Cook column: New chapter for books, newspapers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 1, 2009

The printed word is alive and well ó in book and newspaper form.
We got off topic at a management meeting Thursday, and books are to blame.
In keeping with our push for more local news, we talked about getting a list of local bestsellers. It’s one thing to check out a national list of bestsellers, but what are people reading in Salisbury?
That led to discussion of local writers and John Hart’s most recent novel, “The Last Child.” Riveting.
I mentioned listening to an audiobook version on a recent trip and wishing the drive were longer so I could hear more.
Then we touched upon “The Hot Zone” and “What Is the What,” two more books on the Summer Reading Challenge list this year.
Columnist Mark Wineka said our meeting was beginning to sound like a book club gathering.
We offered to yield the floor to a discussion of fantasy football, but he passed.
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Book lovers are as avid about new titles as ever. (Check out “Sarah’s Key” and “The Help.”) The digital revolution has affected the form “books” may come in, but people will always want to read and hear good stories.
Audiobooks like my CD version of “The Last Child” are an alternative to printed books, but they’re still pricey and probably pose little threat to the book-printing business. But what about Amazon’s Kindle and similar reading devices? Might the contents of my bookshelf be contained in a small electronic device? That kind of technology could threaten the business of printing and binding books, just as Web sites lure readers away from printed newspaper pages.
The Information Age is truly the Transformation Age, changing the way we get music, news, literature and knowledge. Just as Gutenberg’s press made the Bible and other books available to more people, the Internet has opened up access to information of all kinds. Few walls are left.
But people still want to share stories and to get news. The form changes; the desire for information does not.
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So where does that leave newspapers?
“The Press and America,” a book from my college days, predates the Internet by a few decades. But the qualifications it lists for a publication to be considered a “true newspaper” still ring true, with a few provisios.
– It must be published at least once a week. Check.
– It must be produced by mechanical means (to distinguish it from the handwritten newsletters ó and perhaps, today, from blogs and news aggregators). Check.
– It must be available to anyone willing to pay the price, regardless of class or special interests. Check ó though it’s ironic that newspaper Web sites have made our information available to people not willing to pay the price.
– It must print anything of interest to a general public, as contrasted with religious, business and other special-interest publications. Check.
– It must have appeal to a public of ordinary literary skill. Check.
– It must be timely. Check.
– It must have stability, as contrasted to the fly-by-night publications of more primative times.
Check, and here’s an addition: It should also be more stable than the fly-by-night Web sites of more technologically advanced times. Anyone can say anything on the Internet and make it look reputable; finding someone to hold accountable for what they say on the Web is another matter.
Something about putting the words in print makes people more careful about what they say.
Double check.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.