin of more esoteric features.

PC Plus 1986-2012

Speaking with editors over the past few months it’s become apparent that the squeeze on readership created by the Internet is causing them to rely more on analysing search data and reader surveys to determine the content they create. In business terms this makes perfect sense, but one of the joys of features I’ve always savoured was being surprised by something I never knew, stories that were unusual, interesting, and not ones I was likely to discover by myself. So if you don’t know what will be interesting how can you tell a publication that you want to read about it? How can this serendipity take place when all the pages are decided by only the popular rather than the wondrous?

Of course I’m an idealist. No question. You could also label me a romantic and my defence would be lacking. There is certainly the truth that I don’t have a publisher to answer to with budget reports and revenue streams. I’m concerned though that as we transition from print to online the art of feature writing will be discarded, replaced instead with Cliff Notes for the terminally short of attention.

When I first became a writer it was because I wanted to tell people’s stories, document their adventures and achievements so others could share in the excitement. The Internet seems a wonderful opportunity to do this on a wide scale, so it puzzles me why I feel it might be the very thing that brings about its demise, at least in a form I think needs to survive.