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Carta do Editor: discurso de William Powers à Associação Mundial de Jornais (em inglês)

25/10/2008 - 15h23min
Na Carta do Editor deste domingo, Ricardo Stefanelli comenta a fala de William Powers, jornalista americano, colunista de mídia da revista The Nation e autor de Hamlet's Blackberry, durante a 11ª Conferência da Associação Mundial de Jornais, em Amsterdã. Confira abaixo a íntegra do discurso, em inglês:

William Powers speech to the World Association of Newspapers

Amsterdam - October 16, 2008

Thank you. I'm delighted to be here, as a former newspaper writer, a lifelong newspaper lover, and a firm believer that the world needs - desperately needs - what newspapers do.

I was invited to join you today to talk about whether newspapers will be able to continue doing what they do, not just next month or next year but far out into the future.

Last year, Harvard University published an essay of mine in which I examined the widely held belief that newspapers are dying. The essay is called Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal.

I wrote it as a fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, a wonderful place where scholars, journalists and others gather to think, talk and write about the role of the press in a free society.

Hamlet's Blackberry is a little different from other studies of the newspaper industry's problems. It's not about circulation or ad revenues. And it's not really about journalism. In fact, strictly speaking, it isn't about newspapers. It's about the material that newspapers are printed on: Paper.

It seems to me that the question of whether newspapers have a future is related, in a very deep way, to whether paper itself has a future. That is essentially what I argue in Hamlet's Blackberry.

As its subtitle suggests, I concluded that paper does have a future - a long one. Whether newspapers will be included in that future is a separate question, and I'll get to that in a few minutes.

First, by way of background, I want to tell you that I'm surprised to be standing here talking to you about Hamlet's Blackberry. I'm surprised whenever I receive a Google Alert or an email telling me that somebody somewhere has written a newspaper or magazine article about my essay, or lectured or blogged about. it. This happens frequently, even today, a year after its publication. I'm surprised that almost immediately after the essay appeared on the internet, I started hearing from book publishers who wanted me to write a book based on it. Earlier this year I signed up to write such a book. I'm working on it now and will be finished in a few months.

When I was writing Hamlet's Blackberry, I didn't expect any of this would happen. In all honesty, I didn't expect anyone would read the thing, other than maybe my wife, my parents and my colleagues at Harvard. It's very long - it runs to about 75 pages with over 100 footnotes - and we supposedly live in a time of short attention spans.

Yet for some reason quite a few people have been reading it, and it's sort of taken on a life of its own.

Let me tell you how I got into this subject. It was the spring of 2006 and I was sitting in my office one day working on a column. I write about the world of news and information. I'm particularly interested in the ways that new media technologies are changing politics, society, and everyday life.

One topic I've written about often in recent years is the future of newspapers. As you know, there's a widely held belief out there in the world that newspapers - the physical kind that you can hold in your hand - are headed for extinction.

According to this view, the only people who care about whether hard-copy newspapers survive are older people with a nostalgic attachment to the physical medium, those wonderfully flexible pages you can fold and snap and tuck under your arm.

On some level, I had always assumed this pessimistic take on hard-copy newspapers was basically correct. I love hard-copy newspapers, but in the age of the internet, I saw no logical reason why they should survive.

I should say here that I am a person who likes and is completely comfortable with digital technology. I was born in the 1960s. I began using personal computers as a college student in the 1980s. and I never looked back. When I arrived at my first journalism job at The Washington Post in 1988, the newsroom was completely computerized, and I thought that was great. I felt no nostalgia for the old world of typewriters and clicking wire machines.

As digital technology advanced and the internet was born, I embraced the new medium. I enjoyed reading on it and I enjoyed writing for it.

At the same time, I must confess that all along there was something I still liked about sitting down in the morning with a physical newspaper. I wrote a few columns trying to figure out what that something was, but I never got to the bottom of it.

It's hard to describe, the feeling I'm talking about, in part because it seems to be just a feeling, rather than a logical idea that I can defend. Newspapers are about delivering words and images, after all, and the words and images in a physical newspaper are basically the same as the ones on the Web version of that paper. Who cares how you absorb the content, as long you absorb it?

So on that spring day in 2006, I got a phone call from Harvard's Shorenstein Center asking if I was interested in spending a semester there on a fellowship. They would give me an office, a research assistant and access to all of the university's rich resources. I just had to come up with a topic that I would like to study for those four months, and write an essay about.

I didn't have to think long. I wanted to figure out what it was that drawing me back to the hard-copy newspaper each morning. Why, despite my avid enjoyment of digital technologies, I still had this curious attachment to the old-fashioned, stodgy, unglamorous, seemingly unremarkable material that is paper.

If paper really is dying, I wanted to know if there's anything about it that we'll miss when it's gone.

The first thing I did was study where paper came from - who invented it, how it caught on and spread across the world. When it first appeared in China two thousand years ago, paper was an amazing new gizmo, the iPod of its day. In the year 751 A.D. the Chinese lost an important military battle to the Turks. Some Chinese soldiers were taken prisoner, and their captors forced them to reveal how paper was made. At that time, you might say paper was a high-grade industrial secret. From Turkey, papermaking spread west to Europe, where it arrived around the year 1,000. The rest is history, as they say - and what a history it is.

Paper is the most successful communications innovation of the last 2000 years, the one that has lasted the longest and had the profoundest effect on civilization. Without the technology that is paper, there would be no civilization. Yet most people don't even think of paper as a technology.

Indeed, as you move through the history of paper, and you reach the middle of the twentieth century, something curious happens. Computers are invented and begin to catch on, first in business and eventually all throughout society. And as this new technology spreads, people begin predicting that it will soon make paper obsolete. Beginning in the 1960s, it gradually becomes conventional wisdom that in the future, there will be no need for paper. Over the years, countless books and articles were published predicting that The Paperless Society was just around the corner.

They all got it wrong, of course. Paper not only persisted into the age of the computer, it thrived. The more computers and fax machines and other high-tech tools we created, the more paper we used. One study conducted in the 1990s found that when email arrived in offices, paper consumption increased by an average of 40 percent.

How did so many get it so wrong?

It's fairly simple. All those confident predictions that paper would disappear were rooted in the widely held belief that new technologies inevitably kill off older ones, much as the automobile killed off the buggy whip.

In fact, this is not always the case. Older technologies often survive the introduction of newer ones. This happens when the old technologies perform useful functions that the new devices can't match.

One great example is the hinged door. Watch a science-fiction movie some time, and pay close attention. You'll notice that the houses, office buildings and spaceships of 'the future' always have sliding doors. Since the 1920's filmmakers have assumed that in the future there would be no hinged doors whatsoever. Why? Because hinges are old-fashioned. The doors that swing on them take up a lot of space. It's not logical that we should continue to have hinged doors when sliding doors make so much more sense. They're so sleek and logical and, well, futuristic. Thus in the popular imagination, hinges are always on the verge of extinction.

Yet, as you've probably noticed, hinged doors are still with us. Why is that? Because people like using them. A University of California at Berkeley scholar named Paul Duguid explained in a research paper how this works. A sliding door may be aesthetically appealing, but when you come down to it, it just slides in and out, which is kind of boring.

Hinged doors are more interesting. You can burst through one and surprise somebody. You can slam a hinged door loudly to vent your anger, or close it very quietly out of concern for a sleeping child.

In short, a hinged door is an expressive tool. It works with our bodies in ways that sliding doors do not. Thus, hinges are still with us.

Sometimes new technologies make old ones even more valuable. When the movable-type printing press appeared in the 15th century, some expected it would make not just handwritten manuscripts, but handwriting itself, obsolete.

In fact, just the opposite happened. The appearance of printed books actually increased the importance of handwriting. If you knew how to write words and sentences by hand - which not everyone did at that time - you could participate in the information explosion that Gutenberg sparked. After Gutenberg, graphite pencils and fountain pens were invented to meet the new demand for writing tools. Stenography schools opened, and new kinds of handwriting styles, forerunners of the cursive we still use today, were created.

Handwritten communication spawned all kinds of inventions. In the early 1600's, an innovative new gadget began to appear in the great cities of Europe. It was a pocket-sized booklet with a special coated surface that could be written on and erased with a sponge. Busy citizens of Amsterdam, Paris and London would carry this device around with them during the day, jotting quick notes with a stylus and erasing them later.

It was that period's equivalent of our own iPhones and Blackberrys, and it remained popular for over two hundred years. The American statesmen Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin owned them, and Shakespeare gave one to Prince Hamlet, who scribbles on it after he sees the famous ghost. The point is: Print didn't kill off handwriting, it just gave it new roles to play.

When television arrived in the 1950s, almost everyone expected radio to disappear. Why would you want an old box that produces only sound, when you could have a new one with sound and video? In fact, television did replace radio as the central gathering place in the home. But at the same time, radio found new roles to play in our lives - in our cars, for example. And today, in an information-jammed world, many people enjoy radio precisely because it produces only sound - no text, no images - and thus doesn't overwhelm the senses. Indeed, radio can be a kind of respite from media overload.

I believe something similar has been happening with paper over the last 50 years. Paper is still with us as a medium of communication because, like handwriting and hinges and radio, it does things for us that newer technologies don't do.

What are those things?

Well, paper has two essential functions.

Number 1) It's a CONTAINER. That is, it stores information so it can be moved from place to place, and preserved long-term. When you print a newspaper, the pages are serving as a container.

Number 2) Paper is also an INTERFACE. Once those pages reach their destination, what happens? The reader picks them up and interacts with them, using his senses and his brain to read and understand the content.

Now, I want you to notice something about the notion that paper is dying. That idea is rooted almost entirely in paper's function as a CONTAINER. This is because, in most ways, digital technologies are better containers of information than paper. Think about it: They move content from place much more quickly and cheaply than paper does, and their storage capacity is infinite.

But what about that other function of paper, its role as pure INTERFACE? As I worked on Hamlet's Blackberry, I kept coming back to that moment when you're sitting quietly with a book or newspaper in your hands, just reading. The experience is qualitatively different from reading on the screen, though, as I said earlier, it's hard to say exactly why.

Everyone feels this, including the young people who spend so much time texting and FaceBooking each other. Screens are great for quick, goal-directed consumption of content. You need a piece of information, you go to Google, find it, and move on to the next thing. You open an email, read it, write a reply and hit Send. It's all very quick and efficient.

But when it comes to reading something that's longer and more thoughtful, when you really want to think about the ideas being expressed, paper is still the place to be. E-books are here and they're cheaper than real books, but they haven't really caught on. I bought one of the newest e-books, an Amazon Kindle, earlier this year, after my ten-year-old son, who loves to read, insisted it was the wave of the future and we had to have one. We used it for ten days and sent it back for a refund. Everyone in the family, including that ten-year-old who is usually so happy staring at a screen, found the e-book unpleasant to use. The technology was inferior to a real book. It wasn't paper.

Why does paper lend itself naturally to the kind of thoughtful reading we associate with books and longer articles?

If I could get to the bottom of this, I reasoned, I might solve the puzzle of why paper has endured so long, and also get a sense of its future.

So I looked into the research that has been done on how people interact with paper media, and I learned something interesting. It turns out that the very things that make paper an inferior STORAGE medium - the way it takes up space and must be moved physically from place to place - are exactly the qualities that make it such a great INTERFACE for reading and thinking. That is, paper's weakness are also its strengths.

The best work on this subject was done by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, authors of the 2002 book, The Myth of the Paperless Office. Sellen and Harper, who are scholars of technology and cognitive psychology, conducted studies of office workers at various organizations, including the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C.

What they found was that although these workers had the most advanced digital technologies at their fingertips, they often preferred to work with paper documents. The subjects said they liked paper's tangibility, the way you can hold and manipulate a document with your hands, make notes in the margins, flip back and forth between pages, make piles of paper on your desk and share print-outs with colleagues.

Online documents are very different from paper ones. Because they have no physical presence, when we're reading them on a screen our eyes and brain are constantly at work, trying to figure out where we are - not just on the page, but within the larger text and vis-a-vis other open documents. A part of our mind is always wondering: What page is this again? Which line am I reading? How many other files do I have open behind this one?

When we read on screen, we expend a great deal of mental energy just navigating. In contrast, because paper is tangible, it allows the hands and fingers to take over much of the navigational burden. We know where we are because we can feel where we are. And this frees up the brain to think.

One of the subjects in the IMF study said paper was better than screens for those moments when you really need to "settle down" with a text or document and give it careful thought.

In another study, conducted by Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman for a client in the magazine business, readers said that they liked the sense of control that paper gave them. One subject reported that turning the pages of a magazine and studying the ads gives one a sense of "order and peace" that is lacking when we're watching ads on a screen. This same person described the state we enter when reading a paper magazine as "a snatching of serenity."

In his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, philosopher Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi ("Mee-hi Cheek-sent-mee-hi") investigated how people around the world achieve happiness in their everyday lives. Based on interviews, questionnaires and close monitoring of people's daily activities, he found that the state we most associate with happiness is something he calls "Flow."

Flow is what happens when you are so absorbed in a task, the world seems to fall away. It can be as simple as working on a jigsaw puzzle or as complicated as flying an airplane, as long as it produces what he calls "a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life."

When we are in the Flow state, there is no sense of time or distraction, just complete immersion in the moment. Activities that produce Flow tend to be those that have definite limits or bounds, and achievable goals. There is no satisfaction in doing a puzzle that doesn't fit together, or shooting a basketball against a backboard with no hoop. Happiness comes from pursuits that have a beginning and end, and allow total focus.

This, of course, is exactly what happens when we sit down with a book, a magazine or a newspaper and really immerse ourselves in the content. Paper's great strength is that it allows the mind to "settle down" into that peaceful deep-dive state in which we do our best thinking. This state is much harder to achieve when we're reading in the digital medium, where there is endless information, and so many possible tasks to undertake at any moment. On the internet, there is no beginning and no end.

There's a digital media company in the U.S. whose slogan is "Everything all the time." To me, that's the epitome of life in a Google world - all the resources on earth at one's fingertips, simultaneously.

This is wonderful in many ways. But the limitlessness of the digital medium is also its great flaw. When you're reading an article on a screen, your mind is conscious of all the other information that's just a click away - from your inbox to the latest headlines to your bank account to a billion YouTube videos. Thus, instead of escaping other demands on your attention as you read, you are mentally fending off those demands every moment you're at the screen.

As the world becomes ever more digital and thus more connected, paper has a secret weapon that nobody ever talks about: It's disconnected from the digital grid. We tend to think of this as a flaw of paper. But the more I worked on Hamlet's Blackberry, the more I saw it as a feature of paper - a feature whose value is arguably increasingly.

In a multi-tasking world where pure focus is harder and harder to come by, I believe print media's seclusion from the Web is an emerging strength. Paper is a still-point for the consciousness, an escape from the never-ending busyness and burdens of the screen. It's an island in the chaos.

Rather than "Everything all the time," paper's slogan could be "Just this one thing."

So then, you may be wondering, what about newspapers? If paper is so good at helping us achieve the special state of consciousness I've just described, why aren't people everywhere abandoning their screens and flocking to hard-copy newspapers?

Doesn't everyone want to find an island in the chaos?

I believe they do, but that's not the only thing people want in life. There's a reason we all spend so much time staring at our screens. They bring us information that we need - to do our jobs, to get things done for ourselves and our families, to live our lives.

And a great deal of that information is well suited to the digital format. When we want something delivered to us quickly and efficiently, the screen is the logical choice. Email is a case in point: read it quickly, reply, move on to the next one. Paying bills and checking stock prices are perfect screen activities, too.

The medium may be the message, as Marshall McLuhan famously said. But in a very practical way, we also choose the medium that best suits the message, or the content that's being communicated.

As it happens, there's another kind of content that works very well on the screen: The News.

As you all know, newspapers publish many different kinds of news, from political coverage to obituaries to sports results to opinion columns. In Hamlet's Blackberry, I reduce all news to two basic categories:

Number 1) Hard news about local, national and international events, most of it relatively short, direct and easy to digest; and

Number 2) "Slower" kinds of content such as feature stories, longer investigative pieces, profiles, criticism and commentary.

The traditional culture of the newsroom is divided along similar lines. At the heart of a newspaper are the reporters and editors who thrive on hard, breaking news - the men and women who, in the pre-internet days, used to be seen darting back and forth to the wire-machine like waterbugs.

And then there are the more ruminant journalists, the columnists, editorial writers, critics and investigators whose work aims not so much to report on the world as to make sense of it.

This is a crude distinction, of course, and most journalists have some of each in them. The point is that, as institutions, newspapers have always had this split personality.

The two perspectives came together on paper, because for centuries it was the best available medium for sending and receiving both kinds of "messages" - fast and slow, breaking and thoughtful

But when newspapers moved to the internet, there was a rupture. The two categories of news were effectively pulled apart. The online format, which is so quick and efficient, made perfect sense for hard news. And readers naturally migrated to the Web for that kind of information. But for many of those same readers - myself included - the "long-form, in-depth" content still seems to belong on paper.

Everyone knows what I'm talking about. When we read these "slower" articles on a screen, it's more of a struggle. We become impatient, and start wanting to click away. I often find myself printing out such pieces to read later, when I have time to sit down with the pages and get into the Flow state.

What I'm saying here is that the public exodus from newspapers is not a rejection of paper, but an objection to using it for hard news and other utilitarian, quick-read content that gains little or nothing from arriving in that format.

Hard news is, of course, the core mission of your business, the main reason readers come to you. There's a reason they're called newspapers, and not essaypapers. And because it's the core mission, newspapers in many countries find themselves in a tough financial spot. I don't have to tell you that in the United States, the digital version of the news doesn't generate the same ad revenues and profits that the paper newspaper has traditionally brought in. I think the same holds true in many other countries.

So when the two sides of newspaper culture were pulled apart, the side that drives the franchise wound up in the not-so-profitable medium. And therefore, the whole enterprise is endangered.

So what is the answer? In all honesty, I don't know. One possibility is new technology. As I'm sure you're all aware, numerous high-tech companies in the U.S., Asia and Europe are working on new displays that effectively mimic paper. They're thin, flexible, and foldable like traditional paper, but they have wireless digital technology inside, which makes them refreshable, like a screen.

I have tested some of these e-paper technologies, and though they are promising, I believe they are not yet where they need to be for consumers to adopt them in a broad way.

Some day, however, I expect we will see a sheet of e-paper that looks and feels exactly like "old fashioned" paper. When that day arrives and we have a medium that's the best of both worlds, it might be possible to bring the two sides of newspaper culture back together again on the same "page."

Yet at the same time, something valuable will also be lost. If paper becomes a connected medium, it will no longer stand apart from the electronic grid, and thus no longer offer us that quiet place away from our jumbled digital lives. Unless we teach ourselves to unplug our e-paper and read it in offline mode, but that's a little hard to imagine.

There's a great irony in today's feverish pursuit of e-paper. The most promising candidates to replace paper are technologies that are striving to be more not less, like the real thing. Paper is the object, the tantalizing goal of these technologies. Essentially, they are trying to become paper. And I believe E-paper will catch on with the public only when it is basically indistinguishable, in the physical sense, from paper itself. This is why I believe paper is "eternal."

Another helpful step for newspapers would be to increase the public's awareness of exactly these kinds of questions. Much of the media coverage of digital technology reads like product marketing. New digital devices are released, and journalists cover them the way they cover new movies. There's a cheerleading tone to the whole exercise, an air of hype.

By focusing almost exclusively on what's new and hot in the technology marketplace, we are missing the larger picture. We aren't helping people understand and organize their technological lives. I think this is an area where the public craves insight and guidance that they're not receiving. It's crucial that we all learn to think more intelligently about our devices. Not just how they work, but how they fit into our lives. We need to ensure that the devices work for us, rather than us working for them.

The opinion pages of newspapers are filled with commentary about government and politics, which are certainly important subjects. Still, I wonder why I never see an editorial page with a regular column about that other important force in our lives - technology. It's on everyone's mind right now. It's reshaping how we live at least as much as government is.

I once asked an editor at national newspaper why there weren't more columns like this. He told me it would never sell in Kansas City. I think he's wrong. I think this subject matters hugely to people in Kansas City and Paris and Prague and Johannesburg and Sydney and Mumbai and Seoul and Santiago, and everywhere else.

I realize you're all working hard on the problem I have highlighted, the difficult of translating the old paper newspaper into two very different mediums. Many papers have been rethinking the way content is divided between the hard-copy newspaper and the online version, and distinguishing more clearly between the two. Some American papers have been designedly making the paper newspaper a vehicle for "slower" content, rather than hard news. I hear this is happening in Europe as well, with some promising results.
Perhaps as our digital lives become ever more frenetic and exhausting, a new demand will emerge for exactly this kind of publication, for that "island in the chaos" that is paper.

I can certainly imagine that sort of future.

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