One of the more melancholy sights in Santa Fe today is the empty Borders bookstore on Montezuma Avenue, with a For Lease sign posted in the window.
It is monument to the drastic change in how Americans inform themselves, aka media consumption.
Time was when they depended on print, radio and TV. Now print is dead, we are told, which is not true, but newspapers especially suffer a perilous shortage of advertisers. The sales of books between covers are plummeting (thus, an empty Borders despite a favorable age demographic here). The newsstand is evaporating for magazines. Radio is shrinking. TV discovered this year for the first time that people spend more time online than watching the tube.
These gloomy reports forecast a vastly different future for media—and for you, the consumer.
As you know, you are educating yourself more and more on laptops, tablets and smartphones. These machines are spectacular. The information they dispense is not so, unfortunately. Unless it comes from a source you trust, beware. There are several reasons for waving this cautionary flag.
One is the frantic race online to be first with a "fact." The Associated Press has long had a motto: "Get it first, but first get it right." The web seems to believe in getting it first, and if it isn't right, then send out a correction. Twitter is especially risky. As one critic observed: "Twitter does its best work in the first five minutes after a disaster, and its worst in the 12 hours after that."
The most blatant example in recent memory was last year's Boston Marathon bombings. Here is what Twitter told us: 12 people were killed. The Boston police have arrested a Saudi national. Cellphone service has been cut off. Seven additional bombs were found in nearby buildings. Not one of these reports was true.
Blogs are less hazardous, but many are not proofread, edited or fact-checked. Too often the solution is: If we're wrong, readers will correct us after we publish.
Some blogs are written by experts; many are rattled off by what are called "citizen journalists," people with a computer and a point of view, not necessarily in that order.
Too many unhappy experiences with shabby online journalism have made Americans skeptical. A recent study by the Annenberg Center found that "51 percent of Internet users said that only a small portion or none of the information they see on social networking sites is reliable."
Blanket condemnation like this may be unfair. But for digital journalism, just as it has always been for print, the challenge is to offer stories that do not sacrifice fairness and accuracy for speed, stories that are capital T Truth. In this unruly universe, American journalism has a special obligation. It is the only profession in our country that is explicitly safeguarded by the Constitution, an honor and responsibility unique in the world.
There is another perhaps less noticed area of publishing that has also become problematical. It's advertising, especially a hot new digital trend called "sponsored content" or "native advertising," which is simply a commercial message dressed up to make it look like a bona fide story. In print, they've long been called "advertorials" but they've now moved up the ladder of online respectability.
The Poynter Institute suggests that journalists ask themselves: "Would I consider running this content if it wasn't sponsored?" If the answer is yes, then both reader and advertiser are served. If no, the money is hardly worth the damage to your credibility.
Despite these hazards, what Americans learn about themselves, their country and the world will clearly originate more and more online. This not to say that the so-called old media will vanish. Newspapers will concentrate on local events. Magazines will become luxury items. Radio will offer opinions. TV will focus on historical epics and increasingly inane reality shows.
Among our present generations, the younger they are, the more addicted to digital they are. Unlike older Americans, they are rarely torn between print and digital. A young father spoke for them when he said of his two year old: "For her, a magazine is an iPad that doesn't work."
Enthusiasm for the web these days is dominated by handheld phones and tablets, and is by no means limited to younger Americans. A survey last year revealed that 57 percent of U.S. women would rather give up sex for a week than their mobile devices.
What lies ahead in terms of electronic gadgets, only God and Google know.
Just think of the transition in screens alone—from TV to laptop to tablet to mobile. Screens in watches and eyeglasses are apparently next. And then? Anyone want to bet against thumbnails? Consider the promotional possibilities for The Complete Cuticle. Endless.
Stolley is senior editorial adviser at Time Inc., founding editor of People, former Editor of LIFE and former editorial director of Time Inc. He lives in Santa Fe.