Perusing the Papers

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.

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12 Responses to Perusing the Papers

  1. cromercrox says:

    Newspaper sales have been in decline for a very, very long time. So long, in fact, that they were declining when the world was young an I joined the staff of Your Favorite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, which was before the web existed, let alone portable handheld devices capable of displaying anything much more sophisticated than PacMan. I have no idea why this is. TV could be in part to blame, but then again, people warned that TV would be the death of cinema, which hasn’t turned out to have been the case. My view, for what it’s worth, is that the decline of newspaper reading parallels a decline in reading, full stop. Sales of printed books are down – though eBooks are massively up – but if you go into a bookstore the books most prominently on display are by TV personalities or have TV tie-ins. Even the red-tops seem to get most of their copy from TV-related gossip (what the judges on the X-Factor are up to, and so on.)

  2. rpg says:

    I know this is anecdata, but my dad hardly ever read a book since, oh I don’t know, his early 20s? But he had a huge selection of SciFi. My mother gave him a Kindle for his birthday, and now he’s forever reading! Amazing.

    I don’t believe there’s a decline in reading. I think people are getting their news from more immediate (and dare I say, *reliable*?) sources. Plus maybe they’re getting the message about the rainforests…

    • Stephen says:

      I don’t detect a decline in reading either (though also concede to lack of hard data). My kids read plenty of books, but not so much the newspaper. And I certainly read plenty of news, it’s just that an increasing portion of it is consumed online.

  3. chall says:

    hm, I have revisited the printed monthly/weekly journals… more indepth stories and trends, editorials etc. I do miss the printed papers on the weekends but to be honest, last time I had a week with the newspaper in the morning I got annoyed by all the ads in it anyway…. and I wonder how much it is about the notion that everything will be easier to sell if it is “short snippets with catchy titles”?

    In general though, I am more nervous that we will loose the “investigative journalism” since more journalists today aren’t employed full time by said newspapers but rather freelancing and selling the story to who wants to publish. That is making it harder to spend time and effort on certain investigations imho.

    • Stephen says:

      I think that must be a real worry for the quality broadsheets — at least in the UK — if the decline of print sales forces cutbacks in the newsroom. To take just one recent example, we have The Guardian to thank for the recent revelations about the nefarious activities going on at the News of the World (no loss to quality journalism as far as I am concerned) and the efforts of News International to cover their tracks. I think that type of scrutiny is worth paying for — whatever form the news reports come in.

  4. stephenemoss says:

    Stephen – I agree that newspapers may be in decline, though if anything our appetite for news seems to be growing. I used to buy the Guardian every day as a PhD student, mostly for the crossword, but I hardly ever buy a newspaper these days. There is just so much news and comment available on line, and endless interesting good blogs, and almost all of it is free and immediate.

    As for reading, in a more general sense, any journey on the tube would convince you that we are a nation of obsessive novel readers. But for me, being a cyclist, and only occasional tube traveller, opportunities for reading en route to work are severely constrained. But I do like a good book once I get to bed, right now it’s ‘A Place of Greater Safety’, having much enjoyed ‘Wolf Hall’ earlier this year.

    • Stephen says:

      Too true – your comment reminded me that Kristi Vogel (of this parish – Texas branch) once remarked on being surprised by the number of people she saw reading on public transport on a visit to the UK. So I’m sure we’re in great shape — it’s just that newspapers need to be able to make money from that appetite to remain in business.

      I thought Wolf Hall very good. Currently getting to grips with an enjoyable life of Montaigne.

  5. Mike says:

    Stephen, your comment about the more ‘random’ layout of stories in the printed paper exposing us to a greater breadth of information resonates with an article that appeared a couple of years ago in Science.

    Apparently by carrying out much more focused literature (or newspaper) searches online, we miss a lot of (less directly, but still relevant) research that we would catch if flicking through the paper copy of a journal, e.g., when a figure jumps out at you that reminds you of one of your own results. This is a subtle, but possibly important change in the way we do science, that might restrict the flow of ideas among fields. But given the massive increase in available literature, it’s hard to know how to keep all avenues of search open.

    And I really miss Sunday mornings with a bacon roll, bottle of Irn Bru and a paper copy of the Scotland on Sunday. I don’t miss the inky fingerprints though.

    • Stephen says:

      I really don’t know what the solution to that one is. With regard to news, Twitter can be useful at pointing out stuff that I might not otherwise have come across but it doesn’t work in that capacity for science, not for me at any rate.

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I stopped buying the newspaper when I realised that in a typical week, all I ever looked at was the crossword. I bought a book of really good crosswords instead.

  7. Stephen says:

    Ooh – I’m am tempted by the Guardian’s forthcoming iPad edition. Is this the way to make newspapers sustainable in the post-paper era?

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