Hope I die before I get old | Bleader

Hope I die before I get old

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Lewis Lazare, who reviews ads, passes on vicious industry gossip, and wears a bowtie for a living, thinks the Web is making America stupid. He's afraid that this will cripple the industry's ability to sell shit to people (which is not, per the first link, necessarily bad to do).

No, seriously, check this out:

"The Dumbest Generation paints a portrait of young Americans who are overwhelmingly self-absorbed and narcissistic. Can such a generation of young people under 30 -- and no doubt generations that will follow -- be expected to have the intellectual wherewithal to create advertising that is more than a collection of juvenile punch lines?"

Well, I am under 30. And I am overwhelmingly self-absorbed, narcissistic, and juvenile. So he's got me dead to rights there. But, being narcissistic, I also don't think I lack the intellectual wherewithal to challenge Lazare:

1) [makes universal gesture for onanism]

2) I thought the surest route to success in advertising was having a sense of the language, aesthetics, and mores of particular markets and being able to craft consciously or subconsciously appealing messages that work within a particular environment.

3) I think 1) is self-evident, but please assume 2) is true for the moment. I'd think it would follow, then, that not knowing what the fuck you're talking about would be, whether you create advertising or cover it, tantamount to career suicide.

4) Which would be... what's the word... dumb. Unless you wanted to get out of covering advertising. Is this a cry for help?

5) By which I mean advertising isn't an industry that rewards voluntary ignorance of popular media. If you want to be a classical Latin scholar, you're within your rights to ignore Facebook etc. for as long as you want. If you write about advertising for a living, you're kind of obligated to get over yourself if you want to have the first clue about the industry that you're professionally required to understand, especially since online advertising is pretty much the future and the question of whether that embryonic market will eventually be able to support media as we know it is basically the most profound question for anyone in the field, whether he or she is in sales, editorial, or production.

6) And while you're also within your rights to feel it beneath you, I don't recommend it. It makes your job harder. 

7) Really, I'm not kidding: if online media dollars can't sustain anything below the level of international publications, I'm out of a job forever. Online advertising is definitely growing, but no one knows if the increase in that market will make up for the decrease in print advertising, and if it does, whether the shift will happen in time to keep media companies stable during the market transition. (I'm simplifying a great deal and probably exaggerating too, but I think that's a reasonable thumbnail of the crisis.) It is the most important story in advertising. I'm sure that Sam Zell has some pungent thoughts on this, if he has time to think of it while he's keeping TribCo from defaulting.

8) Just as Steve Rhodes describes himself, I grew up with print in my veins, despite being one of the sub-30 sub-humans Lazare ridicules. My grandfather, a pressman, taught me to read with the Lynchburg News & Advance. I wrote my first newspaper op-ed at 14. I've done reporting, commentary, layout, design, and even worked (briefly) in the ad department, all on a professional level.

And I grew up with the Internet. I remember Gopher. I remember when NCSA Mosaic came out. I used Lynx on a college-network dialup. I used Prodigy.

And I've read plenty of apocalyptic media analysis--Benjamin, George W.S. Trow, McLuhan. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to put the Fear in me at this point.

And I think the Web is just a good thing. There's no way around it. Previously the degree to which you were informed rose geometrically with your ability and willingness to purchase print products. You've got your local paper, magazines, books, industry publications--it got expensive. I won't pretend that the barrier to entry with the Web is not substantial, but once you're there, you're presented with a vast amount of information for little to no extra investment. Newspapers, magazines, books, music, lectures, from next door to around the world.

It's also lowered the barrier to entry for disseminating information, allowing specialists to write directly to other specialists, or to the educated layman, without having to write down to the level (not to mention the length) that mass-market publications require.

If you think about it, it's really quite remarkable in hindsight how much the print monopoly narrows what people know about the world. Having gone from print-informed to Web-informed over the years, it's really quite stunning how much I was missing.

9) Of course, the lowered barriers mean there's a lot more dumb stuff out there and many more consumers to consume it. But the dumb will always be with us. The Web isn't going to fix that, but in my observation it hasn't made things worse, and one study of UIC students (college students? vapid? really?) removed from any historical context (such as the continued growth of mass higher education; not everyone gets to go to Dartmouth and learn to tie a bowtie) hasn't changed my mind.

Some people are born dumb; some have it forced upon them; some people, like Lewis Lazare, choose dumbness. As I read in a book once, so it goes.

There are legitimate concerns--for me, I'm greatly concerned about the future of narrative non-fiction, for whatever that's worth (to me, a lot). Reading words on a giant colored lightbulb isn't conducive to lengthy works. We may need to keep printing books for awhile and just hoping people read them. Or we might have just come to the end and it will go the way of epic poetry, a venerable and timeless form that lots of people still read, voluntarily or not, but that doesn't get made anymore.

10) The Web isn't going away. (We're the future, Lewis, your future.) It's hard but I'm trying to grow the dignity to adapt it for our better angels. That, and I've got mouths to feed. Anything can be an instrument, etc.

Update: How the kids read the news, for future reference:

Every so often, an older and wiser colleague or interlocutor will ask, sighing, if I read newspapers. And I do. Sort of. I scan newspapers. But increasingly, I read things that take newspaper content and repackage it in more useful formats (blog posts, op-eds, think tank reports, quick news hits, summaries, etc). I recently had drinks with an editor of a major political magazine who was telling me about his learning curve. "It took me about 10 years to really learn how to read a newspaper article," he said. "But now I can zip through the paper, really getting the relevant facts."

You hear this a lot in DC, folks bragging that they really know how to "read" a newspaper. It's a tremendous indictment of the way newspapers are written, that you need to train yourself to correctly understand them. The information exists, of course, but it needs to be extracted and re-processed.

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