Walter Williams did a number on me. So, also, Rachel Maddow. And now just recently, Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. All of them, and many others, have conspired to make it exceedingly difficult for me to give up reading print editions of newspapers. This is so even though everyone — friends, family members, financial consultants — keep advising me to get my news online. Saves money, saves trees, saves time. Why am I being so old-fashioned?
I don’t know that “conspired” is the right word since none of these people has any idea that they are feeding into my dilemma. Furthermore, Walter Williams has been dead since 1935. But he’s as good a place to start as any. A journalist from Booneville, Missouri, Williams originated the concept that journalism education should be “professionalized and provided at a university,” as the University of Missouri Journalism School explains on its website. “Toward that end,” it continues, “with the blessing of (the university) and the state legislature, and with financial help from the Missouri Press Association,” Williams started the world’s first school of journalism in September 1908. (I was there for its 50th anniversary when a World Press Congress brought journalists from around the world for discussions and seminars. I missed the 100th anniversary held a few years ago. )
Williams was the school’s first dean and later became the university’s president. Even though he was long gone by the time I was there, his inspiration lingered. A copy of his Journalist’s Creed that begins, “I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust, that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public…” is displayed in bronze in the National Press Club in Washington DC. Also on yellowed paper in every place my husband Ed and I lived in.
Ed and I met at the university where he was a graduate student and I was completing my Bachelor of Journalism degree. We married and set off on a lifetime of journalism-related jobs on one coast and the other back and forth several times. Always, wherever we lived, we had at least one newspaper delivered daily, and when we were working outside the home, we made it a point to rise an hour earlier to give us time for coffee and the newspaper before starting our days. (Ed died a year and a half ago so I suppose any amateur psychologist could deduce another reason for my reluctance to discontinue the practice.)
But now for the other enablers. Rachel Maddow, whose MSNBC programs are must watching every day for me, said something during this whole intolerable mess our country is involved in now that struck me. She, whose journalistic background has been limited to broadcast, pointed out that nearly all the substantive information that has been unearthed about Russian interference in our democracy has come from print journalists, specifically, from those working for large publications with sufficient staffs and time for digging. Broadcast outlets with the tyranny of time to fill can report the result of that digging — and are doing so. But as Maddow pointed out, it takes both endeavors to get at the truth. And it’s no secret that newspapers of all sizes are struggling. She then looked directly into the camera and encouraged her audience to help save print journalism by subscribing to their local newspapers. How can I not?
And as for Farhad Manjoo, he wrote about his experiment in self-imposed avoidance of digital news over the past two months. “I turned off my digital news notifications, unplugged from Twitter and other social networks, and subscribed to three print newspapers…plus a weekly newsmagazine,.” he wrote. His experiment still includes podcasts, email newsletters, and books and magazines. He wanted to continue to be informed, he wrote, “but was looking for formats that prized depth and accuracy over speed.”
He continued, “It has been life-changing. Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins.” Now he is embarrassed about how much free time he suddenly has.
As someone close to age 40, Manjoo reveals he always liked getting his news on screen, “available at the push of a button.” Even with his experiment, he said, he “found much to hate about print. The pages are too big, the type too small, the ink too messy, and compared with a smartphone, a newspaper is more of a hassle to consult on the go.” I guess he never got, as I did from my father, a lesson in proper folding of a paper to enable reading on a bus or subway without encroaching on your fellow passengers’ spaces. (Fold vertically and then horizontally, tucking the read pages behind one another as you go.)
Today, twice Manjoo’s age, with my newspaper-reading taking place at home sitting in a comfortable chair, I admit it’s very pleasant being able to spread the pages out between my arms and turn them. When I’m finished, however, I do replace all the sections back into their original configuration before packing the paper up for recycling. Ed did that too, and we insisted the kids approximate it. Used to drive them nuts. “Oh, you old journalists,” they’d grumble.
On social networks, Manjoo says, “every news story comes to you pre-digested. People don’t just post stories — they post their takes on stories, often quoting key parts of a story to underscore how it proves them right, so readers are never required to delve into the story to come up with their own view.” (Which is probably what I’m doing here, so I’ll stop and urge you to look at Manjoo’s story in its entirety.)
But one last plug for print. If you Google “retention of information in print versus online” you’ll see the results of several studies that give the nod to print. People absorb and retain much better what they read in print, these studies reveal. And as someone who needs to hang onto whatever shreds of information I can, I find that comforting.
As for the paper vs. screen dilemma, my journalist daughter maintains, “Whether on paper or online, good journalism is still good journalism.”