Life after death: newspapers and the re-invention of paper technology

The threat underlying the transition to a paperless, Internet world is, in itself, ironic. Firstly, the illusive space of the online sphere is being filled with a cacophony of “voices,” many of which are echoing the content produced by the traditional media. The Internet speaks in a language of reaction; meanwhile, some of the catalysts themselves are being destroyed. Journalists are worried about the future of the profession, and the media industry is fearful of its own demise. Secondly, while information is exponentially increasing online, the first areas of journalism suffering the threat of extinction are among the very forms that attempt to make sense of extensive information. While sites like Twitter ask users to define their world in 140 characters or less, and speed – above accuracy or content – is the competitive force fueling online news outlets, some contextual, interpretive and analytical modes of journalism are fading away.

Investigative and literary journalism are among the forms in danger. Both rely on deep-dive reporting methods: the former usually tackling political and economic institutions and the latter focusing on sociological trends. As such, these long-form species fall into the category of “deeper understanding” and are a means of information management – a way to navigate – according to Barry Siegel, former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and head of the literary journalism program the University of California, Irvine. “I’d describe it as a form of subterranean news,” said Siegel. “We’re writing about human nature, the nature of our community, and about the things that are most important in those communities, which are not always the obvious breaking news headlines.” Literary journalism, which Tom Wolfe described as journalism that reads “like a novel,” concentrates on context above immediacy, and as a result, requires more time and resources than hard news. Siegel says that he spends four months to a year on his own pieces.

In a world of infinite information, it would seem that providing context is more relevant than ever. Investigative journalism, the detective agency of the people, has acted as a “watchdog” presence, independent of government and big business, since its inception. Literary journalism, often bundled with terms like “long form” and “feature,” has meant sociological understanding and on-the-ground experience of the human condition in all its varying colors.

Tightened revenue streams have encouraged quick fixes, such as re-assigning long-form journalists to cover “short-form” news and reducing funds for contextual reporting. But for the newspaper industry, this could be a counterproductive move. The entire experience of narrative story telling is changing, according to Sue Cross, an AP news executive who oversees the wire service’s digital operation. Video and audio are feeding the experience of long-form journalism online, and instead of attempting to emulate the speed of the Internet, the newspaper industry should be embracing the change and using technology to enhance deep-dive reporting. By cutting immersive journalism in favor of less expensive, superficial forms, the newspaper industry risks losing everything that has made it a valuable medium for 300 years.

Subterranean News

Newspaper companies are in consensus about the solution to all their problems: they must shed the cellulose pulp and find a way to make content work online. But perhaps forms like investigative and literary journalism, which both have roots in print technology, are more attached to their traditional medium than innovators would like to accept. At a very basic level, the connection between these journalistic forms and the technology from which they arose has been overlooked.

What both investigative and literary journalism have in common, beyond their immersive reporting practices, is the attention they require of their audience. Even more than investigative journalism, literary pieces ask for a level of dedication from the reader that the Internet as a medium does not seem to facilitate. “Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice,” Nicholas Carr examined in his July 2008 Atlantic article Is Google Making us Stupid? “But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking.” This new style of reading is one based on productivity, gleaning as much information as effectively as possible. For Siegel, this newly formed habit poses a threat to journalism that requires more concentrated attention. “The bigger problem is that people in this instant age might be losing the ability and inclination for the kind of sustained, focused effort that long-form reading requires,” said Siegel.

The traditional print newspaper, as a medium, is especially at odds with this new style of information consumption. Compared to the multiplicity of the Internet, the technology of paper is a highly inefficient medium. Content is limited, and readers are trapped within the confines of the pages themselves, rather than being able to browse through various links and sources. The efficiency and expedience provided by the Internet are qualities well-suited to a medium of mass communication. Accessibility and expansiveness succeed in attracting the broadest audience. But in many respects, paper still serves as the best medium for “subterranean news.”

According to a study of online reading habits in the U.K. by University College London (UCL), Internet users do not read online the same way they do with print media. “There are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts looking for quick wins,” the study surmised, adding: “it almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.” This form of “horizontal information seeking,” as UCL labels it, is indicative of a medium that lends itself to quick and shallow information consumption. For journalistic forms that require patience, concentration and time, it would seem that the Internet is not as adequate a medium as print. By reading predominantly online, we “may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace,” writes Carr, referring to the conclusions deduced by Tufts University psychologist Maryanne Wolf. “When we read online, [Wolf] says, we tend to become ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

While newspapers desperately struggle to compete with the Internet and breed their own online forms, the difference between the two mediums is being underplayed. The “horizontal” reading habits inspired by the Internet, coupled with the sheer volume of information available online, could potentially increase the need for printed, “subterranean” news. Long-form investigative and literary journalism, journalism that exists to “make sense of the world” on a deeper level, may be the answer to balancing the unmanageable amount of information unlocked by the Internet. And navigating information, learning context and studying deeper implications requires a level of reading concentration that only the print medium seems able to inspire. So while the newspaper industry attempts to shed its long-form content and emulate the Internet, the fact that sales of non-fiction books have been continually increasing seems to have gone unnoticed.

Traditional mediums are not being eliminated, but updated. Journalistic forms that appear to be disappearing, may just be trying to find a new comfort zone in a broadening landscape. In order for the print medium to do this successfully, it must embrace the qualities that make it unique, not similar, to other mediums. Paper is, after all, a technology. And after 300 years, competing mediums may be calling for a re-invention, rather than elimination, of the form.

A New Model

There is no telling what Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern will look like when it arrives in the mailbox or at the local book store. It could be a palm-sized journal made from ominous, grainy material with fold-out parts, complete with lock and key, or an epic piece of art with Asian patterns illuminating the broad jacket, a magnetic strip concealing dozens of tiny manuscripts. The quarterly literary journal, started in 1998 by author Dave Eggers, prides itself on utilizing the medium of paper in the most creative ways possible.

“I’ve always thought that if something is going to be on paper, if it’s going to be a physical object, it has to earn that existence and at least take into account the features and specifics of that existence,” said publisher Eli Horowitz. “But it’s not just preciousness; it’s also about taking advantage of things that you can do with paper. There are still things that you can do in a book that you can’t do on a computer screen.”

Rather than hastening the extinction of printed newspapers by moving attention away from the physical product to the online counterpart, Horowitz suggests that embracing the uniqueness of the paper form may serve to revive the industry. The future of print journalism is more likely to follow a philosophy closer to McSweeney’s than The Los Angeles Times. The literary journal survives solely on subscriptions and maintains a loyal readership, according to Horowitz. McSweeney’s also serves as a publishing house, selling books from affiliate authors through its website. Despite the competitive force of modern technology, such e-books and e-readers like the Kindle, the company continues to focus on producing high-quality, printed material. “We’re still trying to do things that the Kindle can’t give you,” said Horowitz. “Large things or folding things or cut-out things, things with textures… We’re always thinking: what are we making? What are the limitations? What are the possibilities?”

Creative printing options are spawning. One of the most exciting is the development of, which has the potential to turn the newspaper industry into a specification-based medium, like the Internet, without ceding its distinctive form. Currently, this on-demand printing service allows users to create their own books, free of charge. Every copy ordered through the website or through is printed on-demand and shipped to the consumer. The author earns 60 to 80 percent of the royalties for each sale, depending on whether the sale comes directly through or through

What businesses like suggest is that on-demand printing is a very tangible possibility for the future of print journalism. For example, a new model for the newspaper industry could include customized printing, which would allow readers to pre-order the sections of the newspaper they would like to receive, the types of articles they wish to read and even the frequency of the printed edition’s delivery, minimizing waste and maximizing niche markets. Taking the specifications even further, users could choose their content by author, thus selecting to donate royalties specifically to the content-provider rather than the publication. Journalists would then, in themselves, become commodities. Even advertising could become more effective in this environment. The traditional model of print advertising, preferred by many advertising agencies, could still apply to this customized publication, but readers would be receiving news in a similar manner to which they seek it on the Internet: by interest and not obligation. Advertisers, too, could target a much more specific audience based on the selections made by the user. The process could potentially fuse the best of both print and Internet technologies: the ability for customization and the delivery of content through a traditional medium.

In honor of the possibilities for the print journalism industry, the next issue of McSweeney’s, Eggers announced, will be in newspaper form. “The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive,” wrote Eggers in an public email to anyone who needs “bucking up” about the industry. The future of newspapers, Eggers says, begins with “creating a physical object that doesn’t retreat, but instead luxuriates in the beauties of print.” The result will be a medium that not only allows space for the forms intrinsic to its centuries-long dominance, but that embraces a traditional economic model: using quality, not quantity, to encourage sales. “To survive, the newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web,” said Eggers. “Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive. Again, this is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page. Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they’ll pay for it.”

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Coming Wednesday: Growing pains, part 2: Can grassroots journalism help underserved communities?