At my house, the day still begins this way: My husband and I stumble downstairs, half awake, and start the coffee. Then one of us tucks the five-pound dog with the weak bladder under an arm, and goes out to the front door to retrieve the three morning papers. Yes, I said three. Two nationally distributed newspapers, and one for the city we live near. Actually, we subscribe to a total of five newspapers, because we also get the regional afternoon paper, and a weekly local paper.
But back to our morning. My husband and I will now spend the next hour socializing, imbibing hot beverages, and discussing the day’s news, which lately has included a great deal of talk about the shaky condition of the papers themselves. And you don’t even need to open a paper to see how bad things are. My husband came through the door the other morning, the city newspaper pinched disdainfully between thumb and forefinger, shaking it to demonstrate its lack of heft. “Why do we even bother?” he groaned. I knew exactly what he was talking about. Some of these papers you can practically see through.
Well, why do we still bother? Some of it is surely habit. When you have started your day with an assortment of newspapers your whole life, it’s hard to think of giving them up. And yet, there’s this growing feeling of, Do I want to be the last poor schmuck paying dearly for all these subscriptions when the entire rest of the world is reading the same news online for free, and with hyperlinks and real-time comments?
Okay, I admit it, the new technology is better, but I would miss that feeling of wide grazing over broad pages. When I’m online, my reading tends to be much more focused and directed, what Jakob Nielsen and others have called “information foraging.” If a headline doesn’t immediately grab me, I don’t click on it. Whereas with a newspaper, I’m always scanning a few paragraphs of “uninteresting” news — something I’d never voluntarily select — and often I find, Why, I am interested in this!
Newspapers tend to provide a curated, edited kind of serendipity, whereas the Internet coughs up rather mindless serendipity. I’m not saying that I don’t gaze with fascination at the imbecilic stuff on the web. Yes, I, too, stared for far too long at those glow-in-the-dark puppies. Still, I like to think that serious minds want something more than mere spectacle. And on the web, not only is it harder to browse for “broad” news, it’s also far easier to get sidetracked by the freak show.
So back to those five newspaper subscriptions. Let’s say that I did cancel one or two of them. Who would my first victims be? Not the two national papers. Despite all the press to the contrary, both of our national newspapers seem to be holding up reasonably well under the circumstances, in terms of the quality of reporting and editorial content. There doesn’t appear to have been a mass exodus of reporters. And our local weekly has also fared amazingly well, seeming actually to have grown fatter as the other papers have shrunk. People in our town are willing to write gossipy columns for free, and the advertising is hyper-local and seems somewhat recession-proof.
It is the papers in the middle that seem to be suffering the most. Our city paper is a shadow of its former self, having endured numerous cutbacks, and now seems to make a real effort only on Sunday when it earns most of its money from the advertising circulars. And our small regional paper, once a force to be reckoned with, appears to be barely gasping along, down to about three reporters and two very thin sheets of paper. (This is only a slight exaggeration.) And most of the articles are lifted straight from the AP Newswire or are reprints of New York Times stories we’ve already seen. Each afternoon as this regional zombie crawls its pathetic way onto our doorstep, asking to be put out of its misery, I am overwhelmed by a wave of guilt as I contemplate, yet again, cancellation. Go ahead, I think. Just do it. But I seem to have rather powerful misgivings about adding to the woes of this suffering industry.
I probably shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s hard to imagine that canceling our single subscription would be especially devastating for either of these papers. After all, it’s largely the falloff in advertising that’s killing them. No, it’s more the sense I have that if we cancel our subscriptions, my husband and I will be engaging in one of those “micro-behaviors” that taken by themselves aren’t very significant, but that en masse can have a huge and sometimes fatal impact. Buying a huge SUV or leaving the lights on all the time isn’t that morally reprehensible, but if everyone does it, you will look back later and say, Yup, we killed the planet. Not to be melodramatic about it, but canceling newspaper subscriptions is like that for me, and every time I go to cut off one of them, I think to myself, Is this the year you killed the newspaper? That’s when the guilt hits. I want the news to hold on, at least for a while, until it can get a decent toehold on the Internet, or make a living on Kindle subscriptions.
So, yes, the bottom line is, my husband and I will probably be the last poor schmucks still subscribing to all these dying, gasping, rotting newspapers on our lawn, long after everyone else has fled for cyberspace. My husband has taken to joking about it. “We can’t cancel the paper,” he exclaimed the other afternoon, as he gazed out our storm door at the eleven-year-old boy on a bicycle approaching our house, newspaper bag slung over his shoulder. “We can’t put the paper boy out of a job!” Actually, he’s only half kidding. My husband’s a lawyer now, but years ago, growing up in St. Louis, he used to be a paperboy himself, and he takes the whole newspaper failure thing rather personally.