Friday, February 09, 2007

Are Newspapers Dying?

Upon our return to Centennial, we noted that The Rocky Mountain News had shrunk and was redesigned as a tabloid. The heft was gone; it seemed emaciated. The Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post are now distributed by the same company and are housed in the same building, although their editorial leadership is distinct. This is a cost-cutting move. This follows a trend of several years: people--particularly younger people, "wired people"--are turning to other news sources. One cartoon depicted two twenty-somethings looking at a newsstand. One said to the other, "I don't get it. It's a day old and you have to pay for it." Is there a point to the daily newsprint?

Major newspaper put most of their material on line. News is posted as it breaks. Why wait until the next day? Why bother with the dirty paper, most of which you never read, and that ends up in the garbage? Is one's preference or attachment for the newspaper merely generational? I was brought up reading it, writing letters to editor, clipping articles, and writing editorials in my junior and high school papers and later in major city newspapers. Nevertheless, in almost five months in Sun City West, Arizona, we did not take the newspaper. I listed to the radio (NPR and Talk Radio--quite a contrast), read The New York Times and other sources on line, and read magazines and books.

Newspapers have their constitutional draw backs and trade-offs. They separate and present a collage, unlike a book or magazine. They splatter divergent articles on the same page, often without much coherence or integration. (This is Marshall McLuhan's insight.) They are incessantly daily; that is, they seldom put things into an historical context. Editorials may articulate such a context, but they are boxed in to 500-750 words. Some feature stories run as a series, which may go on for several days. This may provide more context and depth, if they are well-researched and well-written. But some stories are there simply to fill space. There has to be news, after all. But why? Maybe silence or a blank page would be better for the soul.

Images end to dominate most newspapers now. USA Today is modeled after television, as Neil Postman pointed out long ago. Images are not conceptual, but impressionistic, incapable of abstraction or analysis.

Yet newspapers have their allure, a justified uniqueness worth preserving. They are embodied--not as substantial or long-lived as books or even magazines, but they exist off of the screen. The screen carries with it an entirely different set of sensibilities. (I wrote of this in a chapter of a book, "The Book, The Screen, and the Soul," in The Soul in Cyberspace. That book was put onto a CD-ROM, ironically.) The screen moves. One screen can house an unlimited number of different words or images; it is not inscribed upon, but filled with markings without ink.

Heft has its virtues; bulk has its rewards. You pick up the paper; bring it in; leave it out; pick through it; talk about it with family members (the same paper; you do not have many people staring at different screens). You can clip a story. You can rip it to shreds in disgust or crumple it up and throw it across the room--good curmudgeonly performance art. You may find something unexpected, something a search engine would not reveal. The paper is not constituted or styled for your own individual interests, as is so much of the internet. You take what it gives and see what you find.

This past Sunday, I spent an hour in a local Starbucks, reading The Old Gray Lady's Sunday edition. (I didn't buy it, but borrowed it from the stand, and put it back--pretty much--as I found it.) There was a review of a book about the dark side of Paris and other interesting things and ridiculous things--a narcissistic and pointless story about a new professor's anxieties about his sartorial comportment. Yes, I could have read this on line, but it wouldn't have been the same. You don't turn through pages on line, you search for articles. Those pages, encountered as pages, may yield a serendipitous reward. And the pages will not mysteriously disappear, as data on screens so often does. Yes, I may spill my coffee on it, but it won't short-circuit anything.

There are the inevitable trade-offs with any medium, electronic or not. But newspapers have their charm, their telos, their place in our culture. May their demise be denied, or at least prolonged.

11 comments:

Jeff said...

I hadn't thought of the communal aspect of the newspaper before. But this is certainly true. We get the Post at our house. While eating breakfast, my kids (who are just beginning to learn how to read) might see a picture and ask me about it. It's an opportunity to open their eyes to the world in ways I wouldn't think of had not this, "serendipitous" moment as you put it, occurred.

And I'd be very interested in seeing a reenactment of your "good curmudgeonly performance art" in class sometime! This would compliment my memory of the "book drop-kick" performance from years ago...

Tom said...

Um, no offense here Doug, but isn't there a little irony in the fact that in piece extolling the virtues of print newspapers and lamenting their potential demise, you mention that you didn't buy the Sunday paper but "borrowed it" from the stand, putting it back "pretty much" as you found it?

Douglas Groothuis said...

What's ironic? That I didn't support the newspaper business by purchasing it? Perhaps. The Sunday NY Times is $5!

We are getting the Rocky at hour home (five weeks for free) and will likely pay for a renewal.

Clint said...

Good post. I'm with you on the communal aspect of the paper. I remember waking up as a kid and hurrying to get the Sports section before my brother could during breakfast. I especially enjoyed the Sunday paper later on in life with the comics, religion and the arts section. Now, I live with 4 other single guys and we don't get the paper, so I just get the news online. I especially enjoy MyYahoo! page where I can decide what news I want (business, national, international, NBA, etc.).

I suppose there was a form of news before the newspaper (messengers, word of mouth, etc.) that was even more communal than the newspaper. The newspaper as a medium will probably cease to exist in 100 years, if not sooner.

cymrudyffed said...

Perhaps it is simply messy nostalgia, but I agree with you on this. But beyond the communal benefits (its The London Times in my office), there is something desirable in the tactile sensation of the paper. One part of the appeal of a tangible newspaper is I think the sensory advantage (touch and sight) of the paper over the digital.
As to the shift toward tabloid-esque daily papers in the US, I would draw your attention to the newspapers of the UK, which are (aside from a handful of national prints) a smorgasbord of brief and vapid articles overshadowed by blaring headlines and massive pictures. Certainly objects worthy of performance art, curmudgeon or otherwise...

Tom said...

Doug: Yeah, that's the irony I was suggesting. I didn't mean to be a jerk...

MJ said...

On the minor note, I will take talk radio before NPR anyday. You have to seriously lack ignore substance to not realize the subversive (and often blaring) anti-God, anti-family, and one-sided (humanist) agenda of NPR. Though often crass, at least talk radio owns up to its presuppositions and nominally supports (or at least tolerates) tenets of Christianity within its conservative commentators.

Christians should ban NPR and avoid the appearance of false intellectualism it gives.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Tom:

You are not a jerk. I didn't see it!

David said...

Hi Tom,

Maybe you were merely being ornery in your original comment, so forgive me for possibly taking you too seriously. But a minor point here:

Reading a newspaper provided by a coffee shop does make one, at least indirectly, a patron of said periodical. The price of cappuccino goes towards more than just the drink itself. And I suspect that if no customers ever read an item, then management would not maintain the subscription.

Also, I think the newspaper folks would welcome the exposure of having their publication available at a well known establishment. Given that periodicals are driven by advertising revenue rather than subscriptions, it is probably irrelevant that a customer doesn't "pay" for what he reads while enjoying his mocha.

Sir Fab said...

Buying a newspaper (in fact, two or three) had always been my pleasure when I lived in Italy. And I often varied the ones I bought. The staple was Corriere della Sera, which is the most balanced and prestigious daily in Italy, but then I would complement it with other newspapers at both extremes of the political spectrum. Doing so taught me at an early age to balance common wisdom with the understanding that common doesn't always imply right or unquestionable. When I return to Italy, I still spend way too much money on the dailies, as my mother never fails to notice.

As a foreigner living in this country, I always felt that American newspapers were far too provincial in their handling of news than their European counterparts. The only American newspaper where I could find some treatment of foreign news was the New York Times, and it too often dealt little with foreign news which were not somehow related to the interests of this nation. I understand that newspapers in this country have a regional dimension, but the balance between local, national, and international news is far too skewed in favor of the first item. Luckily, the Internet came along as a source of excellent information (and perspectives) from all over the world.

In essence, while I understand that political and social participation often starts at the local level, I refuse to patronize RMN or the Denver Post, because I am put off but their almost exclusively local focus. Besides, in an effort to appear super partes, they miserably fail at what I consider the preeminent responsibility of the local press: monitoring our representatives in local government and exposing their suspect allegiances to the donors that contributed to their election.

Tom said...

Hi David,

Yes, you are probably right. Of course, most places that have communal papers also sell them. If one thinks it would be a bad thing were the traditional newsprint paper to go away, then supporting it directly by purchasing a copy is surely to do more to keep the presses running than merely reading the coffeehouse's copy.

Also, Doug's description seemed to suggest that he read a copy that was itself for sale rather than a communal copy. Of course, I could easily be wrong about that. (And I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong--well, not much anyway--with such borrowing, but only that it is ironic given the point of his post.)