Lovesick for newsprint

On Sunday morning, as I plopped down the Miami Herald on our kitchen table and sat down to read it, I felt engaged in an outmoded practice, like listening to an LP, saving data to a floppy disk or using a VCR to tape a TV program.

I realize many people experienced this moment years ago, as the declining circulation of daily newspapers in the U.S. clearly attests, but in this instance, I'm not an average reader.

All my life I have loved newspapers. In elementary school, when we had free time in class, I would fold sheets of paper and make my own rudimentary tabloids. Crafting a newspaper gave me great joy for reasons I couldn't explain or understand -- it was a very strong and instinctive attraction. In the 1970s and 1980s, my hometown -- San Juan, Puerto Rico -- had multiple daily newspapers. My parents subscribed to three of them, and the mere sight of these dailies at our doorstep gave me great pleasure. I loved them as products, like I loved my bicycle, my basketball, my baseball mitt, my Tonka trucks and my Matchbox cars.

Unsurprisingly, I became a journalist. I learned the trade in the early 1990s, a handful of years before the Internet became mainstream. Although I have written primarily for the Web since 1995, I always considered the daily print newspaper the core component of journalism, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary in recent years.

Two days ago, I hit a tipping point. I stopped being a holdout. I felt guilty, as I flipped through the Herald, admitting to myself that a print newspaper is an obsolete, inefficient product, and that it will soon disappear for good, because we're running out of reasons to keep it around.

Then the next day, I felt less guilty, when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a 146-year-old major metro daily in Washington, validated my act of treason, my disloyalty, by announcing it will stop publishing on paper and go exclusively online.

"The creation of as a standalone digital news and information business is a great opportunity for us to try out many of the theories journalism professionals and academics have been throwing around for the past few years. Is it possible to run an online-only local news site that serves a city's readers well while turning a profit? Is a digital news product a viable solution for cities whose papers can no longer afford to operate? We think so," wrote Executive Producer Michelle Nicolosi. "We're going to break a lot of rules that newspaper Web sites stick to, and we are looking everywhere for efficiencies."

The reasons why print newspapers have become dinosaurs have been outlined many times, but they are worth repeating.

Much of the content is old and has been available online for many hours by the time the newspaper is printed and delivered. Even stories with longer shelf lives, like original features and investigative pieces, read better online, where the text of the articles can be enhanced with interactive graphics, photo slideshows, video interviews, links to related pieces, and options to peruse relevant primary documents, like legal briefs and government reports.

The daily newspaper is an implicitly paternalistic artifact. It treats readers condescendingly, telling them the cover stories are more important than that short item on page B-10. It doesn't foster a conversation, instead assuming that the delivery of information is a one-way street -- from the staff to the readers -- and devoting a small fraction of its publication to letters. This was acceptable for decades, and even until a few years ago. But today, reading an article without the option of seeing reader reaction feels incomplete.

The long-held practice of reading a newspaper from beginning to end, hoping to find interesting articles, has been made obsolete by syndication feeds, search engines, e-mail newsletters, news aggregation sites, all of which let people instantly seek what they want, which is, of course, different for every individual.

Then there's advertising, the business engine of daily newspapers. Maybe publishers could have kept control of their industry if they had been more business savvy, catching on to how the Internet was transforming advertising. But they didn't see quickly enough what was evident to the folks over at Google years before -- that the Web could make advertising much more effective, creating a win-win situation for marketers and consumers. By matching ads to relevant content and reader actions, Internet companies like Google snatched away huge chunks of ad revenue from print newspapers, by showing that job, real estate and other classified ad staples are more effective online.

The results have been devastating for newspaper companies. According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2009 State of the News Media report, newspaper ad revenues have fallen 23 percent in the past two years. "By our calculations, nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone, and 2009 may be the worst year yet," the report reads.

The last conveniences that print newspapers can offer, like portability and the superior reading experience that ink on paper offers, will soon be matched and exceeded by devices like Amazon's Kindle.

I still subscribe to the Sunday edition of the Miami Herald, although reading it is not so much something I do to stay informed, as it is a decadent indulgence on a weekend morning, an activity I enjoy that I recognize is no longer very useful.

I believe that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's decision to stop its print edition will become the norm. It wouldn't surprise me if the Miami Herald falls in line soon, considering that last week it announced plans to lay off 19 percent of its staff, cut salaries across the board, reduce the width of its news pages and end publication of its international edition.

With no Sunday newspaper to read, maybe I'll feel compelled to fold some blank sheets while I eat breakfast and create my own tabloid -- just like when I was in third grade.

As Seattle Post-Intelligencer Managing Editor David McCumber wrote on Monday: "We won't be here to nudge you along in that old traditional newspaper way, so you're going to have to figure all that out, and more, without us."

After all, while print newspapers may disappear in the U.S., my love for them, I suspect, will never leave me.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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