Can a Click Replace a Glance?

To realize just how bad things have gotten in the newspaper industry, consider the following list of casualties: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ended its print edition; it now exists only on the Web. The Rocky Mountain News shut its doors completely (the paper's Web site sits frozen in its Feb. 27 version, like a watch that stopped at the moment of a nuclear explosion). The parent company of The Philadelphia Inquirer filed for bankruptcy. In a last-ditch bid to keep their paper from folding, workers at The San Francisco Chronicle accepted a painful new contract that could cut the newsroom staff by a third. All these events occurred just in the last month. All these papers have histories that date back to the mid-19th century.

No one knows exactly what will happen to the 1,400 daily newspapers that are still operating. Some will almost certainly go out of business; Others will become Web-only publications. Even though there are some papers with the resources to carry on, it seems hard to imagine that 50 years from now, there will still be a stack of newsprint delivered to people's door. (There are, one should acknowledge, rays of hope here and there; see this interview with El Diario La Prensa's Alberto Vourvoulias on why ethnic newspapers are actually doing quite well.) This painful transition poses some serious threats to our civic life. But for the moment, I want to explore something else we'll lose if the daily paper goes the way of the horse and buggy: the particular experience that the newspaper provides, one which for all its wonder, the Internet has yet to duplicate.

According to the Newspaper Association of America, daily-newspaper circulation peaked at 63 million in 1973; today, in a country with a much larger population, it is below 50 million. In the 1960s, over 80 percent of adults read the newspaper; the figure today is less than half that.

And the decline in newspaper readership isn't just happening because younger people favor electronic media; in fact, people of all ages are reading newspapers less than they used to. For instance, the Pew Research Center recently reported that over the last 10 years, newspaper readership among the World War II generation declined by 12 percentage points, while readership among baby boomers slipped by 10 points.

As dramatic as the decline is, there are still tens of millions of people who read the newspaper every day. And though papers look much the same as they did 200 years ago, there continues to be something unique and valuable in the particular way the newspaper enables you to get news.

To see what I'm getting at, consider the difference between an open-stack library and a closed-stack library. Anyone who has ever visited a closed-stack library like the Library of Congress knows that it is not a particularly pleasurable experience. You have to figure out exactly which book you want, then request it (often by filling out a little slip of paper), and after some period of waiting, it will be brought to you. As long as you are looking for one particular thing, it's adequate. The real value of the open-stack library, on the other hand, is not the book you were looking for, but the book you happened across on your way to what you were looking for. It's what you see and realize you're interested in, or what you might never have thought you'd be interested in.

Newspapers provide an open-stack experience, one that the Internet (despite the fact that it is in many ways the world's biggest open-stack library) can't yet duplicate. Each time you turn a newspaper's pages, you are confronted with six or eight new stories, often accompanied by large photos (not thumbnails). In the space of a few seconds, you can read the opening sentence or two of any or all of these articles, decide whether your interest has been piqued, and move on. If you're a newspaper reader, chances are that at least once a day you find yourself reading an entire article you never would have clicked on, had it appeared just as one of a list of headlines on a news site. Though it doesn't take much more time, a click is just more of a commitment than a glance. You can also leaf through the sections of the paper and decide if you want to read about sports or arts or business much quicker than you could open up a new tab for each topic on nytimes.com or Yahoo! News.

So despite the practically infinite news options with which the Internet presents us, the kind of constrained serendipity the newspaper provides just isn't there (it's constrained because editors have whittled the news down to the couple of hundred stories that appear in the paper every day). The Internet helps us learn a lot about the things we already know we want to learn about, but only sometimes does it offer us that gentle nudge to learn a little bit about something we haven't thought of before. The more thoughtfully constructed blogs do this, but more common are sites that operate in a closed circle of interest -- there’s no need to wander past the foreign news to get to the political news, for instance.

It isn't that there's anything inherent in the process of ones and zeros passing through the ether that precludes an experience that duplicates what we get with newspapers. The problem, actually, lies with our screens. The screen on your computer is probably somewhere between 100 and 200 square inches, and Web sites are designed to fit in this rectangle. In contrast, when it's opened, a copy of The New York Times measures 546 square inches, five times as much area as the 15-inch screen on your laptop. All too often, news sites respond to the dearth of space by cramming in hundreds of links in tiny type, making it even less likely that any one will catch your eye.

I hope I don't sound like a grumpy old man lamenting the passing of the telegraph -- I'd have a much harder time giving up the Web than I would giving up the newspaper. But I'm sure there are many people like me, for whom reading the paper with breakfast is a kind of daily sacrament of engagement with the world. Perhaps sometime soon, someone will design a dining table whose entire surface is a touch screen -- that way you could sit with your coffee and cereal, looking down on a virtual recreation of a newspaper in its full expansive glory, flipping pages with a swipe of your hand. (The technology is certainly available today, but the table would probably retail for $30,000.)

More and more, each morning's communion with the pages of the paper feels like a ritual from a time that has passed. If and when newspapers as we know them disappear, the loss will be dramatic. Communities will find themselves without the key institution that creates and sustains local civic life. People will know even less about what is going on in their town or city. As investigative journalism becomes more scarce, there may well be more corruption in government (as Paul Starr argues here). All of these effects will make us understand what newspapers provide to us. But what many will miss the most is walking outside, picking up the paper, glancing at the headlines on the way back in, then settling down at the kitchen table to take in our morning's sustenance of journalism.

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