Without a doubt, my favorite letters to the editor are the ones chastising us for not putting the Sudoku and crossword puzzle nearer to each other. If you’re going to rip out those distractions for your Angell Hall lecture, putting them on opposite sides of the same page is mighty convenient. How evil of us to deny you, gentle reader, the Greater Good.
Ironically, it’s pessimistic to view this as a good thing. Many media critics believe we are witnessing the slow death of paper as a medium. It’s an added expense, it’s outdated and the online market is burgeoning. All these observations are true, to some extent, but it’s tough to envision a world where everyone owns an iPhone, a laptop (though the MIT-bred One Laptop per Child initiative is trying to provide $150 laptops to children in Africa), an Internet connection or even a cell phone. The vast amounts of information available in a newspaper can’t be completely streamlined into tiny displays and touch screens. No one is going to be completely connected to the world-as-Internet anytime soon (or at all). There will always be a market for paper news.
Technological improvement is not universal and there exists a very intangible, if real, attachment to paper. You can’t deny the (admittedly pop-Romantic) charm of rustling through a hefty A-section. It just feels . real. Online’s wheelhouse is its variety of content. You skim and click, click and browse, and maybe by the end of an hour or so you’ve read the equivalent of a full front-page article – in the form of a dozen or more links. Of course you can rapidly scan through newspapers, but they’re much more inclined to keep you focused on the article in hand.
Culturally, we’ve always looked to the front page as a crucial qualifier. If our top newspapers deem a story front-page worthy, then it’s probably worth your time to check it out. Headlines are entities that scream, plead, finger-point, bemuse (New York Post, anyone?), ostracize, etc., etc., ad nauseum. You just don’t get that kind of exigency online. When everything is a keystroke and few clicks away from everything else, it’s harder to discern what’s actually important.
Though the Sudoku/crossword addicts might not care what’s on the front page or right next to their puzzle of choice, they still need the paper. Their need (puzzles, rationale for tuning out of lectures) is met by this medium, and it’s an immediate trade-off: No printing of online puzzles, no cell phone feeds. It’s the same formula for the actual news: Readers are given a glance at a part of the world and are vaguely up to speed with it. You can carry the Daily with you in between classes (if it makes it that far). The Washington Post has its own Express edition, readily available for crammer commuters – who, as it happens, don’t have wireless reception of any kind when shuttled underground. The Onion, America’s great satire machine, lays out it’s A/V Club section, especially film reviews, in a quick-hits fashion, ideal for commuters and coffee sippers.
There are too many moments in a day where paper is simply more convenient. No matter what Apple says, it’s not chic to squint at a tiny screen filled with music videos by The Shins when you’re on the bus. Are you going to muck up your iPhone with greasy fingers on your lunch break when a newspaper or magazine is nearby? Bathroom stall? Easy. Then there are the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists stocked with magazines for quick perusal. Wouldn’t it be awkward to whip out that Blackberry next to a screaming baby? Pick up an US Magazine and wait your turn.
(Forgive me: Our Office of Financial Aid has some of the most shallow TV/celeb mags you can imagine. I won’t name them here for fear of libel suits.)
Obviously, newspapers as print media are all in a tizzy over the Brave New World of the web. Some are adapting, some aren’t. The New York Times has seen a rise in subscriptions. Newspapers as a whole have not. While most major newspapers spill some ink on their front pages to direct readers to their websites, it will be interesting to see if this can be taken even further – news commentary involving detailed analysis of blogs and their comments; more space for online headlines on the front page; and the wider inclusion of reputable and widely trafficked blogs as sources, to name a few. Instead of acting like separate worlds, print and online should have broader cross-over. Slate.com routinely rounds up bloggers’ opinions on events of the day. Who’s to say mainstream newspaper readers don’t want to see the same thing in print?
What I don’t foresee happening is the reverse: Websites creating a print edition to supplement online. As an admitted paper lover, that’s not as saddening as the death of paper as a whole, but it does reflect the general direction the medium is heading: online. What remains to be seen – indeed, what remains to be done – is exactly how print media outlets are going to consolidate the vast frontier of online (a world they are finally starting to throw their weight around in) with the daily paper edition, the backbone of their enterprise.