When words collide: Moving from print to internet

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As magazines and newspapers shutter and internet publications expand, more and more traditionally trained journalists are retooling their skills for a very different platform. With the internet and traditional media drawing closer together, it will be interesting to see where the future of media will lead.

The strange saga of Lynn Yaeger may offer a clue. The Village Voice's once-venerable doyenne of fashion, she found herself out on the street after 30 years at the magazine. In May's Vogue magazine, she documented her subsequent struggles to overcome life as a shopaholic, come to terms with the new face of media, and build a salary that is sufficient to her impressive needs.

Yaeger's account is an interesting read; to begin with, it is suggests that print media, and many of its practitioners, have definitely hit the "fat Elvis" stage of their development. As she recounts, while the folks at the Voice are showing her the door, she bellows (with an absolute lack of irony) "You can't do this to me -- I am the Village Voice." In this context, Yaeger's transformation from pampered editor into freelance writer is fascinating. The most telling point, however, comes at the end, when she notes that she finally "stopped being snobby about writing for the Internet," after which "things began to pick up."

Yaeger's spin is unique, but her story isn't: over the past few months, the terminal rot at the heart of the print world has become impossible to ignore. Hard copy is expensive to produce, expensive to transport, and expensive to sell. Books and magazines are bulky, hard to search, difficult to annotate, and get soggy in the rain. More to the point, as increasing numbers of readers look to the internet for information, subscribers and advertisers are beginning to regard hard copy in much the same way that Johannes Gutenberg might have looked at a monastic scriptorium: sure, a roomful of squinting monks is tons of fun to watch, but moveable type is a lot more efficient.

As traditionally trained, traditionally apprenticed print writers like Yaeger now find themselves contemplating careers in the world of internet writing, their tone sometimes seems both desperate and condescending. On Thursday night, Daylife held a "Life After Digital" forum in New York City. A room full of apprehensive print writers sipped lukewarm chardonnay while listening to a few of their recently unemployed colleagues discuss their forays into a post-print world.

After one former print writer gave a litany of computer programs that flew over the heads of most of his audience, a second talked about the cocktail party at which she and three compatriots decided to launch their recession-era site, and a third spoke in falsely cheerful tones about his move from an editorship at Town and Country to a shining moment of interviewing Jimmy Fallon on the red carpet. In tones reminiscent of a twelve-step meeting, the newly-minted internet writers offered testimonials and frayed smiles as they described their bright futures in the electronic world. Of course, they also noted that, should it not work out, their nifty new technological skills would be oh so useful back in the jolly old land of print.

Standing at the back of the crowd, I felt like a spy. Over the past year, I made the transformation from teaching to freelance, and most of my income currently comes from internet writing. Having built my paychecks one post at a time, it was somewhat hard for me to sympathize with people who made six-figures from writing one article per week. Admittedly, the few print pieces that I've put together were a lot of fun; then again, after writing 1,000-2,000 words a day, getting three weeks to write a 700-word article seemed downright decadent.

Beyond that, though, I have found that print writing feels a little disconnected. As an ex-teacher, I enjoy the way that blogging lets me interact with my readers. I like hearing their take on my stories and enjoy following up the leads that they send me. Even the occasional death threat or violent excoriation only adds to the thrill. More to the point, internet writing has forced me to be flexible and energetic. I don't anticipate having 30 years to become an entrenched media elite; truth be told, my career will probably involve a lot more bobbing and weaving.

Over the course of the next few years, the blogging world that I occupy and the land of print-based "editorial" journalism are likely to collide. Most print publications already have a blog of some sort, and many make their full text available to readers almost immediately. At the same time, several blogs are trying to offer well-researched, authoritative articles. As internet writing strives for more legitimacy and editorial publications try to connect with their readers on a deeper level, it seems likely that the two will meet in the middle.

The new media will probably be sleeker and less expensive than print, but it will also be more interactive and immediate. You might be reading it on this screen, or you might be getting it off a Kindle. Regardless, you'll probably be able to let the writer know what you're thinking. Wonder what it will be like? Well, why don't you try it out now ...

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