The swarm and the fury: Newspapers battle against (not for) their audience in Germany.

It is rare, at least in my observation, to see various pretty serious people – essayists, journalists of high quality newspapers, editors – really in rage to the point of denouncing all (presumed) adversaries squarely as ‚childish‘, ‚anti-journalists‘ and ‚filthy‘, oh, and yes, ‚user generated content‘ is called ‚loser generated content‘ because alledgedly in websites such as, only „3 percent of the posts“ refer to  „news that shape global events“, and the rest is about „making coffee in Japan and the quality of seats in airplanes“.

Since a few weeks, major newspapers in Germany seem to fight for their very survival (and, I must add, use more latin proverbs than normally in years), as they feel threatened by the „Web 0.0“ (the double zero alluding to the popular shortcut for a toilet, in fact).

These are the facts and the background: A German court ruled that owners of a website (or blog) can be liable for all posted comments – which resulted in the prestiguous Sueddeutsche Zeitung to allow postings on their website only during office hours, meaning that readers can comment on articles only Monday through Friday between 8am and 7 pm. Freedom of expressions has clear limits: No night shifts or weekend hours.

In another – pretty much unexpected – ruling this morning, a civil case of Sueddeutsche and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) against the online news portal and aggregator Perlentaucher was rejected by the court of appeal in Frankfurt. Perlentaucher (for whom I write a ca. monthly column about culture, books and the digital world), among other things, produces summaries of the daily cultural pages and book reviews of major German newspapers for a newsletter and their website, and sells those pieces to an online bookstore – which infringes, according to Sueddeutsche and FAZ their copyright. The court turned the argument down, explaining that such summaries cannot be interdicted because anyone has the right to publish a summary of a work (e.g. a newspaper article), even with a commercial purpose, provided the summary has its own „creative substance“.

Now the interesting part of the controvery is, at least in my view, absolutely not about copyright, but about culture.  Only an argument about two contrary concepts of culture is good enough for all this fury.

The debate started in fact when in October, member of the publishing board of FAZ, Frank Schirrmacher, an icon of German conservative journalism, had argued „How the Internet Changes Man“, stating – this is already his follow up explanation of the original essay – why printed newspapers have a „purpose“ in society as gatekeepers for reliable information and reading, hence are among the pillars of culture (as opposed to the pillows that couch potatoes and web surfers are sitting on, I suppose).

„The newspaper“, Schirrmacher argues, „lasts for at least 24 hours, and with its opinon pieces and reviews, it claims even to have a value for following generations.“

Now, this is an interesting point, as it says that durability, life time, is the measure for cultural value.

Two answers to this. First the Austrian version, which means to point to Karl Kraus, the 20th century critic and aggressive essayist against – newspapers, because of their sloppiness, bad language and shortsightedness (‚only for 24 hours!‘); by such, he became the harshest benchmark for quality journalism, including for the FAZ. Kraus would never ever have thought for a second of newspapers as a guarantee for cultural value, as opposed to books.

This is the other answer: We see in this stunning German controversy a carbon copy of all those pointless debates over centuries why – please fill in your newest media beast – photography, radio, TV, the internet, comic books threaten the book, culture, civilized life.

At once, we find newspapers among the pillars, not the pillows of culture. How come? Remember the odd word of ’nothing is less valid than yesterday’s paper‘!

The German controversy on culture reflects, of course, the dramatic aging of newspaper readers, the loss of revenues from classified ads, and the competition from all those new actors who are more successful at the emerging online market place.

But the real offense comes from their younger readers whom the newspapers seem not to trust anymore. So they yell at them, in despair.

According to them, the web is  „also a medium that growingly makes not-reading or alsmost not reading possible“ (Schirrmacher); those among the readers who post unfitting comments on the newspapers‘ websites are „leisure activists with a little scum on their lips“ (Sueddeutsche), or, in today’s FAZ: „Every serious blogger will change sides“.

So the argument points at a war – of the newspapers against a portion of their own audience. A civil war for the newsroom?

I guess not that much. It is the culture of the 19th century – where ‚culture‘ equals a few knowledgeable, elder men (not women) educating the mass – against what? No, not some bland 21st century thing – but rather against the 18th century, that was much more experimental and laid the foundations of modern democracy, learning societies, peer review (Yes! Those interested readers giving their opinion on a piece, and the result is debate and, yes, often enough, squabble), yet turned from then small clubs and societies to the global mass sociteties of today, fragmented, volatile, dynamic as they are.

This points to a real and substantial cultural divide. A clash of cultures, not only in Germany. Interesting! Let’s see what’s going on next.

Blogging slowly, as centuries go by, about the really messy library

Somehow I have difficulties with the hurry of blogging. I was at this wonderful daylong workshop about the „Really Modern Library„, organized by Bob Stein and Ben Vershbow of the Institute of the Future of the Book at the London School of Economics. That was more than 2 weeks ago. Is this still worth blogging?

In the meantime, I had to work (for my income), fight with my son (over adolescence issues), and see how my single and working life both go on.

In the New Yorker, I read a knowledgable and fabulously instructive piece by Anthony Grafton about the digitization of libraries, reviewing all the current efforts to digitize libraries and other knowledge stuff, concluding dryly: „A record of all history appears even more distant.“

 I suppose there has been some misunderstanding of Gafton’s point, as he is not really anti-tech, but he pragmatically shares a common sense with a certain type of Science Fiction novels and movies where, despite all of the splendid future achievements, there is always a lot just messy, or human.

Personally, I like this. I always feel kind of appalled by the more shiny anticipations, like „organizing all the information of the universe“, or such matter. Sure, it is marvellous that I can literally have much of my relevant information at my fingertips by now, and this is how I work on a daily basis. Frankly, it is just gorgeous that I can assemble my personal belongings plus partners and friends across several continents, plus pretty much effectively short cut censorship (well, not entirely, but much better then as it was under the old Iron Curtain), when these partners happen to include a few more odd destinations – and all this by the power of digital integration.

But the fantasy of a clean and seamlessly integrated information space is just a different story. Which is GOOD news.

 As I attended the „Really Modern Library“ meeting, I directly came from the Frankfurt Book Fair where I had picked up a copy of Don Delillo’s new novel „Falling Man“, in German, yet not the book, which was released only a couple of weeks later, but a 20 odd pages short cut version in the supplement of the German high brow weekly Die Zeit. This was NOT a first chapter, but an abridged version of a full scale novel, reduced to its core (yet still very much readable!), not by some pirates or lunatics, but by the German editor plus translator, plus by Don Delillo himself.

Of course, the magazne version was meant to provide some innovative promotion for the book. But it was clearly inspired by the „Web“ mode of dealing with text: There are just many ways of representing any text, or thought, or music – „or whatever“ (as any 14 year old, like my son, would have it).

This comes with at least 2 problems:

1. There is no ‚one‘ text anymore, but many texts for each piece (e.g. I wrote about this insight, a week ago, in German at Perlentaucher, but now rewrite it, in English for my blog – and don’t bother to have it in print anywhere at this point. So there is no definite, ‚reliable‘ version of these thoughts).  Which directly brings me to

2. A serious problem for the copyright debate, as an ever enhanced copyright legislation desperately needs that one original piece of content to protect – yet exactly this is what is just falling apart, or even better, turning into drifting sands.

 This is probably one of the more tricky issues that any „Really Modern Library“ will need to confront:

The books in the really old library were valuable BECAUSE its items, books, came with the quality of being reliable: They had a cover page and a back page, and a clearly defined content between those ends.

The stupid question that results is this: Can there be a library, without such books?

Print – Dead or alive

It is interesting to see how large corporations now start to allow (or even encourage) their thinking staff to do their thinking in public, hence online. Remember when journalists in the field were first allowed, not so long ago, to blog about their reporting?

Now I was pointed to a blog titled „Print is Dead“ – which states in the opening, a bit paradoxically, but rightly so, I guess, that print, in fact, is not dead at all for some time – where Jeff Gomez, the director of marketing of the Holtzbrinck publishing group (Germany / UK / US) collects bits and pieces and thoughts about his title statement in order to prepare a book on that matter to be published later this year by an (Holtzbrinck owned) imprint, Palgrave Macmillan.

 Frankly, a good source of information to be in the loop of an interesting, yet highly fragmented debate.

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