Saturday, September 11, 2010

In defense of newspapers

I couldn't agree more with Kara Miller's observations on the experience of reading newspapers. For me, the key word in her essay is "surprise". When I read print versions of newspapers, I am frequently (and pleasantly) surprised by articles I didn't set out to read. That occasionally happens with electronic versions, but when online I am much more likely to go directly to the article I think I want to read. Every once in a while a headline might catch my eye and draw me to a piece I would not have otherwise read, but it's just not the same as browsing the pages.

There's clearly greater access to information online and the ability to filter/customized what I read. However, I feel that rustling through the pages of a physical newspaper often makes me more informed. Did I mention the experience also enhances the taste of morning coffee and the comfortableness of old armchairs? (GW)

My surprise honeymoon with print

By Kara Miller
Boston Globe
September 11, 2010

IT SEEMS an odd — and slightly embarrassing — admission, I know, but I rarely read newspapers cover to cover.

It is particularly odd, of course, because I’ve written for newspapers for years, count various columnists among my idols, and maintain a well-organized collection of political cartoons.

But, like many of my 30-something peers, I’m more inclined to click around a newspaper’s website than bury my head in rustling, inky pages. Indeed, in the last few months, two former newspaper reporters have told me that they have scaled back or canceled their newspaper subscriptions: the cost is high, they noted, and all the information is available on the Web anyhow.

Which made complete sense to me.

At least until a few weeks ago, when I went on my honeymoon.

The hotels we stayed in were pretty nice, and they all asked us: What newspaper do you want outside your room? The Financial Times? The New York Times? The Wall Street Journal? The Globe and Mail? (We were in Canada some of the time.) And so I spent nearly a dozen mornings leafing through enormous, crinkly papers, changing my newspaper preferences from one hotel to the next, and rinsing ink off my fingers.

And I began to see — as I haven’t before — the power of the physical product itself. Though I would normally skip technology and business articles and head straight to the opinion and arts sections, I was forced to confront articles about economists, marketers, and earnings reports.

And I drank them up. I folded them into my bag, ran them through airport X-ray machines, and slipped them open on tiny, 30-seat plane flights.

I read about a Toronto novelist who smokes and loves unapologetically — and who called her interviewer “darling,’’ “angel,’’ and “babes.’’

I read about a Minnesota family who claimed to have given up Disney (the parents didn’t like the company’s potentially exaggerated claims about “Baby Einstein’’ DVDs), though they suspiciously went to a showing of “Toy Story 3’’ in order to appease friends.

I read about books on E.M. Forester (who I discovered was gay), the Dreyfus affair (during which Dreyfus endured four horrific years on Devil’s Island before the French put him on trial), and New York tenement food (apparently, some late 19th-century New Yorkers “worried that Jewish children ate too many pickles’’).

I read all sorts of articles that I would normally ignore — articles about areas of the world I don’t have a great interest in, articles about people who aren’t famous, articles about trends I would normally dismiss. But I read them because my eyes kept tripping over them — and because the minute I knew they were important, I felt obligated to keep reading.

And I came back realizing why my grandfather loved to hold the L.A. Times over his shredded wheat every morning, a ritual that was mirrored when he watched the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour just before dinner.

There is, almost certainly, no retreat to that pattern now. No time that will be carved out to read the paper in the mornings. And, for many, no paper will arrive in the driveway, since papers also live online.

But there was one article I read in my time away that gave me hope. It described the rise of youth-oriented newspapers in France. These papers — created in levels of varying complexity for children from 7 to 17 — now reach hundreds of thousands of children. The French government has even experimented with giving free newspaper subscriptions to young people 18 to 24.

This isn’t a solution to the declining circulation of general-interest newspapers in either France or the United States. But it offers students a chance to experience the excitement of leafing through a paper and finding something totally unexpected. For a few years, they get to be immersed in the diversity of the world — before they tailor Google home pages to reflect hyper-specific interests: sports, music, technology.

Perhaps, such early exposure to newspapers could later alter that customized home page, allowing the memory of unanticipated discoveries to encourage broader realms of interest — an attachment to world news, say, or theater reviews or financial commentary.

Perhaps all of us — not just a few — should remember a time when we read newspapers.

Kara Miller is an assistant professor of English at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.


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