Paper Cuts

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.

This excellent quote comes from Don Carli (I found it at ZDNet’s DocuMentor blog and you can read the full interview at Metaprinter):

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?

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need ~ Cicero

© Manu Saunders 2012

3 thoughts on “Paper Cuts

  1. uknowispeaksense June 29, 2012 / 6:02 PM

    I don’t really have an opinion on this but I must comment on one thing you mentioned…

    “the quality and integrity of the Media industry”.

    Really? I have two words….Andrew Bolt.


    • manuelinor June 30, 2012 / 9:55 AM

      Thanks for the comment…I don’t really consider any individual sensationalist as representative of the whole Media industry. 🙂

      I was highlighting the issue that closing down newspapers and moving news delivery completely online will impact the integrity of the Media Indsutry as a whole – the rise of digital newspapers means less local journalists employed (how can you cover local/regional news with integrity when most of your journos and subbies are sitting in an office in another city, or even another country?) and more focus on the gossipy/trash news that the ‘immediacy’ of the digital world demands. It also means many, many more errors – both reporting and grammatical – as shorter deadlines mean pushing stories out faster and faster, before the facts are checked properly, and because a sub-editor in another country didn’t pick up the misspelled street names from a town he/she has never been to.
      You can check out some of the stuff that Malcolm Turnbull has said (especially his ‘Future of Journalism’ speech) as well as other pollies speaking up at the moment.


  2. gold price July 10, 2012 / 6:44 AM

    Very interesting post. I’d add a trendline based solely on my personal experience – I used to read 4 print newspapers a day as recently as 2003: WSJ, NYT, FT and WashPost (I lived in DC area at the time). Now, I rarely read print papers at all, and get virtually all my news online (with Twitter and blogs being a major source of informing me of news that’s relevant to me, with respect to my role as a blogger). There’s a couple reasons for why my own print reading time is down, mostly because: – more time spent online to do my work, means less time for ‘reading’ – hard copy delivery of some papers ceased when I renewed, but I found I didn’t miss hard copy as I had less and less time to read print edition (although I still subscribe to numerous papers online) – but the biggest possible trend in this is that in 2003, I commuted to work on the Metro in DC, which gave me a good half hour to read virtually all 4 papers (WSJ cover to cover, FT the same, NYT and WashPost Business Sections). Now: I drive to work, and of course I can’t read and drive! (Not that I haven’t sometimes had the NYT bus section in the passenger seat for an occasional glance.) Similary, when I lived and worked in NYC in the late 80’s-early ’90s, I’d read 2-3 papers a day on the train on my way to work. So there may be some correlation between mode of commuting (and time of commute) and extent of readership of print newspapers vs. online.


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