Tom-Tom: Brett Becker

Brett Becker sticks up for print in his rejoinder to Gary Grant’s Tom-Tom of last month. Becker is a freelance writer and photographer who writes and shoots for Web and print titles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in mass communication from the University of Central Florida.


In Defense of Print

In last month’s Tom-Tom, an amateur blogger, ostensibly emboldened by his own self-published Web site, disparaged print media. That’s certainly nothing new, and he is entitled to his opinion. In fact, we see similar beliefs expressed regularly in the Autowriters.com newsletter.

Autowriters.com | Tom-Tom | Brett Becker

Brett Becker

Before I touch on last month’s erroneously titled missive from http://www.thegarageblog.com/  proprietor Gary Grant, “Why Traditional Print Media Sucks,” allow me to defend print by examining what it does that other media cannot.

Foremost, print media actually can hold people’s attention for more than 500 words, and print is the best medium for making complex issues understandable. People will read features and other long-form journalism in a magazine or newspaper, but are less likely to click past the first page of Web site copy. What’s more, university research has shown fairly conclusively that retention is greater when subjects read a story on paper compared with a computer screen.

From other studies, we also can establish that what appears in a magazine has greater perceived value than the same user-posted message online. Commodity theory holds that people tend not to value what comes easily to them. The theory also stipulates we tend to value what we must work for, which is why a letter to the editor printed in, say, Road & Track has greater perceived value than a comment following a blog entry on GarageBlog.com. Why? Because editors are gate-keeping what gets into a magazine, your letter must be lucid to be printed. If it does get printed, it shows third-party acknowledgement of your position, which adds value to it.

Now, any nitwit with an Internet connection can have his comments seen instantly, regardless of whether they are worth reading—virtual graffiti at its finest.

Print media also require no electricity. Print is portable and can be read anywhere there is light. Download delays are nonexistent and logging off is as simple as closing the cover. Because paper isn’t fragile, you can toss a printed product into your briefcase without concern. Even a Web-savvy publisher such as Bonnier Corporation chief executive officer Terry Snow agrees that there is no better journalistic medium for showcasing fine, large-format photography than a glossy magazine.

In terms of advertising, industry studies have shown repeatedly that readers, in large measure, do not object to ads in magazines. In fact, they welcome them as part of the product, particularly in vertical markets. The same argument cannot be made for television, radio or Internet. And as Grant rightly points out, advertising is what makes the ball roll.

Yet, if the Internet is so omnipotent, why is it that so many Web sites offer contributors such dismal pay rates for content, if any compensation at all? For example, Internet Brands, a publicly traded company that owns more than 100 enthusiast sites, pays freelancers all of $10 for 400- to 600-word stories, and around $4 for 100- to 250-word briefs. That’s why you still find the best writing and photography in print titles—because they typically pay a decent rate.

With regard to last month’s Tom-Tom, Grant says that because one print journalist, in this case Sam Mitani with Road & Track magazine, admitted not wanting to meet with a reader who lived half a country away, traditional print media are falling apart. Through what could only be described as magical inductive reasoning, Grant says Mitani’s lack of interaction with that one reader demonstrates “why traditional print media sucks (sic)”—they do not—and why new media newcomers are “stealing the thunder away from many of the old boy’s (sic) club,”—they are not.

Grant goes on to say that an Internet site’s sense of community and its readers’ ability to respond to, interact and meet with staff are why they continue to “steal readers.” “Building a real-world community alongside the virtual one builds brand loyalty,” he claims. That’s an easy argument to make, but he never substantiates exactly how that occurs or provides any examples. So many blog responses and forum posts I’ve read are caustic and snide—due to the anonymity index of the Web—that Grant’s point about a sense of community is essentially meaningless.

However, the most galling aspect of Grant’s argument—aside from his claim that his site content is as polished as the copy in a newspaper or Road & Track—is that Mitani’s comments were taken out of context. If you read all of Mitani’s column, Grant’s argument is essentially moot. http://www.roadandtrack.com/article.asp?section_id=7&article_id=7930&print_page=y

In fairness, Grant might be able to cobble together a car review, maintain an amateur blog site and “steal” a few readers. But there is so much more to publishing than that. Is he creating any new readers? Is he adding anything of value? Is he doing anything a thousand other amateur bloggers are not? I doubt that as much as I doubt his baseless and irrelevant opinions on the future prospects of print media.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. If the author’s tone wasn’t so rancid, the irony would be delicious. A print-loving journalist pissing on a blogger— on the Internet. Awesome.

    Clearly, Mr. Becker is suffering from an advanced case of caustic condescension. He dismisses Tom-Tom’s internet community because they don’t live up to Mr. Becker’s standards of discourse. Mr. Becker devotes an entire column to attacking Tom-Tom and then calls his opinions “baseless” and “irrelevant”?

    You want to talk about baseless?

    “What’s more, university research has shown fairly conclusively that retention is greater when subjects read a story on paper compared with a computer screen.”

    Fairly conclusively? What does THAT mean? How about a citation? And anyway, who decided that information retention is the standard by which media should be rated?

    In fact, this could well be the single best example of arrogant, elitism from a print journalist I’ve ever encountered. And a perfect example why Internet journalism is ascendant.

    1. Robert,

      Of course, there is great irony in my responding online, but obviously there was no other way to offer a counterpoint.

      I think it’s also worth noting that my opinion piece was not titled, “Why Everything About the Internet Sucks” or “Why all Web Writers are Hacks.” It’s true I appreciate print for a lot of reasons, but as my bio noted at the top of the Tom-Tom, I write freelance for print and Internet, and I’m even developing a site of my own.

      I outlined what print does that other media cannot. I pointed out defects in the reasoning Gary Grant used to support his premise, questioned his expertise on media and offered my opinion on those two issues.

      I am plainly aware that print is declining and online journalism is on the rise—and why it’s occurring—but as I tried to point out, his reasoning was desperately thin and way off target. So, yes, in my opinion, it was baseless and irrelevant. You obviously disagree, which is fine.

      With regard to the “fairly conclusively” comment, it reflects the notion that social science research, which includes media and communication, is seldom conclusive. I probably should have gone with the more familiar “research suggests.”

      To counter your charges of my baselessness, here are a few citations, including one Dutch study I was previously unaware of that found no differences in recall between online and print readers. In my defense, there are more that suggest recall from print media is higher than online sources.

      http://www.scarletnotes.com/downloads/onlinepaperknoweldge2000.pdf
      http://agnews.tamu.edu/saas/2006/Cognitive.pdf
      http://eric.ed.gov:80/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ581386&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ581386

      Dutch study
      http://nms.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/6/3/363

      As for your question “Who decided that information retention is the standard by which media should be judged?” I don’t know, but it wasn’t me. I included retention as one of print’s benefits, but not as “the standard,” and where writers and/or media seek to inform and educate, I do think retention is critical.

  2. Brett —

    I think your view of the Internet is a little short-sighted.

    Let’s not forget why the automakers loan us cars and send us on trips. It’s not to see how artfully we can write about them or how beautifully we can photograph them.

    They do it to SELL CARS.

    The Internet is where today’s buyers are, and savvy automakers realize that. Fifteen years ago, you asked your friend with a C&D subscription for an opinion on the Honda Civic. Today, you can go online and find dozens of expert opinions in a matter of moments. Are they all good? No — but readers aren’t stupid. They are perfectly capable of reading a review and deciding for themselves if the writer is credible. Today, readers judge us by what we write, not the medium in which we write it.

    There are things that the mags used to do best which can now be done better online. Consumers don’t want to trudge down to the library to search through back issues of car magazines to make a buying decision, and enthusiasts don’t want to wait for the latest issue to read “breaking” news that is two months old.

    And now, thanks to the web, they don’t have to.

    To judge an Internet site by comments is a big mistake. Just as talk radio callers are only a small percentage of the listening audience, on many web sites — including mine — the same holds true for commenters. My site has a blog and it gets comments, but the vast majority of my readers come in via search, and they are looking to read, not write.

    You glossed over one of Mr. Grant’s key points: A magazine can say they print 1 million copies per month, and that translates to 10 million readers. We all know that’s speculation. But when my employer, About.com, says they reach 40 million unique human readers per month, and that they read 333 million articles per month, those are real numbers — real numbers that PR and advertising departments can use to make intelligent decisions.

    I work for a major web site owned by a major corporation, and I’m proud to say that almost everything I’ve written has been online. Some of my colleagues think I’m not a real journalist, to which I quote Dylan: “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” I help real people make sensible car buying decisions. That feels good. Oh, and I make enough of a living to support a family of four (knock wood). That feels good, too.

    I’m not saying print is dead — but trying to defend print as a better way to reach readers is simply burying your head in the sand.

    Aaron Gold
    About.com
    http://cars.about.com

    1. Aaron,

      You raise some excellent points on the benefits of the Internet, searchability, archiving, timeliness, convenience, relevance, and I agree with you on most or probably all of the issues you raised. But those were not the subject of my piece.

      Again, the title of my piece was not “Why Everything About the Internet Sucks,” or “Why All Web Writers are Hacks,” and should not be read as such.

      I defended print for what it does that other media cannot. Again, I pointed out defects in the reasoning Gary Grant used to support his premise, questioned his expertise on media and offered my opinion on those two issues.

      With regard to your point that I “glossed over one of Mr. Grant’s key points,” I simply didn’t address it at all because I don’t know enough about circulation or hits or page views or unique visits to comment on them knowledgeably.

      Your point about working for About.com is well taken, and it’s great to hear you make a good living. From what I can gather, it looks as though you are on staff or on retainer. My comments did not concern people on staff for large media companies such as Internet Brands, NYT or Edmunds or Source Interlink or people who have changed from print journalists to Web journalists. The comments concerned fees to contributors, by which I meant freelancers. And I stand by my view that the rates offered to freelancers and contributors by so many Web sites, including the company I mentioned, are too low to attract good writers.

      Regarding your last sentence, I think your point may rest on a mischaracterization of my arguments: Nowhere in my piece did I say that print was a better way to “reach” readers, implicitly or explicitly. Much as I would like to leave this at clarifying my original points, I think adding information to our discussion might help.

      Townhall.com, one of the oldest political Web sites on the Internet just launched a magazine, which I think is incredibly telling, as is the reason why. Chris Field, Townhall magazine’s executive editor?, had this to say in response to the following question: How does the magazine differ from the online tier of the brand? ?

      ”Our online audience has relied on us for daily news for nearly 15 years to keep them abreast of what is going on. The magazine has allowed us to delve more deeply into the core issues that our readers care the most about.”

      I think it helps illustrate my points about the effectiveness of print.

  3. You know this author makes a lot of true statements about print: portability, ease of use, ruggedness … all true and all reasons why I love my printed magazines. But the reality is that print is dying a slow death. Look at all the newspapers and magazines that have folded, are folding, will fold. The value of print is not THAT much greater than what is online and the shift of ad $$$ is proving this to be true. There will always be some print pubs around, there will just be a lot less of them in the coming years. As a writer for a trade myself I see it all the time. Online writers do get paid less than print but that is shifting as well. As any new paradigm shift happens it takes time and the old-guard clings to their old ways as their fingers bleed. Just look at the recorded music industry. The same thing is happening to print as well as broadcast television. The sooner the gate-keepers have been pulled from their walled gardens the better, cheaper, and more timely the information and entertainment will get to the consumer. It’ll take some work to decide who you want to read, trust, follow and listen to. But the consumer will be rewarded with a much more interactive experience than ever before. And they will be better for it. Will they pay? Some will, some won’t. Can an author or content provider get rich or even make a living off of it? Some will, some won’t. As for the consumer, except for those that are lazy and ONLY want to pick up the printed publication … they’ll either get a Kindle-like device, read the one or two printed pieces left or die of old age.

  4. Perhaps Mr. Becker’s opinions would be more valid if he looked up the definition of the words Amateur and Professional.

    It amuses me that Mr. Becker discounts the validity of online community due to “caustic and snide” remarks while writing a personal attack. In the online world, this personal attack is referred to as flaming. It is also considered bad form.

    Thank you Mr. Becker for providing such a wonderful display of TM attitude and for explaining why your print viewpoint is more valid than my virtual one.

    1. Gary,

      My opinion piece was not a personal attack. I did question—harshly, I admit—the validity of your Tom-Tom entry. As to whether it was “flaming” or “bad form,” I disagree. I commented on your Tom-Tom piece, which you volunteered. And once offered for public consumption, your piece is open to opinion, fair comment and criticism, as is my Tom-Tom submittal, as was Sam Mitani’s column. It’s the same privilege that lets you or anyone else review automobiles, movies and restaurants.

  5. Thank you Robert.

    Thank you Aaron.

    Thank you Gary.

    You all said it correctly, from your respective viewpoints.

  6. Do you know what my readers think about this new media vs. old media “anybody with a typo is a hack” drama? Not a blessed thing. They obtain information from a vast array of sources to come to an amalgamation of thought that results in either buying a car or not buying a car. Regardless of what our egos would like us to believe, the automotive journalist is just one small part of this process.

    In my opinion, too many automotive journalists are writing for their next gig rather than their audience. Sure, this secures our career, but at the same time distances us from our non-enthusiast readers (the people who are buying cars). This makes no sense to me. To that end, I have only one hard and fast rule when I bring on a new freelancer to write reviews. That rule dictates that they not write for other automotive journalists, factory PR reps or enthusiasts. Write for my mother and my sister. It is people like that who are buying cars on a scale that allows us to do this for a living.

    I have no sympathy for those who feel threatened by new media, old media, or the hobo who scrawls car reviews on the bathroom wall at the local truck stop. Everybody can go around grinding each other into the pavement over this. In the meantime, I’ll be doing the best I can to service the needs of my readers across every medium that is available to me, unfortunate typos and all. Maybe this means I’m not going to live up to the lofty expectations of my fellow writers, but I’ll tell you what, my fellow writers are not the ones who enable me to do what I love. That distinction belongs to my readership.

    Embrace the message, not the medium.

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