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Oct. 30 2009 - 2:50 pm | 10 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

View from the Digital Iceberg

This post originally ran as a guest column at Mediaite.com on Oct. 29, 2009.

To hear Arthur Sulzberger Jr., tell it –in New York Magazine following the Oct. 26 benefit for The News Literacy Project–the “critical flaw” of the RMS Titanic was not iceberg detection, not an inattentive crew, not a shortage of lifeboats, not overestimating the ship’s construction, nor underestimating the staying power of ice. It was this: “Twelve years earlier, two brothers invented the airplane.”

This is the so-called Titanic Fallacy, which is aptly named. Tell it to the 1,517 people who died in the water that night, several hundred miles short of New York.

I really wish he had kept that analogy to himself. With all the digital cheers going up around the deathbed of print, the media world does not need a Pinch of snuff-porn, any more than it needs a Sulzberger Happy Meal.

The truth lies where it so often does, somewhere between hope and despair. But the outlook for media today is a lot better than the future for luxury cruises was in 1912. It’s bracing, to be sure, but in the way a good long run or a complex, stimulating book can be.

Consider, for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial two-volume work, “The Printing Press As An Agent of Change” (Cambridge University Press, 1980). I’m in the middle of reading it now, and it is a long, bracing run indeed—a minute and skillful examination of just how massive the disruption was, a story previously taken for granted by historians but never so exhaustively studied and eloquently told.

All that is commonly remembered now of that fundamental shift is that reading became more common and knowledge more widespread. We do not mourn the monks whose craft and art of illuminating manuscripts was torn from their hands by that revolution.

Neither should we mourn the printers or print publishers of today. Instead, we should applaud the digital shift, which is actually fulfilling the manifest destiny set out for information by Gutenberg’s bright idea in the 15th Century.

Thanks to the digital revolution, there are millions more people consuming news and information than ever before. As Moore’s law works 24/7 to double the capacity of new devices, the much-rumored Apple Tablet, said to be coming out in a few months, will be just the ancestor of a new generation of digital hardware that will bring text, movies, music, motion graphics—all the tools of multimedia—off your desk and into your hands.

As that happens, the world of media will be transformed. In addition to inviting users to “lean forward” to find the information they want and need through search engines and databases, information on the Web—and more generally in the world of digital broadband—will encourage users to “lean back” and experience the new ways data can combine into coherent, narrative forms. Otherwise known as stories.

Maybe Sulzberger was misunderstood. Let’s hope so. Let’s hope he realizes how lucky he is that some of the media inventors with the Wright stuff are in the Times’s own multimedia department, doing the hard work of inventing the crafts and arts of digital story-telling and so our information future.

Any day now he should get them out of the factory and let them fly.


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    About Me

    I'm a refugee from MSM (former editor of Time, Life and People magazines) and founder of StoryRiver Media Inc., where I'm working on the print-to-digital migration--meaning not "repurposing" content for a new distribution channel but the fundamental transformation and reimagination of story-telling and publishing, incorporating video, audio, animation, full-motion infographics, and all the other media, hardware and software platforms, and design techniques that the Internet can support.

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    In a word…

    I’m the editor-in-chief and founder of StoryRiver Media, a digital and multimedia publishing company that creates device- and platform-agnostic multimedia content for a variety of public and private companies across all publishing genres. StoryRiver Media develops vibrant and dynamic multimedia content for companies that helps expand their brand and reputation at the leading edge of the crafts and arts of digital story-telling. The company also creates products that achieve new educational and persuasive power through the deployment of all possible media, in whatever combination is best suited to the scope and purpose of the material at hand.

    Prior to founding StoryRiver Media, I was the editor-in-chief at FLYP, an online multimedia publication. This position came after a 30-year career in print, during which I was the managing editor of  TimeLife, and People magazines. At each of them, I established several new online and multimedia ventures, including a television show and books program at People; network specials and custom publishing at Life; and at Time a classroom edition and Time.com, the first newsmagazine online.