Dave Eggers Tells Me To Cheer Up

Last month, super-hip novelist and McSweeney's-founder Dave Eggers gave a speech to the Authors Guild in New York. The literati were gathered to commend him for starting 826 National, a string of nonprofit writing centers for children in seven cities. He used the occasion to encourage his beleaguered audience: "If you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying ... e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you're wrong."

I wasn't in that audience, but I wrote to him anyway:

"Dear Mr. Eggers,

"Staff cuts continue, advertising has fallen off a cliff, subscribers are dribbling away. As we rush to the Web, we discover that all kinds of stories that were popular in the paper (like, say, just for instance, book reviews), draw almost no interest on the Internet.

"My salary is now about triple what it was when I quit teaching English a dozen years ago, and I've secured a mortgage in a collapsing housing market based on that fragile, inflated income.

"Convince me that I shouldn't despair.

"Best wishes, Ron"

The man was true to his word. A few days later, I received this reply:

"Hello Ron!

"Sorry I've been slow about responding. I don't have internet access at home, and usually only send 10 emails or so a day. So the 300 or so I've gotten from that New Yorker blog have been a bit overwhelming.

"My faith in print is buoyed by our own experiences at McSweeney's, for one thing. Our sales haven't really dropped off in the last few years, and of course we spend no money on ads or promotion. So my weird theory, or one of them, is that we need to invest in print, instead of cutting away all the value of print over the web. Seems like every time a newspaper cuts its size, its investigative budget, its art, its comics, its book review (!) we give readers yet another reason to eschew print and get the equivalent on the web.

"So I think with books and with newspapers we need to reinvest in what all the things print does best. If we give readers an actual choice -- a beautiful rich tactile experience for $1, or a comparatively sterile experience online -- then we might find that a lot of people will reinvest in print themselves...

"Does that make any sense? Maybe not, but we're sticking to that theory for the time being.

"Yrs, Dave"

-- Ron Charles

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By Ron Charles |  June 10, 2009; 5:41 AM ET Ron Charles
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I am a huge fan of Eggers and McSweeney's. But I don't think the fact that McSweeney's sales are steady really says much about mainstream newspapers or print in general. The McSweeney's audience is a niche audience that was already buying/subscribing out of a sense that they were in on something unique and special. Their (ok, our) numbers alone aren't going to save print. (Sorry, Ron.)

Posted by: catymac | June 10, 2009 11:30 AM

Actually, I think Mr. Eggers is on to something. It is similar to advice that Michael Kaiser is giving to arts organizations that are straining from the economy--don't cut the programming that gave you the audience in the first place. Some arts orgs are cutting marketing or dumbing down their programming, and Kaiser suggests that if they want to survive and keep their audiences, they should continue doing interesting and innovative programming and advertising it.

Papers should do the same thing--instead of cutting the things that people want and expect from papers--like book reviews and investigative reporting--invest in them and give people a reason to choose a paper over the Internet.

Seems like sound advice to me. Or at least worth a try...

Posted by: ballyjc | June 10, 2009 2:57 PM

Interesting piece. Who knows what trading our analog dollars for digital pennies will lead to? I read where some professor in Utah holds that there won't even be a need for universities by 2020. (Ray Kurzweil, et al., have recently founded a Singularity University in Silicon Valley.)

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | June 11, 2009 10:38 AM

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