For print journalists, and especially for those of us at big, mainstream daily newspapers, there's an ever-present paradox in reporting and writing about the information revolution: It appears oftentimes that we are chronicling the forces that will bring about our demise.
Grinding trees into paper, stamping on some ink and then delivering the bulky product by truck is a process so antiquated and expensive that it can't possibly compete with transmitting weightless bits of data over communications networks at the speed of light, or so it would seem. And why, once technology gives them a choice, would people opt to read a presorted collection of information about a broad variety of topics when they can instead select what suits them best?
In fact, there are a number of compelling answers to these questions, some of them recited often enough by now that they've reified into the Three Arguments for the Survival of Print: Paper is more pleasing to read and more convenient than a computer screen; the conventions and quality standards of mainstream journalism provide a valuable set of filters for people awash in information; and the breadth of traditional publications offers opportunities for serendipity, telling people things they wouldn't know to seek out.
But traditional mass media offer something else as well, something that often seems like a disadvantage but whose value could prove enduring: They can address the new and complicated and confusing in a language accessible to everyone, creating a shared context for people who might appear to inhabit altogether different worlds. And nowhere is this more important than in the incredibly fragmented sphere of technology itself.
It wasn't very long ago that technology was the ultimate specialists realm, difficult to understand and of little concern to those not directly involved. It was anything but hip; when I started covering Silicon Valley for The Times in 1990, my classic airplane conversation with a stranger would begin with high curiosity about what it was like to be a newspaper reporter and end almost immediately with visible disappointment that I wrote about something as boring as technology.
How things have changed. Even allowing for the "flavor of the month" character of some of the current techno-hype, it's clear that new computer and communications technologies are now shaping not only the business world, but Western culture and society as a whole. Albeit to widely varying degrees, we're all being swept along, like it or not; technology has become a subject for everyone.
But it remains true that people come at this subject from wildly divergent--and often very narrow--perspectives. And general-interest newspapers can help bridge some of those gaps, creating a common point of reference for both veteran technophiles and the newly initiated. With this new section, for example, we will offer something for the wizened industry executive and the excited novice, for the hard-core programmer and the hard-core gamer, for the Internet enthusiast and the computer animation maven. The goal is to be provocative for the expert without excluding the uninitiated.
Some might argue that such goals cannot--and need not--be reached. An engineer in the personal computer industry, for example, can choose from a boatload of specialized publications that speak to him in his own language; someone who has developed an obsession with, say, music on the Internet can easily go online and find people with like interests. Why should they turn to a traditional newspaper?
Indeed, many of the insular communities that increasingly define our society--perhaps none more so than veteran denizens of the Internet--harbor an active hostility toward mass media. They say the media take a superficial peek at their world and then simplify, generalize and sensationalize with the sole goal of drawing viewers or selling papers. We focus on pornography instead of privacy, hackers instead teachers, and too often get things just plain wrong.
In some cases such criticism is well taken. But sometimes it reflects unwarranted disregard for the journalistic enterprise. Good reporting and writing can make the people and events of a particular corner of the world comprehensible and meaningful to many people. Some might prefer that the world at large just stay away, but technology today is just too important to be left to the specialists.
General-interest newspapers don't aspire to replace trade newspapers or Internet newsgroups or other specialized information sources, but rather to complement them, just as media companies' own Web sites can compliment their existing products. (The Los Angeles Times Web site is scheduled for launch next month.)
Covering the technology world, though it demands some additional specialized knowledge, is actually something for which large newspapers are well equipped. They are geared to move fast and report on major events from a variety of angles, conveying the facts of the situation and analyzing all of its political, economic and social dimensions. It is this broad framework that is missing from too many discussions of bits and bytes.
Certainly there are many things newspapers need to do better. They need to find new ways to build connections, both with stories of broad interest and also by inviting reader comment and involvement. They must do a better job of being thought-provoking and interesting without being misleading.
At its best, though, a newspaper can build common ground among--to use an example from our own Cutting Edge e-mail--software engineers at the Northrop plant in Pico Rivera, students at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, writers on the Westside and the bored fellow sitting in the jury room Compton--people who don't appear to have much that brings them together.
Newspapers have some new tools, especially e-mail, and plenty of new competitors, but the basic mission remains: By reaching broadly and nurturing community, they can help render the world of technology interesting and accessible and fun.
Cutting Edge editor Jonathan Weber can be reached via e-mail at Jonathan.Weber@latimes.com