When the Daily show was doing a bit that compared the 2008 Republican National Convention to the Superdome during Katrina, one scene showed Jason Jones with a handkerchief pressed over his nose and mouth.  “I’m here in the print media center… the stench of death is overwhelming…”  This kind of got me thinking about the fate of the newspapers, which is unsurprisingly a favorite topic in the news lately.  And last night, the Daily Show’s guest was hawking a book in which he claims to be able to save newspapers through schemes like micropayments.

Why I love newspapers:

  1. The feel.  The tactile experience of going through the paper.  While I don’t smoke or drink coffee, I totally get the idea of the newspaper as being a brilliant part of that hallowed morning ritual.
  2. You feel less dorky taking them into the can with you.  You never want anyone to know you’ve brought your laptop into te only place where it’s actually used on your lap.
  3. Regional reporting. ‘Nuff said.
  4. Editors.  This is what conventional media in general is hanging onto for dear life, and it’s a good one.  For example, an editor would make me actually read this guy’s book before dismissing it out of hand. Fact-checking, editorial review, and so on, the machinery of the Gatekeepers of News Reporting, really are wonderful things in most cases.  I will miss the sometimes erroneous assurance that the story has been vetted and it really worth reading at face value. (Side note: If we could harness misinformation in some way, we coud make travel to disant planets a reality.  Not even light moves faster than bogus facts on the internet.)
  5. Community.  This is one of those tings that one doesn’t really value until one loses it.  But reading the Letters page and knowing that these people are in my community and therefore have some degree of relevance and even credibility is an experience I just don’t get on the internet.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m part of many strong internet-based communities and I enjoy them very much.  But there really is something to be said for a central place to discuss issues with people you may actually see in person at some point.
  6. Newspaper as an Artifact. While a new breed of archaeology is emerging out of data mining in search engines and the Internet Archive wayback-machine for recent historical information, the newspapers remain a tangible artifact of the past, reflecting so much more than just the actual content of the news article.  Visual aesthetics of illustration, layout and typography of the day, the ephemeral advertisements and so on make newspapers a unique and valuable key to understanding the past in a way that is much harder for the pure-information approach to archiving news items, stripping out the ephemeral “wastes of bandwidth”.

Now for what I won’t miss about newspapers:

  1. The mess.   As soon as I get the rubberband off, the thing seems to explode in an oversized confetti of individual sheets coering all horizontal surfaces.  I don’t know how this happens but it’s always been like that for me.
  2. The newsprint ink.  Last night, Jon Stewart suggested that newspapers could be saved by impregnating the ink with a highly addictive narcotic substance.  Great.
  3. Classified Ads.  We’ll be explaining to our chilren in the very near future that we “paid by the line” for “text-only ads” and had to invent a byzantine language of abbreviations just to get one ad in a non-searchable format for just one week. Good riddance.  That was stupid even then, but we just had to wait for a sensible alternative to arrive in the format of the Internet, and Craigslist in particular.
  4. The suspicion that unseen forces are manipulating what is and isn’t seen in the paper.  Traditional media has tried to paint citizen journalismin the colors of conspiracy theorists but the undeniable fact is that by decentralizing control of the media you throw off the constraints imposed by those who would like to control it.  Did you know, for example, that there was a time when what the Chinese government said about what’s going on in its country actually had credibility?  Now the media only repeats what the Chinese government says partly out of perfunctory courtesy and partly as an amusing and pathetic counterpoint to what is clearly really happening.
  5. Paying for it.  Sorry, Mr. Walter Isaacson, I won’t pay for the news.  I know it’s not fair but I still won’t.  The iTunes model of minipayments breaks down because (as Stewart immediately pointed out) the song you can enjoy over and over again but the news is ephemeral almost by definition.  I will simply use less trustworthy information sources that are free.  I will even aggregate the same news items from several untrustworthy sources and triangulate the real story from there rather than subscribe to a trusted source.  Even if you could get the toothpaste back into the tube, it’s a leaky tube.  You could never prevent the free spread of information; you never had a chance.
  6. Not being in control of the collection of stories.  I like being able to effectively build my own newspaper from the stories I’m interested in through RSS.
  7. Regurgitated Reuters and AP stories.  Both fine institutions but it always felt like a copout to me.  Knowing that I could read virtually the same article in any newspaper devalued mine.
  8. Censorship.  Never cared for it much.  I have an 18-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son and I cringe knowing what they have easy access to, and I still don’t much believe in censorship.  I understand why other parents want it, but I don’t believe in regional community standards and I still believe that information wants to be free, and trying to censor it is just a giant game of whack-a-mole that just makes the censored information more attractive and leaves you looking as pathetic as a Chinese news outlet.
  9. Lowest Common Denominator.  Lame-ass human interest stories are legion, more now than ever before, and especially in TV media.  The more time Nancy Grace spends ranting about an “issue” the less interesting and relevant it is to me. But I still think of it as the newspapers’ fault.  (I still can’t get over the ancient Bloom County in which the harried, weak-willed newspaper editor was helpless to resist Milo’s clichéd human interest stories: “RUN THAT BABY!!!”.  Apparently, I’m not alone.)
  10. The Sports section.  Never had any use for it.  It was always in my way, and now it isn’t.

But the news isn’t all bad for the papers.  I predict that the pendulum will swing back, though the Coriolis Effect of the changing face of media consumption will propel it along a slightly (okay, radically) different path.

  • People will begin to miss regional reporting and the sense of community that comes with it.
  • They will get tired of trying to collage many free but untrustworthy news sources to get a sense of the real picture.
  • They will begin to distinguish articles that actually have a monetary value to them, and understand the value of paying for critical information (example: Expensive industrial trade reports today.)
  • They will find themselves siloed by their own control of the media.  For example, I will continue to read only stories about technology, science, or whatever else I think to put into my RSS feeds, and eventually realize the value of having completely unrelated but occasionally interesting articles thrown in with the stuff I know I will care about.

With luck, the print media will learn to evolve in ways that take these effects into account.  Unfortunately I still don’t think they’re ever gonna reclaim the prized 18-24 demo, and maybe an even broader range than that; a few of the things I’ve mentioned are only valued by (let’s face it) old people.