Thursday, July 31, 2008

Get the New But Keep the Old

Obituaries for the death of old media aren't hard to find. But this Sunday's New York Times seemed positively lousy with them.

On its front page (and for an entire inside spread) the paper examined the rise of online reading among teenagers and their subsequent rejection of books and novels. Elsewhere, a columnist looked at those shows that can pass for hits in today's declining television industry (Mad Men and Swingtown among them), noting that they're set in eras when the Big Three networks ruled the airwaves. A third lamented the demise of CD liner notes due to the growing popularity of downloadable music.

All of this in a newspaper, an industry that's grappling with old vs. new media problems of its own.

As someone with one foot planted firmly in both worlds, these stories left me feeling torn. Most of my reading occurs online rather than on the page these days as well, and like the teens quoted in today's Times, I often find novels too demanding of both my free time and attention span. I rarely watch television dramas or sitcoms, preferring reality science-based shows I've recorded on my DVR. (And my commercial-skipping skills are so well developed they've reduced my ad exposure to mere seconds per hour.) I download music frequently, and can't remember the last time I even thought about reading liner notes.

And yet. I'm a short story writer and aspiring novelist who relies on other people reading my words, preferably on a page. I can draw a straight line between my career choices today and the books that made a profound impression on me as a child and adult. I miss the television series I grew up on in the seventies and eighties, and recall with particular fondness how the networks used to promote their new fall line-ups with such fanfare and excitement each summer. I spent the majority of my professional like in the advertising industry. And my LP record collection continues to grow and bring me untold joy -- not only for all its lost music, but because of the words and images on the covers and liner sleeves as well.

Viewed one way, I'm as guilty of killing old media as any teenager armed with a smart phone and a Twitter account. Viewed another, I'm as much a relic as some love-lorn college student's mix tape from the eighties.

I'm firmly on the fence here, and that's where I'll stay, because I've learned my lesson about buying into -- literally and figuratively -- the hype surrounding the death of old media.

In 2000 I gave away all of my LPs from high school and college -- a collection of hundreds of albums from the seventies and eighties. While I loved all those old records, I'd moved on to CDs. I no longer owned a turntable, and didn't believe I'd own another ever again. And without a doubt it was one of the worst mistakes I've ever made. Because little did I know, a mere five years later, I'd chance upon a collection of hundreds of LPs from the '50s and '60s at an estate sale, which would lead to me falling in love with the LP all over again.

I've since moved on to MP3s, but you can bet I'm hanging on to all my CDs this time. And you should, too, along with your DVDs and books and anything else you've got taking up space. Because while old media dies, it doesn't happen suddenly. It hangs on, like a crotchety old aunt who'll probably outlive us all. That's old media. And like that old aunt, it'll probably outlive us all as well.

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