Last night, having rounded off a busy week with a day of manual labour helping to repair my mother-in-law’s kitchen floor, I retired to bed early with the newspaper. Saturday’s Guardian, if you want to know. It was delightful. I hadn’t taken the time to read the paper for ages and was pleased to rediscover that singular pleasure.
Unfortunately, it’s a pleasure that is unlikely to endure. The newspaper industry — at least as a producer of pages printed on paper — is in terminal decline. The Guardian’s Ian Jack wrote an eloquent lament last Friday which, ironically, I read online this morning.
There is nothing to be done. However much I might share his anticipation of the loss, I am part of the problem. I simply don’t buy or read or the papers as often as I used to. In part it is due to lack of time: my progress through the ranks of academia seems to have inexorably eroded the free time available to me each day. I’m still not sure how that happened.
When I was growing up my father bought three newspapers a day — and often four on a Sunday. On his way to work he would pick up the Irish Times and The Guardian (hence my predilection — these choices are engrained) and read them in his lunch break. Then in the evening the Belfast Telegraph would be delivered to the door. We were never short of news in our house and I suppose the sheer number of papers lying around provided the mass action to get me reading. I can’t remember precisely when I took up the habit but I think I must have been in my early teens.
How times have changed. These days I will fairly regularly buy the Guardian on a Saturday or, if I’ve missed it, the Observer on a Sunday. Even if I do, I often find that the weekend has come to a close and I have not had the time to open the paper — so it gets incorporated into my commute. But if I can carve out some time on a Saturday or a Sunday morning, there is nothing I like better than to sit at leisure at the breakfast table working my way through the different sections.
It is a very particular kind of physical and intellectual pleasure. I like the Berliner format that the Guardian introduced a few years back — compact enough to read as a double-spread but leaving enough room for a plate of toast at the side. And, as Ian Jack noted, the paper takes you to places that you might never otherwise have gone, just in the turn of a page. There’s a randomness to your reading that all the connectivity of the web doesn’t yet attain.
But with sales declining by about 10% a year, how long can this last? It is partly my fault since I am not a regular reader but I don’t think that will reverse. And when they are gone, I don’t yet see the iPad replacing the tactile and explorative nature of perusing the printed page, however touchy-feely it becomes. The impact is already being felt on the next generation — my children only rarely pick up the paper to have a look if they see it lying around. It’s just not something they think of. I feel that I have let them down.
Perhaps it’s just change and my sense of loss is merely a reflection of my age. Clearly, newspapers are looking hard at their web-based futures and it is to be hoped that they can find ways to replace the income lost from declining print sales. There is no shortage of news and it has never been more visually stimulating or interactive. I know I should try to be open to the coming change, optimistic even that the experience will be better. But I will be sorry to see the printed papers go.