Why Dave Eggers Loves Print -- And Why He Could Love Online News

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Hey Dave -- stop kvetching!
We've written several times about San Francisco author Dave Eggers' love affair with print newspapers, and how frustrated we are that someone with so much talent is still fetishizing a product made from dead trees.

It doesn't have to be that way. As the Nieman Journalism Lab's Megan Garber points out, the qualities that Eggers most values in print are completely transferable to the web.

After listening to Eggers speak at last month's American Society of News Editors conference, Garber highlighted four qualities that make Eggers prize the print newspaper experience:

1. Calm and Focus

"It's too distracting online...there's always some button that wants you to click cat porn," Eggers said. "You try to read something, and it's flashing, it's telling you to go somewhere else."

2. Scope and Depth

As Garber put it, people "want journalism that has taken a little time to marinate." Eggers suggested that print could survive by going in-depth and "leave the Internet to do the more quick-thinking and quick-reacting things." (Of course, this sounds less like a contrast between mediums, and more like the contrast between blog and long-form writing that Andrew Sullivan described masterfully in 2008.) 

3. Expertise

"There's room there for the less experienced journalists, but mostly I want to hear from the people that know how to get at the facts, that know where the bodies are buried," Eggers said.

4. Beauty, Surprise & Expansiveness

Eggers doesn't like looking at screens. "I think that it's a time to make the paper form more robust and surprising and expansive," he said.

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As Garber very elegantly explains, these are all principles that could be applied to the web -- and they are, in fact, the exact principles that are motivating the next generation of online publications in San Francisco.

Two examples that spring to mind are Pictory, an online magazine of user-submitted photos, and The Bold Italic, an experiment in first-person storytelling about local activities being developed by the Gannett newspaper chain.

Both sites rely on gorgeous design and a calm, focused  viewing experience. The photographs or stories on each site fill the whole screen, and there aren't distracting advertisements or flashing banners or many pop-up windows. The Bold Italic publishes only stories that are several thousand words long, and they call their contributors "Bold Locals," highlighting their local expertise.

Neither of these are news sites, of course, but they are examples of how the reading experience that Eggers values in print is being recreated online -- just as the buzz and openness of a Twitter conversation, and speed of the web, were used to catalyze an old-fashioned print magazine last weekend.

In the comments section of her post, Garber noted that she highlighed Eggers' remarks in part because debates about the future of journalism often get caught up in arguments about print versus web, when what they're really arguing about is what kind of experience  people want.

And it turns out there are a lot of ways to re-mix the more traditional print and web experiences, from the Twitter-sourced 48 Hour Magazine, to the launch, last fall, of a German newspaper that personalizes news content, web-style, and then publishes it as a print newspaper and delivers it to subscribers' doors.

Not that you can't love print for itself -- the ungainly pages of a big newspaper, the smear of ink -- but it's unfair to divide print and web into separate categories, as Eggers does, and ignore all the interesting ways the mediums are influencing each other. 

Photo   |   David Shankbone

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