One of the best—and worst—things about returning from a long trip is the towering stack of newspapers that awaits me. This time it was more than nine inches high, a mixture of local, national, and international papers that are still delivered to our home, rain or shine, whether we’re here or not. I can’t bear to toss them out unread, so I usually make time upon my return for an archeological dig to find out what I’ve missed.
As I dug into that big pile of newspapers after a week of overseas travel, I realized that it wasn’t just the American version of news and features that I craved. It was the personal experience of reading the papers themselves: the way they look; their heft and feel; the tactile act of turning the pages; finding stories that surprise or delight; and even that old-fashioned habit of tearing out pieces to read later, share, or save (a haphazard system that admittedly doesn’t always work as well as e-mail).
But this isn’t just another exercise in nostalgia. I also read news on my iPhone and enjoy Tweeting with the best of them. I’m optimistic about the online universe’s democratic potential to involve the audience in hunting and gathering news and information as well as consuming it.
Still, after a week in which the newspaper industry took another nose dive, including the devastating demise of Colorado’s oldest newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, I was comforted to see that solid stack of newsprint—particularly since I went through a similar loss in 1981, as a Washington Star reporter, when the distinguished 128-year-old daily suffered the fate of most afternoon papers of the time.
Much has been made of the daily newspaper’s importance in creating original content, which in turn feeds the burgeoning online news industry. But with the “flesh-and-blood” paper increasingly an endangered species, it’s also important to recognize the added value of what is communicated by the three-dimensional print product itself—something that’s not easily replicated in the two-dimensional experience of viewing a computer or cell phone screen. The whole print package is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Page One or the section fronts in papers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or USA Today provide important visual cues to their editors’ judgment about the importance of a given story before a reader even knows what it is about. The page layout, headline size, story placement (above or below the fold), and accompanying photos or graphics draw attention and give a quick insight into the behind-the-scenes thinking of an experienced, knowledgeable team that meets throughout the day to hash out not only “what” to cover but “where” it should go. That judgment is what gives a paper its individuality (although time pressures and dwindling resources are having an increasingly negative impact).
Many Web sites (including this one) are able to highlight the day’s top stories in a similar manner. But, in the rush to post, other sites simply present their content as a chronological, undifferentiated list. While these sites can provide needed 24/7 updates, there is sometimes a worry that their chronological format provides little editorial insight into the articles’ relative importance. Of course, some would argue that the community can now indicate which stories are most important to them by commenting, sharing links, or using social bookmarking sites like Digg. Still, it can be nice to have an authoritative editorial hand guiding you through the day’s news.
Plowing through my papers, I was also reminded of the power of serendipity in the physical process of reading a newspaper. It’s often a two-step process, a hurried look at the tops news and features in your favorite sections, followed by a more leisurely return to the stories you’ve missed—a process that can be much harder online, even with the aid of bookmarking applications. While I regularly follow the worlds of science, policy and politics, I’m also looking for stories that randomly catch my eye—things I don’t even know that I’m interested in that day.
I seldom do more than skim the sports pages, but a fascinating New York Times feature on and photo of a 44-year-old Colorado athlete described “as the grand paladin of high-altitude distance running” caught my eye (he holds record times for scaling Pikes Peak and has a resting heart rate lower than Michael Phelps, in case you’re wondering). A front-page Wall Street Journal take-out on New Zealand research to reduce the gas from belching in sheep (“mutton methane”) provided a novel look at the global warming problem.
The Connecticut woman mauled by a friend’s crazed pet chimp drew international coverage, but there was far more local color and detail in her hometown paper (and mine), The Stamford Advocate. I actually stayed up much of the night in Paris to watch the Oscars, but I still loved reading days later about the debate in India over best picture Slumdog Millionaire, as well as fashion commentary on Penelope Cruz’s ivory, Cinderella-like vintage Balmain gown.
It’s not an either-or question, of course. During my trip, I tried to keep up on the news (albeit somewhat perfunctorily) by checking favorite Web sites, Google e-mail alerts, Twitter, CNN on cable, and the occasional International Herald Tribune. So I already knew the basics about Obama’s speech to Congress and the increasingly sorry state of the stock market. (I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I even Tweeted about the Oscars during the live show with a worldwide community of Twitterers.)
But all that still had a somewhat anodyne feel compared to the experience of reading about them in my own newspapers. And I wonder if those who grew up reading no paper papers whatsoever sometimes miss the unexpected, by limiting their consumption to those stories compiled by hyper-targeted news aggregators, or posted on sites that “preach to the converted,” reinforcing their visitors’ existing views and preferences. Of course, readers have donned “news blinders” since ink was first set to paper. But more and more these days I’m recognizing an odd paradox: those innovations that can immeasurably broaden one’s world view can also immeasurably narrow it.
My family subscribes to five daily newspapers. It’s our way of showing support for the beleaguered industry, at a time when the survival of so many U.S. newspapers is threatened. Unlike the winning “slumdog” movie contestant in the Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, American newspapers today have unfortunately used up most of their lifelines. The “fifty-fifty” elimination has already gotten rid of much of the competition, and publishers haven’t had much luck recently in phoning a friend for an infusion of new funds or asking the audience for help.
In order to make it to the next round, newspapers are going to have to keep struggling for relevance and developing new models to survive in this evolving multimedia world. In the meantime, I’ll keep cheering them on by buying, reading, and recycling those towers of newsprint, and encouraging others to do the same. (And, yes, I get the irony of hand-wringing about the fate of newspapers on a Web site.) Hopefully, there is room for all.Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.