All the News, In Print

My household recently started getting the print edition of our local newspaper again. I know what you’re thinking: Really? Print? In 2014? When everyone in the house is fortunate enough to have a device on which they could read the electronic version (if they were so inclined)?

I’m old enough that I’ve spent most of my life getting the news from a print newspaper until relatively recently. When I moved into an apartment with friends halfway through college, ordering up daily newspaper delivery made it seem like we were truly adults despite a diet consisting mostly of boxed mac and cheese. My partner and I kept getting the paper delivered when we moved to graduate school and jobs, even as the paper got somewhat smaller and slimmer. And then it suddenly seemed like too much — all that paper to haul downstairs to the recycling every week, especially on the weekends, with sections we didn’t even read. The newspaper website had the same content and didn’t cost anything, so we canceled our subscription. Eventually the paywalls went up so we bought a digital subscription.

And there we stayed until recently. About two weeks ago, to be exact. What changed my mind? My kid is finishing up middle school this year, and I wanted to see if he would pick up and read the newspaper if it was left physically around the house. He could read it digitally, as do my partner and I, but he doesn’t. We tell him about big news stories, and he sometimes has to find a newspaper article or editorial for school, but that’s about it for his encounters with the paper. And since we don’t tend to watch the news on TV, he doesn’t have any regular exposure to news other than what he seeks out (while he reads a lot online, he tends to gravitate more to video game news than current events news).

It’s been really interesting to go back to the print newspaper. Some things I’ve noticed:

  • I now read or skim a larger number of articles than I used to when I read the paper solely online, and in (some) sections that I often would more or less skip. But that also takes longer, and the result is that I typically can’t get through the entire paper at breakfast and have to leave some sections for the evening.
  • It’s much, much easier to browse through the newspaper in its physical form. This is good for my kid, because his science teacher has requested that he and his classmates each find a science article in the paper every week. The images are better too — there are more of them, and you don’t have to click to embiggen like on the website (which often means I don’t take the time for that click).
  • In general I hate advertising, but I appreciate the ads much more in the paper paper than online. It seems like there are ads that don’t make it to the website — mainly political ads — which is interesting. And the juxtaposition of news and ad content can be fascinating: my favorite was a recent story about New York City’s “poor doors” — an awful proposal for separate entrances in apartment buildings with both market-rate and affordable housing — right across from a full-page spread advertising a new luxury building. I know these kinds of contrasts occur on the website too, but I find it easier to tune out the ads online so I guess I don’t notice them as much.
  • Some of the non-news content that the paper (still!) runs was a complete surprise. Weather I can see the value in, though it seems like the weather’s so changeable now that even printing the forecast the night before could be of limited use. But TV listings! For all of the channels! Movie times! At all of the theaters! Who knew they’re still in the paper? I’ve been racking my brain for a use case for those listings — it seems unlikely to me that there are folks out there who’d only have access to or would rather get that information from the print newspaper.

All of this means that I’m suddenly finding myself very nostalgic for the age of paper newspapers in our academic libraries. I know they’re impractical for a whole range of reasons (so I’m not really serious about their return), but I do think they’re better for students in a number of ways. Yes, our students can browse and search the websites for their local newspapers, and they’ll often get the full text and at least some of the photos that accompany the article. But they lose the context provided by the layout of the physical page and the section and location in which the articles appear. And if they use a library database to search multiple newspapers simultaneously they’ll get lots of content but even less context: no images, and no visual cues as to what audience the newspaper seeks. I can’t imagine that print newspapers will ever come back to academic libraries, but I wonder what we can do to bring the positive aspects of the print experience to our students’ use of online newspapers?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

4 thoughts on “All the News, In Print”

  1. There are totally folks who would rather get that info (TV listings, etc.) in print! My uncle doesn’t have home internet access (because he doesn’t want it – he’s used the internet at the library, but it’s not his thing). So, yes, print is how he would get that info. And there are places where it’s still pretty hard to get home internet access. And there are still 13% of us who don’t use the internet, according to Pew.

    I can’t imagine wanting to get info that way (no searching/filtering? tiny little font?), but I guess if I were a creature of habit who’d been getting info that way for a long time, I might feel differently (whether because “why change what isn’t broke” or “yikes, change”). And of course if I lived in a place where I couldn’t get good internet, or if I couldn’t afford it, that would factor in, too.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Andromeda, that’s a use case I hadn’t thought of. I could blame the tiny tiny font (who knew they could print every movie theater listing in NYC?), but I won’t. I’m know there are lots of folks in the city who don’t have home internet access, too, though I don’t know how many of them are newspaper buyers or subscribers. I haven’t been into the periodicals section of my local public library in a while, but maybe that’s another use case — folks who don’t have home internet but do like listings in the paper, and read the paper at the library.

  3. Also people at bars. My husband used to be a bartender and I’d sometimes go sit at the bar on slow weekend afternoons. Lots of people would ask for the bar newspaper to check out movie times or would ask him to change the channel to some sporting event that they had looked up in the TV listings.

  4. I don’t believe that print newspapers are totally gone from academic libraries. A branch of a major university library that I worked at until recently still receives daily copies of four print newspapers, the New York Times included. While students didn’t use them on the regular, they did sometimes need them for class assignments.

    And even if print newspapers aren’t used for assignments, I think there’s something to be said for subscribing to them within reason and having them on display. If it’s a local paper, it helps provide a connection to the community. If it’s a national paper, it sends a message about the importance of knowing news from farther away. And yes, the placement of stories, ads, and other information is unique and often informative. The presence of photos is also very important – this is part of what contributes to my love of digitized archives of newspapers.

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