Author Seth Godin, in a post about how to be a successful non-fiction writer, said, “a non-fiction book is a souvenir, just a vessel for the ideas themselves. You don’t want the ideas to get stuck in the book… you want them to spread.”
I thought about this statement as I stared at the pile of newspapers in the back of my car. These non-fiction “vessels for ideas” lay unopened, unread and unimportant in a world where people move too fast and information is in a constant race to keep up. When a newspaper yells “Fire!” everyone has already left the theater, running to soak in the next story on television, the Internet, mobile phone or other modern convenience that trumps ever-declining newspaper readership.
Newspapers have an unenviable task: No matter how much work reporters and editors do in a day, they can’t overcome the “dead zone” between the time the paper has to go to press and the time it arrives on our driveways. It may only be a matter of hours, but that’s long enough for a Tsunami to kill thousands or Mel Gibson to get pulled over for drunken driving. Newspapers, unable to compete for scoops in a world without pause, are almost always O.O.A. – Obsolete On Arrival.
This doesn’t mean, however, that newspapers are, as some believe, “Where words go to die.” Quite the opposite: If words are representations of thought – or as Godin might say, “vessels for ideas,” then newspapers are where words are born.
Newspapers are at their best in afterthought and analysis, in forming opinions and offering perspective. And while they can’t "do" breaking news anymore, they can break big news, such as the stories about covert domestic wiretapping and secret government prisons. The best newspapers give us words that live far beyond their vessels’ unceremonious trips to the recycle bin.
Newspapers need to do a better job of spreading their ideas to other mediums. This will require newspaper companies to stop thinking of paper as The Paper – it’s the newspaper’s function that matters most now, not its form. The Los Angeles Times should always be the Los Angeles Times, whether it’s in the back of my car, on my Google home page or in my IPod.
As long as newspapers continue to spread ideas – to write words that live – then they will matter. They will avoid becoming relics and will progress into a new future: A future, perhaps, without newsprint, but with plenty of news.