Tag Archives: Arianna Huffington

Pity the Fool: The Decline and Fall of Disgraced Cartoonist Bill Day

As his colleagues shifted in their seats in awkward disgust, disgraced former Memphis Commercial Appeal editorial cartoonist Bill Day delivered a smarmy, tacky 15-minute filibuster masquerading as a defense of plagiarism.

The arena-like setting was a conference room at this year’s Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention, held in Salt Lake City. Earlier this year, Day, a 60-year-old artist whose career spans three decades at several papers, including the Detroit News, was accused of one count of plagiarism – scraping an illustrator’s rendition of an automatic weapon from the Internet, removing his signature and copyright information, adding words and additional artwork, and presenting it as his own without the customary attribution or permission from the original artist. (He claimed that he pulled the cartoon after being made aware that there was a problem, and that no newspapers ran it. In fact, it went out to hundreds of papers.) Even more serious in the jaundiced eyes of cartoonists attending the convention this year, a Tumblr blog collected at least 160 discrete sets of repurposed cartoons drawn by Day himself, totaling nearly 1000 pieces. In these recycled, or “self-plagiarized” cases, Day created a “new” cartoon by altering a few details of a previous work and issuing it as new.

Barely behind the scenes in all this was Daryl Cagle, formerly a cartoonist for the Honolulu Star Bulletin, and now sort of an Arianna Huffington of comics aggregation and syndication. Cagle distributes Day’s work. When the scandal broke, rather than fire Day – something that I had to do to two of my colleagues when I was a syndicate executive – Cagle vigorously defended his actions, bragging that he was “amused” and did the same thing himself, and encouraged other cartoonists to follow their example as a way to cut corners and meet deadlines. Said encouragement took the form of posts to Cagle’s influential blog, keeping Day on board the syndicate, dissembling on his behalf, doing even more outrageous things himself, and organizing an Indiegogo fundraising campaign on Day’s behalf – the only such campaign conducted on behalf of any editorial cartoonist on Cagle’s roster – that raised $42,000 from fans and sympathetic readers who believed Cagle’s videotaped plea that one of America’s best editorial cartoonists was in danger of becoming homeless. (I was one of them. I contributed $100.)

Despite Cagle’s best efforts to muddy the waters and rally his own cartoonists, many cartoonists disapproved of what Day had done, and more so of his brazen, unrepentant attitude. Two days before the convention, in fact, he sent out yet another cartoon – an obit cartoon of the not-dead-yet Nelson Mandela – that appears to have been repurposed.

Plagiarism, conflict of interest, cartoon repurposing and other ethical violations have been a long-standing problem in the field. When I was president of the Association between 2008 and 2009, I managed to push through the first ethics-related bylaw in the 50-year history of the Association: a proviso that permits the Board of Directors to expel a member it determines to have committed plagiarism. This didn’t go far enough: it didn’t cover nonmembers like Day, for example. But it was a start.

Many cartoonists seemed to believe that calling out fellow artists for ethical lapses would turn us into a sort of “cartoon police,” ultimately resulting in internecine conflict that would terror us apart. Some of us, mainly me and my friend Matt Bors, replied that bad behavior by a few members of a profession is a bigger threat, since it tarnishes the entire field by association, especially when the main professional Association of that field remain silent, and thus guilty of tacit consent.

This year’s convention organizers decided to address the issue by holding a town hall forum on plagiarism, recycling, etc. with the centerpiece being a proposed AAEC Code of Ethics drafted by myself and Bors. Our proposal spans a full range of lapses, from brazen plagiarism – tracing and Photoshopping other people’s work, through the kind of thing that Bill Day does, all the way to stealing other people’s ideas and jokes.

A few weeks before the convention, Bill Day expressed an interest in attending in order to defend himself. He believed himself completely guiltless and thought that most of us would come around to his way of thinking if we heard from him in person. It should be noted that he had already published at least two blog entries in which he accused the Association of being composed of a pit of snakes – he literally drew this – and attributed his actions to a busy schedule holding down multiple jobs while trying to support his family. Oh, and not to be forgotten: he also blamed the death of his brother and even his – I swear this is true – his cat. He didn’t make a direct link saying that he had plagiarized and recycled due to these events, or even because he was simply too busy to do good original work, but the line of argument was clear to all.

I didn’t think it was a good idea for him to come to the convention. And I will also confess to being more than a little frightened. He lives in Tennessee, a state with liberal gun laws. And I was by far his most strident critic.

In the event, he requested time to speak on the first day of the convention, Thursday. But when the scheduled time rolled around, he was nowhere to be found. He told the incoming president that the crowd wasn’t big enough. However, everyone was there. What did he want us to do, get people off the street? He rescheduled for Friday. It was supposed to take place over breakfast, but instead of Day pleading his case, there he was, chowing down on our food – food he didn’t even pay for, since he wasn’t registered for the convention and isn’t a member anymore. Again, he wimped out.

Annoyed, I hit the social networks, letting the world know that this manipulative plagiarist had wussed out not once, but twice, distracting us from important business and wasting everyone’s time. I heard from several colleagues, urging me to take down my posts lest the supposedly emotionally unstable Day finally be pushed over the edge and commit suicide. Apparently, the night before at a local bar, he had been talking about offing himself. I replied that, since it is evident that he doesn’t usually do what he says, there was nothing to worry about.

At this writing, he is still alive and still spending his $42,000.

Finally, on Saturday morning, Bill decided to grace the microphone with his presence. Following an engaging presentation on the history of editorial cartoon plagiarism in the United States by Joe Wos – did you know that the famous Paul Revere cartoon of the Boston massacre was brazenly plagiarized, and that he was called out and pretty much threatened with a duel over it? – and an overview of the proposed code of ethics, Bill took the stage. Incoming president Mark Fiore warned him that he would be limited to a strict 15 minutes, as we were getting started late and we had not planned for him to speak at this time. Everyone was quiet and respectful. No rolling eyes. We just sat and watched.

It was an epic act of self-immolation.

For 13 minutes, Bill Day revisited how he first got into cartooning. About his childhood in the segregated Deep South, how a friend was murdered in a racial bias incident. Then he seemed to get obsessed over accusations that his plagiarism stemmed from laziness. “They call me the lazy cartoonist,” he kept saying. He talked about how he waited until the age of 34 to land his first staff cartooning job, apparently something he still feels bitter about. (I turn 50 this year, and have never gotten one.) He held up a photograph of a box-sorting facility where he had worked in Memphis, for FedEx, and bitterly complained about here he was, at age 60, sorting boxes rather than drawing cartoons. (Many of the cartoonists in the room have performed manual labor, including yours truly.) He pointed out that he volunteers, reading to children in underprivileged areas, and held up a photograph of himself with African-American children. You could almost hear an audible gasp of disgust from the audience at this I-have-black-friends gambit. Not to mention, if he’s too busy to draw original work, why does he have time to volunteer anywhere? He didn’t say it, but the implication was clear – struggling to make ends meet after getting laid off by the Commercial Appeal prompted him to cut corners as a cartoonist. But if that was the case, why not just apologize and promise not to do it again? Especially now that he has a cool $42,000 to live off of for at least the next year?

As I watched Day ramble, I kept thinking that I could have gotten him off the hook in three minutes flat. All he needed to say was that other cartoonists, like John Sherffius, have used copyrighted and trademarked material as important components of their cartoons, and that he didn’t know it was wrong to do so. That he only did it once. That he wouldn’t do it again. And that if any royalties came in, if the cartoon ran anywhere, he would send them to the original copyright holder. As for the repurposed cartoons, he could have said – quite credibly – that he wasn’t the only guy who did this sort of thing. (Mike Ramirez comes to mind.) That it’s his work to recopy, he owns the copyrights. That you can’t punish someone retroactively. If the association decides to enact a rule against this sort of behavior going forward, he would abide by it, but until then, he was guilty of nothing more than cutting corners. Frankly, that would have done the job. But he couldn’t. Like the telltale heart in the Edgar Allen Poe story, his guilty conscience wouldn’t let him. He knew he was corrupt. So he had to make lame excuses.

He brought up his dead brother. And his dead cat. Again.

By the way, it turns out that it wasn’t a dead brother at all. I found out that afternoon that it was really a cousin. I bet he didn’t have a cat either.

Finally, at Minute 13, he began to address the issue of the plagiarized cartoon. But he talked so slowly that, even though Mark Fiore let him run on an extra five minutes, he didn’t get anywhere. The issue remained as opaque, and undefended, as ever. It was hard to watch: sad, infuriating, and ultimately the very definition of pathetic.

Bill left the room so that we could consider the code of ethics.

Mostly, cartoonists expressed the usual doubts. In particular, they were concerned about the strong enforcement provisions that I had included, directing the Association, when it becomes aware of ethical misbehavior, to issue public statements about them and to notify employers. Paul Fell said that we were in danger of fighting while we were rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and in the end there might only be three of us left. Patrick Henry-like, I exclaimed, “Better three with integrity than 300 without!”

Some anti-Code cartoonists pointed out that there’s a gray area when it comes to defining plagiarism. Bors countered this by saying that that shouldn’t be an excuse to throw up our hands and not take any action at all.

Steve Kelley, until recently the cartoonist for the New Orleans Times Picayune and now the co-creator of “Dustin,” conceded that ethics has become a serious issue yet characteristically called for a free market solution: with the Internet, he said, you can always count on a blogger to reveal these things, and then the cartoonist in question is shamed and loses his job. I think that this is when the vibe in the room started to shift. “Look at Bill Day!” I said. “He’s a plagiarist. His employer enables him. In fact, thanks to his employer, who also recycles cartoons without letting editors know, he got a $42,000 raise – the biggest raise in American editorial cartooning! No one else in this room got a raise like that. Hell, many people in this room don’t even make that much.”

One of the big problems has been that cartoonists guilty of plagiarism have worked for years for newspapers and syndicates that remained unaware of their actions. So In extreme cases, I think it’s important for the Association to inform them. We can’t fire anyone, nor should we want to, but if an employer wants to keep a plagiarist on board – like Daryl Cagle is currently doing – they should make that decision with their eyes open. I drew an analogy with the American Medical Association, that if the AMA became aware that one of their members, or any doctor, is a quack, his patients and employers have the right to know. Otherwise, we would be complicit. This is not without precedent. Past presidents of the Association have notified cartoonists’ employers.

It would be no small stretch to say that Matt Bors and I were the only two people in the room arguing in favor of putting the Code of Ethics on a ballot for consideration by the membership. And yet we carried the argument. Although it felt lonely at the time, I have to say that there is no better place to be than in a group of friends and colleagues who respect you enough to change their minds if you are able to make a strong argument against their previously long-held convictions. I am grateful for their open-mindedness and willingness to listen.

As we prepared for this vote, Daryl Cagle moved that all discussion cease. That we never discuss the topic of ethics at all. That we not vote on whether or not to have such a code. That we not vote on whether or not to put a code on the ballot for the membership to consider. That we just simply stop talking about it. “This will destroy the Association. All this backstabbing,” he said, visibly furious. If English has any meaning, of course, this is the very opposite of backstabbing. This is all out in the open. Outgoing president Matt Wuerker, presiding over the business meeting, asked if there was a second to Daryl’s motion. There wasn’t. Crickets. Not even his syndicate cartoonists were willing to contribute to such a brazenly anti-democratic attempt to squash the discussion. And so, the ballot goes out to the nation’s editorial cartoonists later this year. They will get to decide whether plagiarism, recycling, conflicts of interest and the like should be something that the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists take a public stance against.

Every other journalistic organization does.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Cash In

Why Sheryl Sandberg is Evil

Sheryl Sandberg is the author of a new book that you’ve heard of if you’re connected enough to be reading this, promoted by one of those PR tsunamis that publishers inflict upon the public every year or two in hopes of recouping six- or seven-figure advances: Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

     She is also the chief operating officer of Facebook.

“Lean In,” we are told, is More Than Just a Book. It is a social movement. A way of life.

A happening.

“She is someone who works at Facebook,” moons Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic. “Who leads Facebook. Who helped invent the Facebook we know today. Hers is a Facebook feminism.”

Yuck.

Comparing herself to Betty “The Feminine Mystique” Friedan, Sandberg wants her book to inspire “Lean In Circles” where women would meet to plot how to climb the corporate ladder and achieve gender parity in the boardroom. At their creepy gatherings, women will learn how to act more boldly, aggressively – more like men. Her idea of how men act, anyway.

Franke-Ruta again: “Sandberg is an unapologetic capitalist and senior manager who began her career in Washington, DC. She says she’s interested in seeing more women in leadership posts in corporate America and in the highest ranks of government. That means more women at the top, more women in positions of power, and more women who have the training and experience to lead within institutions actually getting a shot at doing – or daring to do – it.”

Visions of armies of women in beige blouses and dark safe corporate jackets marching through the streets of suburban office parks, chanting quotes from and waving copies of Sandberg’s manifesto, fill her dreams.

I think Sandberg is one of the most insufferable fools in the world of business. Which is saying something. But I don’t hate her for the same reasons as people like Maureen Dowd.

In the New York Times, columnist Dowd sums up Sandberg as a “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots.” Such Dowdian snark, though cruel, is fair. Sandberg, after all, uttered a comment whose revealing immodesty would make Donald Trump blush: “I always thought I would run a social movement.”

Memo to SS: You don’t “run” a social movement. Lead it, maybe. If you’re lucky.

The Paper of Record asks the six- or seven-figure question:

“Even her advisers acknowledge the awkwardness of a woman with double Harvard degrees, dual stock riches (from Facebook and Google, where she also worked), a 9,000-square-foot house and a small army of household help urging less fortunate women to look inward and work harder. Will more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care, embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and Oprah Winfrey?”

Oh, and her husband quit his job to mind the homestead. That’s convenient.

Still, Dowd et al’s argument that Sandberg’s wealth denies her the standing to issue advice to working women leaves me cold. It doesn’t matter who or what she is; either her ideas are smart and/or good for society or they’re not. A doctor who tells you to diet and exercise is giving you good advice even if she’s fat and smokes. Hell, I’m a dude yet I think I know better than Sandberg what’s better for women. For all I know, and many women agree, she gives good advice to ambitious women trying to climb the corporate ladder.

What grates about Sandberg, I think, is less the fact that a person born at mile 25 thinks she won the marathon because she worked so hard, than her failed attempt to elevate a self-help book to the level of politics.

Sandberg doesn’t know about politics. She doesn’t even know about identity politics.

Politics – debate and discussion about how we should live our lives and how to solve our problems after we have identified them – is hard. Very few people – including most politicians and elected officials – undertake the lifetime of thinking and research, or possess the magic of inspiration, it takes to come up with a transformative vision for an alternative future. The U.S. is tragically devoid of brilliant public intellectuals – our best and brightest political minds are ruthlessly censored and marginalized.

That’s real politics.

Then there’s identity politics.

Identity politics, the struggle by women, gays, ethnic minorities and so on against their privileged rivals in the economy and society, is a dead end. It’s tokenism. At best, movements based on identity politics grant special privileges to a tiny subset of traditionally oppressed demographic groups. Meanwhile, the overall hierarchical class structure remains intact.

It was moving, for example, to watch African-Americans celebrate the election of Barack Obama. Four and a half years later, however, not only can we see that the status of blacks remains the same as 2008 – harassed, arrested, shot and imprisoned at disproportionately high rates, discriminated against in the workplace, deprived of access to a high-quality education, their lifespans shortened by disease and poverty – Obama himself, supposed symbol of progress, doesn’t even talk about racial problems, much less try to fix them.

Everyone’s goal ought to be to liberate humanity from oppression. Identity politics distract from this struggle. They liberate no one.

What Sandberg advocates is even less worthwhile than identity politics.

Sandberg wants rat-race politics. Men, she argues, act like a bunch of testosterone-fueled jerks at work. She wants women to beat them at their own game.

“When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women,” writes Sandberg. “When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less…The solution is making sure everyone is aware of the penalty women pay for success. Recently at Facebook, a manager received feedback that a woman who reported to him was ‘too aggressive.’ Before including this in her review, he decided to dig deeper. He went back to the people who gave the feedback and asked what aggressive actions she had taken. After they answered, he asked point-blank, ‘If a man had done those same things, would you have considered him too aggressive?’ They each said no. By showing both men and women how female colleagues are held to different standards, we can start changing attitudes today.”

Man, I sure wouldn’t want to work at Facebook. It’s a lot more fun to work in an organization where no one – men or women – comes on too strong. Where people work as a team.

“Lean In” fails because Sandberg wants to accelerate the “race to the bottom” behavior that has become standard in American business and politics. She is not the solution to a problem.

She is a problem.

What we need to do is create a society in which everyone – men and women, gays and straights, whites and blacks, and so on – enjoys equal access to the good things in life. Whether like me you have concluded that capitalism, the idea that we are all created unequal, is evil and irredeemable, or you’d prefer to reform the system to make it more humane, replacing male assholes with female assholes gets us nowhere.

Rather than tell American women (or men) what to do, Sandberg would do better to consider her own role in making the United States a worse place to live.

She’s worse than a garden-variety “an unapologetic capitalist.” The virtual antithesis of Google’s “don’t be evil,” the company where she works has become one of the most culturally and economically destructive businesses in America by monetizing the death of a nation’s right to privacy. (This is worth, by one calculation, about $130 per user.) Facebook is so unaccountable that it doesn’t even provide a phone number for customer service. Now it’s emulating the reprehensible Arianna Huffington, attempting to accelerate the aggregation of what’s left of journalism outlets so essential to the health of civic life and democracy with its latest redesign of its News Feed.

Facebook is the face of the New Economy. It sucks $5 billion a year out of the U.S. economy, yet it puts almost nothing back in. It employs fewer than 4,000 Americans. (By way of comparison, GM—which generates less than twice as much as Facebook—employs more than 200,000 workers.)

Even if Sandberg is successful with her Lean In Circles, she will have accomplished the same thing as Facebook. She will have made a tiny privileged of elites richer—and 99% of America poorer.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: How I’d Spend My Powerball Winnings

Musings of a Wannabe Newspaper Warlord

Asked how they’d spend the $293.7 million they won in November’s record Powerball lottery, a Missouri couple told reporters they planned to buy a Camaro. They plan to travel to China. They might adopt a second daughter. They’ll up their grandkids’ college tuition. OK, so that leaves $293.6 million.

They obviously have absolutely no idea how much money $293.7 million is.

Mark and Cindy Hill seem like an average couple in their early 50s. Working class. Salt of the earth.

But man, what a waste of money to give all that loot to them! $200,000 would have been more than enough to change their lives. Not really knowing what to do with such a massive sum, the Hills will likely waste most of it on America’s self-perpetuating charity industry, which says that spending up to 35% of donor money on six-figure executive salaries and other luxuries is perfectly acceptable.

It is, of course, the Hills’ quarter-billion-plus to spend/squander. Not mine. I get it; I grew up under capitalism.

Let’s get something straight. I’m not jealous. I can’t envy the Hills because there is no way I could have won. This is because I don’t buy tickets. Whether I play or not, I figure the odds of winning are basically the same.

However, I do know how I’d spend their money.

Like the Hills, I’m a Midwest boy without fancy tastes. I’d pay off my mortgage and credit cards. My mom loves the beach; I’d buy her a house over the ocean. My car is eight years old; I’d buy one of those new Challengers.

Which would leave me $293.4 million.

Lottery winners always talk about helping their families. What about their friends? I have friends whose lives would be instantly transformed by $5 million checks. Brilliant cartoonists who could quit grueling day jobs and focus on developing their careers. Ailing writers who could finally get medical care for chronic conditions. Aspiring entrepreneurs who could capitalize their great ideas. People who are stressed out because work is scarce or nonexistent and are having trouble making ends meet. I have a couple dozen of friends like that. Helping them out would cost me about $100 million. Money well spent.

I want to help transform the media. That’s my big dream. Unfortunately, I will never realize it because I don’t have access to the kind of capital necessary.

The disintegration of print newspapers and the failure/refusal of digital media to deeply invest in serious journalism and smart commentary and satire is making Americans stupider, allowing evil corporations and corrupt, lazy politicians to thrive.

Warren Buffett is a smart man, picking up newspapers at rock-bottom prices. Personally, I’d buy The Los Angeles Times now that its parent, the Tribune Company, has emerged from bankruptcy. Experts guesstimate you could pick the Times for $185 million or less.

(Full disclosure: I draw cartoons for the Times.)

Aside from the fun of running a major metropolitan daily newspaper—12 pages of full-color comics!  Hire a kick-ass investigative reporter to infiltrate government for a year or two and then cough up all the dirty secrets! Create an editorial page that runs no one to the right of Mao Tse-Tung!—I think the Times would be a fab investment.

People say newspapers are dying. Specific companies are hurting, many are dying, but the dead tree form is here to stay. They said radio was dead after TV came along, but radio is bigger today than ever. TV killed old-timey radio—plays, variety shows. New formats—album-oriented rock, news talk—emerged. Old-fashioned fat lazy newspapers basically minting money from gigantic office towers in the centers of major cities are on the ropes, but as long as print can do something that digital can’t, it will survive and thrive. TV can’t replace radio because you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) watch TV while you drive. Similarly, an iPad or a Kindle can’t replace a print newspaper’s awesome disposability, portability and—an advantage that people are just starting to become aware of—memory retention.

Print magazines and newspapers will get their groove back when they understand what they are for. The Internet is for short updates. The Web and apps tell you what happened and who won the game. Print is for long-form analysis. Print tells you why you should care about what happened, walks you through how the game was won and how the season is shaping up.

We need serious analysis. But no one wants to read 15,000 words on a smartphone.

These days, the clueless barons of print are screwing up big time; Tina Brown just closed Newsweek after using the glossy to try to out-Internet the Internet with full-page photographs, vacuous “charticles,” and more lists than you can shake a Daily Beast at. The publications that are doing okay are those that are embracing in-depth feature stories, like the Economist and Vanity Fair. Publishers are going to figure out that that the destiny of print is more, longer, smarter, edgier content.

The future of newspapers in the United States will look a lot like Europe, where nations have a few big national newspapers, each of which serves a particular political orientation or interest, like sports or finance, and individual communities are served by hyperlocal outlets and, possibly, regional ones that would go to, for example, people in the Southwest.

We already have a few big national newspapers. USA Today was first, but it lost its way before it found one. The New York Times is our big national paper of news and high culture. The Wall Street Journal, of course, is the national paper of finance. (Under Rupert Murdoch, the Journal is muscling in on the Times’s territory.) The Washington Post should be the big national political paper, but its management doesn’t get it, so there’s an opening there. Anyway, there should be a big national newspaper focused on entertainment—video games, film, music, I’d also include books—and the logical candidate is the Los Angeles Times. They have the contacts, the location, and the brand recognition to pull it off. What they need is for someone to point them in the right direction.

Imagine if it worked! Not only would you make a killing, you’d establish a template to revive American journalism. Don’t forget, over 90% of all news stories originate in newspapers.

Which would leave me with about $8 million. Call me the man who would be king minus the panache of Sean Connery, but the salary of a soldier in the Afghan national army is about $2000 a year. The Taliban pay closer to $4000. So I could hire 2000 badass Afghan mercenaries for a year for my spare Powerball change and take over a province or two after the U.S. pullout and the civil war heats up. I’m not exactly sure whom we’d fight. Maybe Turkmenistan because, well, why not? Perhaps we’d just sit in the Hindu Kush and shoot at pictures of Arianna Huffington while reading back issues of the Los Angeles Times. I’ve always wanted to test-fire an RPG.

I may never win a Pulitzer, but no one can ever take having been a cartoonist-columnist-newspaper-baron-warlord away from you.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Pirate This Book

Borders Goes Bankrupt. Will Books Survive?

Borders Books and Music, which once employed 30,000 workers at more than 600 stores, is bankrupt. Those numbers have been halved. And even after these massive cuts, analysts say, Borders is probably doomed.

The next time you walk past the empty ghost store where your local Borders used to be, you may ask yourself: Are we becoming a post-literate society?

Everywhere you look the printed word is under economic siege. Despite a 20 percent increase in demand in recent years, libraries are laying off, closing branches and reducing hours. Newsweek, one of the most venerable titles in magazine history, was recently sold for a buck (plus a promise to assume tens of millions in debt). Twitter is priced at $3.7 billion, nearly twice the public enterprise value of The New York Times ($2.03 billion).

The key word, of course, is the one in front of the word “word”: “printed.” We are reading more than ever. Just not in print.

According to a fascinating new study conducted by the University of Southern California, 94 percent of all data is now stored in digital form. (That ticked up a point as you were reading this.) Thanks to the Internet and various gadgets we read about 4.3 times more words each day than we did 25 years ago.

The more words we read, however, the less we want to pay the people who write them. The Times of London lost 90 percent of its online readership after it put its website behind a $4-a-week pay wall.

Why does this matter? Quality. The Huffington Post, recently sold to America Online for $315 million, points to a possible future in which the rewards go to ruthless aggregators who cater to Google common search phrases with slideshows about kittens and Lindsey Lohan. They rely on free blogs for most of their content. We’re getting exactly what they pay for: crap.

If you think journalism is bad now, it’s going to get even worse. The message is as loud and brassy as Arianna: real journalism doesn’t pay. Inevitably the best and brightest are gravitating to other fields.

Another unintended consequence of the digital revolution is lower memory retention. I recall significantly more of what I read in print than online; I’ve found the same to be true of my friends.

Norwegian researcher Anne Mangen told Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam about a paper she published in The Journal of Research in Reading. Mangen believes that we remember more of what we read in print than on a computer screen. This additional retention is due to variables that serve as unconscious memnonic devices: fonts, position of text, images, paper texture, etc.

“The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions—clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens, or scrolling with keys or on touch pads— take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book, or the mobile phone,” argues Mangen. “Materiality matters…One main effect of the intangibility of the digital text is that of making us read in a shallower, less focused way.”

My personal experience convinces me that there is a difference. On the Kindle, everything looks and feels the same. When I read the Times on newsprint, part of what helps me remember a story is the ad that ran next to it and the photo underneath. Sure, Kindle readers remember much of what they read. But not as much as old-fashioned bookworms.

It is hard to quantify the value of a country’s intellectual life. But as Americans read more and more, less of it printed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are losing something precious and irreplaceable.

So what’s the solution? European booksellers, publishers and newspapers receive generous government subsidies. Here in the U.S., where pseudo-free markets are a national religion, the feds bail out billionaire bankers, not bookstores.

In order to successfully compete with online sales and e-books, brick-and-mortar retailers will have to learn the lesson of Borders: middle of the road equals mediocre.

Beginning at least ten years ago Borders buyers began eschewing risks. Buying into the “blockbuster mentality” of stocking stacks of sure-thing bestsellers, they stocked fewer books by midlist authors—profitable, but not bestselling, titles. Browsers found fewer surprises at Borders. As for top-selling books, they’re cheaper at Costco and on Amazon.

Barnes and Noble has been struggling too, but their strategy seems to stand a better chance than Borders. B&N’s inventory is wide as well as deep. The fronts of their stores feel “curated,” the way good independent stores bring in customers with the promise of discovery and serendipity. If consumers want something obscure, odds are there’s a copy or two in the back, spine out.

It’s a frightening thought: America’s intellectual future may depend on the fate of a superstore.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL

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