Conflicts of digital and hard copy journalism

Geraint Talfan Davies explores the different visual rhythms of online and print publication

In the last week ClickonWales has carried a number of articles by the leaders of our main cultural organisations. These articles are also to be found in the current print edition of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda. So far no-one has complained. But the editorial dilemma of whether to carry materials in print form or online or both, has clearly vexed one author whose book was reviewed in the online section of another Welsh publication, the literary periodical New Welsh Review, but not in its print version.

The polite exchange between writer, Nigel Jarrett and New Welsh Review editor, Gwen Davies, surfaced as a news item on the website of Literature Wales. Although his “progressive self” told him to value the online appearance just as much he would have valued the same appearing in print, the very fact that he chose to air his worries, surely indicates that he felt somewhat short-changed.

According to Jarrett his experience illustrates “the looming crisis of print-versus-digital publishing”. Putting aside the cliché – do all crises have to loom? – one would have to question whether this is a crisis at all. Of course, the technology has faced editors with new choices but, in many instances,  it has made life easier. With more space to publish, editors have been able to satisfy more writers and commentators. The agonising business of having to reject good material arises less frequently.

However, he does raise some pertinent points. What prompts an editor to use a contribution online rather than in print, or vice versa? What criteria are operating? He also asks whether “there is a qualitative difference between the two in terms of editorial assessment?” What would we say about the editorial processes here at ClickonWales and for our printed journal, Agenda?

Top of the list is the issue of topicality. One of our problems in Wales is that our printed magazines are published relatively infrequently. The welsh agenda is published three times a year. New Welsh Review and Planet publish quarterly. In our case, therefore, the topicality of a contribution may dictate immediate publication on our website, where we post at least one new piece per day. Hold it for a month or two, and its moment might have passed. Conversely, contributions to Agenda need to have a longer shelf life.

A second issue can be length. In theory articles on a website can be of unlimited length. That gives writers room to explore an argument or theme in some detail. But research shows that shorter articles appeal more to the online reader. We have sometimes wondered whether some of the articles that we carry on ClickonWales are too long – readers might want to let us know what they think.

A third issue is balance. Website home pages are much like an expanded contents page of a printed magazine. Click on your chosen piece and you can read a piece in visual isolation from the rest. A printed magazine is, I think, different. It is linear, whether you read it from the front, back or middle. A good magazine will have a visual rhythm that will reveal itself even in that initial swish of pages under a light thumb’s touch. It is a more fluid act than the click of a mouse. After a few editions the reader should know where to find the editorial, or the main feature, or the book reviews.

Ease of navigation is, of course, important in websites, but visual rhythm – through text and illustration, through varying the long and the short, the complementary and the contrasting – may be more immediately crucial to the character of a printed magazine than to a website. Individual contributions, while having their own merits, will also serve these other ends.

It is this tactile quality that will mean that print will survive longer than Nigel Jarrett believes. He suggests there is an incompatibility between continuing with a printed version of a journal once it has gone online. As he puts it:

“As soon as print publications adopted a digital format, their paper versions became effectively redundant, print devotees notwithstanding.  This co-existence is surely absurd and will be relatively short-lived.”

I think he is wrong. But for a print magazine to survive it will have to feel right in the hand, to the touch and to the eye. A magazine is not a file, but a crafted artefact and, in future, will be even more valued as such.

In a market where not all readers want to read online – at least, not yet – editors will fret and argue about the resolution of the conflict between print and online that Nigel Jarrett finds so perplexing, not to say irritating. But the truth is that we are all richer for having that conflict to occupy, inform, educate and entertain us.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

3 thoughts on “Conflicts of digital and hard copy journalism

  1. There will be a demand for both types of publication for some time to come.

    One area where physical print appears to be superior is in proof-reading, online articles frequently contain typographical errors, spelling & grammar mistakes which don’t get picked up – maybe proof reading is a dying art as contributors self-publish without an editorial check?

    I find the article length on ClickonWales to generally be well judged, where necessary they are longer, which does give the space needed to go into more detail.

  2. I read Nigel Jarrett’s piece online on LIterature Wales’s website and thought it a useful set of observations. Geraint, your gloss on it is also helpful and I will circulate this on to members of the Writers’ Guild in Wales. Othniel Smith and I are Union Learning Advisers for the Guild and yesterday we met with Literature Wales to explore their services for writers and how the Guild and CULT Cymru (Creative Unions Learning Together – an inter-union training project) could liaise for writers’ benefit. Lots of interesting things ahead.

  3. Dear Geraint,
    Thanks for giving this issue a further airing, though no thanks for the pedantry (or pedagogy) of red-pencilling my cliché. I don’t see why you needed to put it aside: crises don’t have to ‘loom’ but they usually do, in the same way that the relevance of magazine contributions is reasonably defined by their ‘shelf life’ (your cliché). I have to say that the defence of print over digital becomes ever more desperate and not a little risible. Online, of course, the defences can run to a million words. For the record, I prefer print to digital. Too many websites are prolix and illiterate. Not this one, of course.

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