Are Newspapers Dying?
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.