Newspapers in Australia, the UK, Ireland and the USA have sacked hundreds of staff recently, and all are blaming the digital age – higher printing costs, reduced ‘hard-copy’ readership, and, therefore, reduced print advertising revenue. But is Homo digitalis really the culprit? Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism and ex-newspaper editor, thinks otherwise.
Whatever the reason, it’s making me mighty anxious. The journo in me is just downright teary, while my ecologist side is sad that the poor old Environment becomes an eco-blackmail pawn yet again.
Many people eulogise the benefits of reading news online –tablets and internet-friendly mobile phones make it so thrillingly easy (and oh, so trendy) to catch up with the news on the bus, on the toilet, or even hanging off a cliff face in Patagonia. Also, you’re “saving trees” by doing so!
Accessing news online is wonderful – I use my computer quite often to follow international news and ideas. The internet allows us to hear the other side of the story from independent journalists around the world (e.g. Upside Down World), read international newspapers that we can’t buy at home, or keep up-to-date with any relevant crisis du jour. Yet I still buy a local or regional newspaper every week, especially on the weekend. One of my favourite lines from Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent is when he buys the Sunday New York Times to read over a coffee: “Apart from its many virtues as a newspaper, there is just something wonderfully reassuring about its very bulk”. I couldn’t have worded that feeling better.
There are many, many benefits of reading on paper. Aside from the increased health issues arising from electronic device overuse (muscle strain and injury, eye strain, radiation etc.), research has found that reading a paper version of a text (as opposed to a digital version) makes the text much more accessible – reading is quicker and more efficient on paper, eye fatigue is lower, comprehension of the text can be greater, and readers often remember the text better after reading on paper.
Reading in hard copy is another way to Slow your life down (see my post Hare and the Tortoise) and is also more Communal – many couples have a weekend morning ritual of sitting down together at the kitchen table, with a cup of tea and a thick pile of newspapers to share between them. By contrast, reading on a 25 cm computer screen only allows for Individual enjoyment (unless you don’t have an attachment to personal space).
Of course, all of this is relative and mostly comes down to personal preference. You can read a discussion of the pros and cons of “e-” vs paper books at this New York Times ‘Room For Debate’ post.
As for the “green” argument, I’m not convinced. An internet-capable device (tablet, laptop, computer, mobile phone etc.) is manufactured using synthetic materials (some of them known toxins), rare earth minerals (which are certainly not sustainable, socially ethical or eco-friendly) as well as other minerals. These devices also require a lot of coal-burning to function (no, that’s not a typo), and will create a huge amount of synthetic waste for centuries to come.
Making a computer typically requires the mining and refining of dozens of minerals and metals including gold, silver, and palladium as well as extensive use of plastics and hydrocarbon solvents. To function, digital devices require a constant flow of electrons that predominately come from the combustion of coal, and at the end of their all-too-short useful lives electronics have become the single largest stream of toxic waste created by man.
Printed texts, on the other hand, are made from paper, a purely natural product. At the end of their life, they are recycled and turned into more paper, or will break down completely into the earth. It’s a similar story to my previous discussion about wearing natural fibres as opposed to synthetic ones.
Yes, printing uses electricity. Yes, some inks are toxic. However, our intelligent brains and amazing technological advances have enabled us to develop renewable energy and non-toxic inks (some plant-based ones), so why not use them?!
I hope you’re not thinking of me as some sort of 21st Century Internet Scrooge – of course the internet is a great invention and I appreciate that every time I use it. Neither do I feel antipathy toward Onliners. Many of my friends are just that, and I respect their personal preference.
Still, the decline of newspapers and books is tragic – not only because of the emotional impacts it will have on us all (whether you believe in all that ‘emotional’ codswallop or not). Losing newspapers and printed texts has very serious implications for the Fourth Estate, Journalism as a profession, the quality and integrity of the Media industry, public access to information, and Education. And don’t forget the inadequacy of an iPad when it comes to scooping dog poo, lighting a fire, moving house or wrapping fish and chips.
It seems the argument that digital is greener than paper will never stand up to the Truth. If newspapers are really shutting down because the printing industry is composing its swan song, then why do I get 20+ catalogues a week shoved through my mail box? Why do I receive thick envelopes of unwanted printed advertising from companies I’ve unwittingly given my address to? Why are there free community newspapers and magazines circulated weekly through most towns and cities? Why does News Limited still print its free daily gossip tabloid mX to hand out willy-nilly to commuters in Australian capital cities?
I’m inclined to believe with Greenslade – the decline of newspapers is more to do with non-environmental, purely financial concerns than any exalted green ideal. When will we stop using the Environment as an emotional scapegoat?
© Manu Saunders 2012