Evolution is a systems phenomenon that applies to more than mere biology. Noted evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson postulated that it even applies to culture. Last week I noticed that it applies to the media as well. I’m talking about my (formally) favorite newspaper, USA Today.
Thanks probably to founder Al Neuharth the USA Today paper has always given me the feeling that its staff values quality over quantity. Like Al’s own short editorials the content was boiled down to the essentials, verbiage trimmed, fat cut. But now they have this new format and the whole thing makes me a little nauseous. It’s not friendly anymore. The editorial page is crowded, even the political cartoon is smaller. The crossword is strangely large but the Sudoku is now cramped and tiny, hard to work. In the Friday edition I looked for Al’s usual editorial and felt a frisson of panic when I didn’t see it. Oops, there it is – they moved it. Are they in the process of moving Al out too? He is, like me, long in the tooth. Am I just being a curmudgeon, stuck in the past?
I actually complained to the paper’s consumer email address and got back a reply from a human, or at least an android. (He assured me they value my opinion – how nice.) The email was a little redolent of pasted boilerplate but it did claim the font was just different, not smaller, and that they had thoroughly tested it on actual readers before changing it. So I got a copy of one of last week’s editions out of the trash pile and compared the fonts side by side, cutting out similar letters. The new font was definitely smaller – I estimate 20% smaller. Aha! Why the &*!#@ would they do this? A moment’s reflection sired this thought: the same content squeezed 20% makes room for 20% more advertising! Big bucks! Doh! Damn.
The USA Today web site underwent a similar and simultaneous change. It’s front page is glossier, more arty, emphasis on visuals, but most importantly a lot more distracting ads. And now my Safari browser “reader” function won’t work on USA Today so I am forced to endure the jiggly ads as I read the articles. I won’t look, I won’t! Hmm. Sexy girl beckons. Damn.
Time for a confession. I’ve been living a clandestine television life for the past some years now. Dish Network supplies me with a Digital Video Recorder and I routinely record most of what we watch. With a DVR you can lag behind real time by a few minutes and skip the commercials, thumbing through, 30-seconds ahead, 10-seconds back. It’s worth the effort. I feel like I’m getting away with something, and I guess I am. Should I feel guilty? After all, it’s the commercials that pay for the programming. No guilt. Advertising is a game, eyes wide open, them against me. “They” want me to buy stuff I don’t want or need and I want to pick and choose when I do want or need something. It’s just business and in that sense it’s similar to house foreclosures if you think about it. Huh?
I was talking with my oldest son in Virginia about that – he is underwater on his house mortgage and was feeling moral about it. “Walk away? I wasn’t raised that way,” he said. After doing a little research I suggested he consider doing just that – send the mortgage company a “jingle” letter, which is what they call it now when you mail them the keys. Who knew? They even have a respectable name for doing it now – “strategic default”. Some states, including his, even have laws sympathetic to the process. After all, the mortgage was a business deal. The mortgage exec’s knew their risk going into it, which is why they accepted the house itself as collateral. I argued it makes no sense to feel sorry for these guys, especially since they were the same kind who bundled mortgage loans that should never have been made into risky equity trades that eventually sank both the housing industry and the economy.
Son is still pondering it, thinking “a deal is a deal”. He’s thinking like I used to think but a mortgage is not the same as a promise to your family to keep them safe. It’s different, just like government finances are different from family finances. I mean, suppose son lost his job and through no fault of his own, couldn’t keep up the payments? (He didn’t, but he could have.) They would have foreclosed on him faster than Mitt Romney closes factories. I hope son comes to his senses. It’s just “biddness”. Wink, wink, and back atch’ya, mortgage guys.
When I first heard of DVR’s I had the thought that they were going to sink the industry. Why would anyone watch commercials if they didn’t have to? Then, I speculated that perhaps, a la the Super Bowl ads, commercials would have to become so entertaining that people would want to watch them. I think that’s happening too, the more expensive ones anyway, but the DVR thing is a real threat to the industry. It turns out that the big four networks sued Dish Network over the issue because Dish was planning software (called “Hopper”) that skipped the commercials for you – finger calluses begone! Dish won the first round last spring, but so far as I can tell the matter is still in the courts. The battle for survival continues and only the fittest . . .