Online news will never beat the paper

Section: Focus, pg. a19



In the mid 1990s, when World Wide Web exploded into household terminology about as quickly as television had four decades earlier, sundry scholars and commentators emerged with a chorus cry of “Print is Dead.”

Still in high school, and eager to embrace the inspiring new technologies of the day, I never believed any of it.

Today, despite the demonstrated perseverance of print media, there remain doomsayers who claim newspapers are on their way out. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of print’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

In the United States — the world’s largest English-language newspaper market — on any given Sunday there are an average 120 million people flipping through a daily newspaper. This is according to Gary Pruitt, chairman and CEO of the McClatchey Co. — a Sacramento, Calif., firm that earlier this year purchased for $6.5 billion the 32-paper Knight-Ridder chain. He compares America’s 120 million Sunday newspaper readers to the 93 million viewers of the NFL’s XXXIX Super Bowl Sunday in 2005, to explain his optimism about the future of print journalism.

The demise of the newspaper has before been predicted, during the ascendancy of the television era, and even decades before that, during the golden age of radio. But print persists, simply because no new technology has been able to match its utility.

The portability of the newspaper remains unmatched by even the lightest of laptops, and squinting into a tiny PDA seems to me a rather pathetic way to consume text. It is the tangibility of print, versus the ephemeral nature of pixelated dots forming text on a screen, that lends the experience of reading a printed newspaper greater powers to enter the human psyche compared to its online counterpart. A newspaper is something sensual: You can feel it, smell it, even (though I don’t recommend this) taste it. Pages can be preserved and archived for centuries.

Still, there are some who claim to prefer the intangibility of online news, referring to their daily newspaper as the “dead tree edition.” These young people — they all seem to be under 30 — believe they are environmentally conscious by eschewing a printed newspaper that can be recycled and is most likely printed on recycled newsprint. They avoid questions about the effects on one’s eyes that accompany staring into a computer monitor most of their waking day. They seem unconcerned by the social effects of sitting solitary with their computers, rather than passing sections of a newspaper around to share and comment upon with family and peers.

According to a recent study by Canadian market research firm D-Code, young people who read newspapers tend to be more socially active than those who don’t. They’re also likelier to vote in elections and to volunteer in their communities. More exciting for advertisers, frequent readers go shopping, visit nightclubs, and use mobile phones more often than less frequent readers.

As times have changed, newspapers have too. My earliest memory of a colour photo on the front page was the Free Press’s 1984 coverage of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Winnipeg. Today the Free Press’s front page has embraced a “point-and-click” format in which there are no longer any front-page stories but rather just highlights of the top stories within. This, it could be argued, represents a move toward a tabloid-broadsheet hybrid, but some broadsheets — including London’s The Times — have switched to a tabloid format altogether. The venerable Wall Street Journal remains the broadest of American broadsheets, but as of next year it will be three inches narrower.

Some have suggested that the future of newspapers lies in their being free. Certain free weeklies, such as Manhattan’s Village Voice, are doing well. But the weekday editions of most newspapers cost less than a dollar, and that small expenditure not only helps to cover increasing newsprint costs, but gives the buyer a sense of ownership that, presumably, makes it likelier the newspaper will be read, shared, and properly recycled. Sadly, too many free newspapers, even ones as good as the Village Voice, end up as litter.

For all our rapid and wholesale embrace of new media and computer technology in the 21st century, you’ll find at even the most avant garde of wireless Internet cafs an assortment of print editions lying about, even on the tables of the most enthusiastic laptop users. Even as most newspapers now offer websites, it’s the “dead tree edition” that keeps our conversations alive.