I got back from a week-long vacation recently, only to confront the pile of neighbor-saved newspapers in the photo at left. A week’s worth of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Baltimore Sun, I can testify, weighs 15 pounds. Contemplating that pile of reading, I felt both pleasure (all that exciting information for me to ingest) and guilt. Think of all those dead trees. And where would I find the time in my busy life to work my way through that stack of papers and catch up on all that I’d missed?
Now, of course, on my vacation, I had not been bereft of news from the Great Buzzosphere. The hotel where we stayed offered cable channels pre-tuned to CNN, a USA Today in print form five days a week, and access to all the Internet I could desire.
But still, home is where my daily slow-read newspaper feed is and I could hardly wait to dig in to the pile. This predilection puts me in the soon-to-be-fossil category of readers. According to a 2011 study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, 41 percent of those surveyed say they get most of their news online, while only 31 percent get it from a print newspaper. As you might expect, 65 percent of those age 18 to 29 rely on the Internet for their news. Could I turn out to be the last reader in America with a newspaper obsession?
Tidings of the coming end of newspapers in their classic print form are old news by now. ABC News reports that in 2009 the American Society of Newspaper editors canceled its annual convention, explaining that “the challenges editors face at their newspapers demand their full attention.” If you Google the phrase “end of newspapers,” you get 530 million links.
It’s also a popular pastime among new-media gurus to predict the year the last newspaper will be published. In his 2006 book The Vanishing Newspaper, Philip Meyer famously came out with the prediction of 2043, but recent trends have many expecting that date to arrive much sooner.
A Web site called Newspaper Death Watch even documents the demise of American newspapers: 14 U.S. dailies out of business since 2007 and eight more converted to a hybrid or all-online model. And these numbers do not touch on the grievous thinning out of content over the last 10 years in the typical chain papers that remain (see the Baltimore Sun). The causes for this decline are many and complex, but I’ve explored that subject up in a previous post so I won’t probe it here.
Why, though, as the world marches inexorably toward online information, do I persist in my newspaper habit? It’s not as if the Web world is alien to me. My wife would tell you I spend at least half of my waking life engaging with an electronic device of some sort, tapping into the Buzzosphere in various ways. After comparing my vacation week with my usual newspaper-reading at home, I’ve come up with a few theories.
In the hotel I clicked on a daily email-fed summary of stories in the Times and Post each day, close to the same content waiting in my print edition at home. But I read these electronic papers the way I tend to read everything online – skimming rapidly, only clicking a link to see a story on the rare topics that I’m truly interested in. In this intuitive, fast-read style I cover a lot of ground, but I actually read only one of every 40 to 50 stories whose headlines I skim through. By contrast, my home newspaper reading is like a warm bath each day, an hour or more of immersion. I’d guess that I read at least half the stories the print paper carries.
The Long View
What I like about a nice long newspaper story (the kind that USA Today does not do) is the bit of analysis or the fact or the quote in the 20th paragraph that opens up a new way for me to see the world. The latest buzz – pshaw, as my grandmother used to say, not for me. E.g., a USA Today item highlighted as a Top Story in Google News tells me that “Romney wins NH primary; Paul in 2nd and Huntsman 3rd .” OK, that’s good to know, but what I really want to read are the three or four articles and Op-Ed pieces in the Times and Post the next day that will tell me why it happened and what the implications are.
I seem to have some sort of personality trait that favors being one step back of the news. In short, my instinct is for insight over timeliness. Now you might say, aren’t all these insight pieces online? Yes, of course, you’re right and we come to my third reason for preferring print.
Print newspapers really began for me when I was 10 years old and, just having moved to a new city, raced home every day after school to spread out the Pittsburgh Press on the living room floor and work my way through it, sports section first. Somehow for me a print newspaper entails a style of reading and a daily ritual time-out from the world’s getting and spending; it’s a step-back that’s ingrained in me by now.
I’m not claiming that print is better in any way, only that it has a long history with me. There’s no question that one reason I subscribe to three newspapers is a kind of residual loyalty – call it a sentimental attachment if you will – to the institution of newspapers and the lifetime of pleasure they’ve given me.
In one way, though, I have converted whole-heartedly to the Web world. I’m one of those people who from an early age have clipped stories I like and tossed them into filing cabinets for some unknown future use. True information-hounds do that; perhaps it’s mild form of hoarding. In any case while I still have a fair number of ancient paper files, I do not add to them these days. When I read an article worth saving now, I just save the link in the electronic filing system I’ve devised. This is true even of my print reading, which relies on a basic rip-and-carry-to-PC technique that reminds me to find the article online.
In his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, the environmental historian and geographer Jared Diamond raises an interesting question: what went through the mind of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island, a once-forested South Pacific island, now devoid of trees? His theory is that the island’s trees would have been so gradually used up over generations and generations of islanders that the last tree-cutter was probably not used to seeing many trees at all. Consequently, cutting the final tree would have been no big deal to him.
As for print newspapers, I have the strong sense that they’re getting thinner and fewer and rarer and that we may well be in the last years of print on paper. But I remain one of the old-timers who will never forget the days when the thunk of a thick paper landing meant a kind of miracle on your doorstep every day.