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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Purported Newspaper Lover Dave Eggers Coy About Newspapering Past

Posted By on Tue, Jan 5, 2010 at 1:59 PM

click to enlarge Look Ma, newspapers don't need advertising
  • Look Ma, newspapers don't need advertising

Eggers recently spent several months producing the much larger than a breadbox, newspaper-like gargantuan called San Francisco Panorama, and ever since has been a go-to guy for comments about what's worth saving about newsprint periodicals.

But, as with other interviews conducted during the past decade, he seems to have whitewashed his own newspapering past.

During the years of the dot-com boom, Eggers illustrated and wrote "Smarter Feller", a

half-page SF Weekly comic strip commenting on local public affairs and other ironies.

For a time, his characteristic drawing of "the Feller," a pointy-nosed

stick figure, was inseparable from this paper's identity.

Then he got a

job at Esquire, wrote a book, worked in movies, etc., and his Smarter Feller cartoons became relegated to aging, red-bound volumes of SF Weekly past issues we keep here on a shelf.

To our mind, his work here -- the most prominent thing he did until the publication of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius --  was nothing to be ashamed of. But a close read of his comments about newspapers, how they make money, and the value of the the full-time staff that produces them suggest that it may not be shame that keeps him from recalling his newspaper past. He may have actually forgotten about his time as a regular newspaper contributor, thus explaining his apparent confusion about how real, day-to-day, week-to-week newspapers work.

To kick the interview off, Eggers goes on a bit about how he prefers reading the printed page instead of computer screens. He then segues to his theory of publishing economics:

Eggers: "To me, the print business model is so simple, where readers pay a

dollar for all the content within, and that supports the enterprise.

The web model is just so much more complicated, and involves this third

party of advertisers, and all these other sources of revenue that are

sort of provisional, but haven't been proven yet. We've lost that very

simple transaction that's so pure, where a reader can say, "I support

what you're doing, here's my dollar. I know that you guys are gonna be

watchdogs or keep the government accountable, so here's my 50-cent

contribution each day." It's just so tidy, and I think so inspiring."

Too tidy, in fact. Eggers' strip -- as with all columns in all newspapers -- was surrounded by "this third party of advertisers," which paid  the vast majority of all newspapers' bills. How could he possibly not know this? Could it be that Eggers is lying about his supposed proclivity for reading newspapers? Did he bump his head and forget that he worked for one that ran on an all-advertising model?

Eggers goes on to tell the A.V. Club interviewer that newspapers could have a more sustainable business model if they used articles from the 50,000 writers he believes live in San Francisco, rather than depending on the work of salaried, professional staff. In his A.V. Club chat, he also expresses enthusiasm for journalism-focused nonprofit organizations.

Eggers: "I should emphasize that I take pains to make sure no one thinks I know

their business better than they do, because I don't. We're just

underlining some of the things they already know. A lot of the old

model will have to be examined, and I think in a good way, especially

when they have to cut their full-time staff. The partnerships add new

brains to the operation."

The full-time newspaper staff at Eggers' former employer ask, "good for whom?"

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Matt Smith


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