I remember the classic black-and-white movies with the little paperboy shouting “EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!” I remember films and shows that spun attention-grabbing newspaper headlines towards the screen. I remember early college mornings spent with The New York Times, learning more intricacies of the New York Yankees than I ever cared to know.
But pretty soon, when it comes to newspapers, all I’ll have are memories. And I don’t know if that’s a bad thing; in some ways it’s fine. But it’s definitely sad, and newspapers’ new Internet versions create more complications than I initially realized.
Newspapers used to be the source for credible, deep reporting. I came to know the writers of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (especially the sports section) by name, by style, subject and nuance. Part of me will miss the tangibility and familiarity of such newspapers. But most of me will embrace the saved space, speed, innumerable publisher options, and other technological advances of newspapers’ online counterparts.
Time.com recently published an article written by 247wallst.com, reporting on the unstable status of ten major American newspapers, and the likely foreclosures of most of those ten-within a year and a half. Already, multiple nationally-recognized newspapers have declared bankruptcy or relegated themselves to purely online distribution. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver closed, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which is owned by the Hearst Media Corporation, transferred exclusively to online publication after 146 years in print. Hearst also owns The San Francisco Chronicle, which will probably close if it cannot make sufficient cuts.
Along with those, 24/7 goes into details about The Philadelphia Daily News, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Miami Herald, The Detroit News, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Sun Times, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer. The authors came to these ominous conclusions by analyzing “the basis of the financial strength of [the newspapers’] parent companies”.
But I wonder if the disappearance of newspapers truly a bad thing. Surely it’s somewhat depressing when I consider the common nostalgia felt by people long associated with the medium. My father was born in 1952, a time when everyone expected the same paperboy to chuck the morning paper into their driveways daily. My father says he misses those times (though he gets most news from the Internet).
I imagine many people who grew up without the Internet will share that feeling of loss. Newspapers have been staples of American journalism since close to the inception the country. According to historicpages.com, written by Phil Barber, the first newspaper appearance in the U.S. came in 1690 when Benjamin Harris published Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestic in Boston.
But a long tradition has not slowed public’s gradual shift away from newspapers. “The decline in overall newspaper circulation began in 1989, and has continued at a relatively stable pace of just under 1% a year,” reports journalism.org.
A major reason for the decline is the Internet–that progressive technology that has wasted no time dismantling the markets, production, and influence of nearly all forms of popular media in the last twenty years. As it continues a steady march towards ubiquity, many of those media have realized the importance of using it (music, magazines, television, film, video games, even comic books-all have ventured into the online realm).
Once broadband speeds become worldwide commonalities, the vast selection and immediacy of downloadable music will be introduced to an even larger audience, even though it has already caused many people to abandon CDs entirely. Software downloads have left record companies in extremely precarious positions with their revenue descending annually for the last decade or so. According to the Recording Industry Association of America’s shipment and financial statistics, in 1997, the industry accumulated 13,711.2 million dollars in total shipments. In 2007, the number had fallen all the way to 7,985.8 million-about a 42% decrease.
I have contributed to that downfall. I continue to do so. I contributed to the massive piracy problem that was so pervasive in the early days of file-sharing software by downloading countless songs and albums without payment and without a second thought (though, like many, I have since realized the immorality of those actions and currently purchase digital music). But I continue to contribute to the decline by acquiring music online, which bypasses sources of income only existent in acquisitions from retail stores (e.g. packaging).
But I still miss some aspects of owning CDs. I miss the stylized lyric sheets; I miss album cover art like incubus’ picture of a sun rising on an empty sunlit beach; I miss seeing artistry like two hand-drawn, red-and-yellow coy fish on the disc; I miss feeling pride when I see a collection of albums along a shelf.
But I’m willing to abandon CDs for the portability, ease of use, and immediacy of digital formats, not to mention saved space. Clicking is faster; purchasing is faster; listening is faster…
Web programmers consistently improve the quality and availability of television online, which draws viewers away from the set and onto their laptops, costing networks valuable ratings and advertising dollars, especially in the coveted 18-34 demographic.
Even in 2003, comscore.com’s “comScore Media Metrix” (the site claims it is “the standard in Internet audience measurement”) found revelatory statistics concerning Internet usage in the 18-34 demographic. Peter Daboll, president of Media Metrix, says, “The fact that more than 75 percent of 18-34 year-old men in the U.S. are using the Internet seems to take at least some of the mystery out of the decline in TV viewing among this prized demographic.”
But I’m in the “prized demographic”, and I much prefer watching television on large screens while sitting on comfortable couches, with bags of popcorn that won’t dirty a keyboard. I strongly dislike enduring buffering, loading, fickle Internet connections, and other distractions that inherently lie within viewing programs online. I enjoy some conveniences of being online, but naturally, I dislike the inconveniences.
Same with newspapers. I like the conveniences the online medium features, I dislike the inherent disadvantages. For example, I’m a statistic within a recent Nielson Online report of the top 15 most popular newspaper websites of 2008. The New York Times emerged with the most “average monthly uniques” (the average number of different computer users who visit the site at least once within a given month) with 19,503,667. In January of 2005, BusinessWeek Magazine reported the Times’ subscription number was 1.1 million. 19 times (pardon the pun) more people in 2008 saw The New York Times in digital form than did 2005 subscribers to the hard copy.
But I was one of the estimated 1.1 million during 2005, when a college course required a subscription to the Times. And when I actually began reading, I realized I prefer the hard copy. I’m unplugged, untouchable. When connected to the Internet, I can check email, browse Facebook, talk to friends. When away from screens, I read. I just… read.
I belong to a generation that grew up in a childhood with newspapers, but also grew up with the Internet. I feel the loss, at least a portion of it-certainly not to the degree those people so accustomed to newspapers will experience when they read their final local edition.
But I will not feel entirely saddened by the departure of the classic medium, because the new medium provides enough benefits. I can see why the evolution to online publishing occurred. The huge disparity between the number of digital versus traditional readers confirms that online versions generate more readers than their older counterparts. So how can every publisher not try to expand into that realm?
In a comprehensive report earlier this year, with input from multiple outlets (e.g. Newspaper Association of America, Pew Center for People and Press), journalism.org reveals even deeper details about the decline of newspapers-and the rise of online versions.
One major statistic: “The print circulation slide from 2001 to 2008 totals roughly 13.5% [for daily editions] and 17.3% [for Sunday editions].” Further, “Several years ago, there was vague talk that… print circulation numbers might stabilize if not turn back up. That now appears less likely as the gradual shift of audience to the Internet continues [along with financial pressures]… So expect circulation totals to decline again in 2009 and 2010.”
A large impetus for the public’s transition to digital papers (yes, oxymoronic) involves, well, digital and paper. Specifically, consumers don’t want real paper because they have the digital kind. No black smudge on fingers. No giant stack of papers in the corner, on the coffee table, in the trash. No more fumbling with the damn thing because the gigantic width and height coupled with flimsy material creates an incredibly frustrating task in trying to turn a page.
With the Internet, to share an article with a friend, I merely copy and paste the Internet address in an email/Facebook update/Tweet/instant message, hit send, and the friend’s set. Old style? Grab some scissors, carefully cut straight lines around the article on A1 (ruining that section of the paper, including what’s on the back), then possibly flip forward a few pages to A5 and cut out the rest. Put it in your pocket after folding it or crumpling it.
If your friend had the Internet, (a major qualification discussed later) he could have discovered that information tens hours before you did. Take into consideration that The New York Times posts a new story at least once every 15 minutes. Old style? Once every 24 hours. If I rely solely on a newspaper for their information, I’m incredibly restricted by the release schedule.
Plus, online I can get the same kind of local journalist reactions, but from thousands of miles away; I do not have to reside within the mailing radius of Austin, Texas to read an Austin columnist. And because I don’t have to rely on my town’s local paper, I don’t have to read local voices at all.
If I’m tired of American media’s constant coverage of the perpetually declining economy, I visit the BBC.com for a British slant, or Azzaman.com for the Iraqi version of the news. No longer am I confined to local voices or local content. I can wake up and read about everything happening in Japan that day. Business men who constantly travel the globe now access information that affects their travel schedules, and therefore plan accordingly. Tourists check the weather of their destinations. Movie-goers can read millions of film reviews.
This ability to quickly locate information comes in handy most when searching for stories from years past. To find that type of content in newspapers, readers have two options. One: visit a library that houses one of those old reel-style devices that allows people to scan through past papers page-by-page (which still takes forever and requires knowledge of the story’s timetable), or two: manually inspect every paper from the last two years, which would be like trying to find a specific snowflake somewhere in Antarctica while wearing a blindfold.
Letters to the editor used to be the only way for readers to express their opinion on stories or columns. Most websites allow users to respond immediately by placing comments on the bottom of the page, which provide immediate feedback for publishers, which they can use to determine the popular types of stories, research which journalists spark the most controversy, or discover common reader sentiments. The ability to dispense immediate feedback easily satiates the desire to express personal opinions.
Even with all these benefits and shortcuts, proponents of the Internet such as myself cannot make the argument that computer screens are easier to read than paper. Repeatedly enduring long sessions in front of a computer can have major physical ramifications caused by constant poor posture and repetitive straining motions. In the Bureau of Labor and Statistics’ information page regarding Data Entry and Information Processing Workers, they relate the hazards of centered around computer usage. “[Workers] sit for long periods… are susceptible to repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, neck and back injuries, and eyestrain.” Preventative measures must now be taken, so “many offices have adopted regularly scheduled breaks, ergonomically designed keyboards, and workstations that allow workers to stand or sit as they wish.”
I have a degenerative disc in my back that started when I was sixteen. I have tennis and golf elbow (neither caused by tennis or golf). I have chronic pain my right wrist when I use a mouse without a rest. All these injuries resulted from spending so much time (nearly eight hours a day for six years-not exaggerating) fixed in poor postures in front of computer without any notion of “correct” posture. I definitely can’t say I’ve induced chronic injuries by reading newspapers.
Laptops, however, alleviate some of the problems related to excessive computer usage, such as being confined to a desk, as does the growing popularity of mobile phones with Internet capabilities. The inherent portability of those two technologies allows access to more work-friendly and healthier environments, at least outside the office.
Still, when dealing with pixels, problems with the eyes still exist, even if said problems do not concern injuries. Hyperlinks on the Internet easily shift readers’ concentration. Links exist all over websites, and are often brightly colored to easily distinguish them and highlight their purpose-to take users to other sites and other stories and other experiences. So intentionally or not, links steal readers’ attention.
Wavering concentration is a smaller problem with newspapers. Most words relate to the story and won’t take readers to another paper if read. All the paper is white, all the words are black, all the lines are black, all the pictures are black and white (except for Sunday editions). They are (unintentionally) boring-at least aesthetically. No flash, no style, except for the distinct lack of style. Just black words on a white page.
But therein lies the charm of traditional newspapers, the comfort, the advantage. Concentration is not a problem. Eye strain is not a problem. Abstract fonts, hyperlinks, flashy banners, pop-up advertisements-all gone. Just the reader and the news. Sometimes that’s all that matters.
I could never read a novel online. By page 32, I’d go insane. The comfort on the eyes and brain that traditional papers provide cannot be matched by digital versions. On the Internet, I cannot scribble notes in the margins, circle words and then draw lines across the page to other words. I cannot write whatever I want, in whatever style I wish, in whatever location I wish. I can with newspapers. When reading for long periods of time, or reading a lengthy work, I prefer regular paper. I prefer a constant layout and design that allows me to focus on the content instead of the style of the content. Like I said earlier, when away from screens, I just read.
Yet, perhaps detractors of the net like myself (and yes, I realize I earlier claimed I am a proponent–conflict) can take solace in the fact that niche audience still exist for many products, and the same could happen for newspapers. After all, recreating that form’s sensation is not possible digitally-at least not yet. Plenty of people spent some time each morning with their papers and a cup of coffee. Now they must spend each morning with their computers and a cup of coffee. The sudden loss of a decades-long daily routine must be troubling and unsettling. I understand that when something plays a part of one’s entire life, and it suddenly disappears (or morphs into a new form), days will never feel quite the same. Because of that, some local papers will likely stay in business-ones that don’t require large quantities of subscribers and have a very specific audience.
Maybe in the future, gloves that recreate physical sensations, coupled with 3D holographic glasses, will grant the ability to read old newspapers with all the beneficial modern advancements. But until that time, traditional newspapers will continue morphing into new forms. Television has gone from eight channels to 800, from black-and-white to color, from standard definition to High. Books can be read digitally on portable devices that can store upwards of 150,000 of them. Countless magazines have finally resigned to the impending transition to digital by folding or shifting to online publishing, and newspapers have realized they too must reform to meet the demands of their readers (which now number in the hundreds of millions per year, come from all countries, have valuable unique perspectives, can give direct feedback on stories, and have the same capacity to spend money as in years past). Newspapers have little choice in the impending transition. Part of me is glad they don’t. But part of me wishes their future weren’t so bleak.