Like so many who arrived in this “profession” of newspapering—whether accidentally or on purpose—I suffered from an early and irrational attraction to newspapers as physical objects. From about the age of six or seven, when the newspapers at hand happened to be the Pakistan Times and various Urdu-language journals seen at streetside kiosks in Lahore, I wanted to touch them, and turn the pages, and see the pictures, and read whatever I could.
From my late father, a designer, I learned the most elementary principles of typography. He was actually asked by the editor of the Pakistan Times to propose a redesign for it, and I was mesmerized by papa’s sketches and “comps.”
The smell of the ink on an old letterpress was, once, an intense thrill—and the crisp bite of type into paper, from a technology now abandoned. The very shapes of individual letters in certain type founts still give me a shudder of pleasure.
My first job, on leaving school at 16, was as a copy boy at the Globe and Mail. And from my first entry into its (long since demolished) composing room, wandering among the linotype machines, I was in paradise.
I mention these things to make clear where my bias lies, in the competition between newspapers and the Internet. I have no special prejudice against the latter, and am myself mired in it almost every day, but it is not “real” in the way of a newspaper. You cannot even see the Internet without a fragile machine with a telecommunications link, and being “wired,” whether visibly or invisibly. Whereas, a newspaper can be taken anywhere.
My preference was always for broadsheet over tabloid: for the widest practicable page with the greatest practicable accumulation of organized detail.
The broadsheet page gives the reader a survey of events as no other medium. He will see things he’d otherwise miss, for searching. And because that page holds still, the reader’s eyes have a chance to roam in an entirely conscious way. I have noticed that those who are raised on electronic text, almost to the exclusion of hard print, are nearly incapable of linear thinking. I have also noticed that lateral thinking is much oversold.
In the last generation or so, since the threat of the million-channel universe began to appear, most newspapers have made the same mistake as most churches. They hoist themselves on the petard of “relevance.” They have been losing their audience the faster from their own efforts to turn themselves into something they are not.
The loss of some “market share” to the Internet was inevitable, and the need for some symbiosis with more “immediate” news media I take as given.
“The wind commands,” in the sailor’s old adage. But the owners and publishers and editors and writers of newspapers too easily forget the peculiar advantages of their vessel.
A newspaper, or other periodical, can—not just in theory but in practice—provide hard copy (and stills) that encourage the reader to think for himself. It offers a kind of intimacy and candour quite different from that of other media: the “core intimacy” of reading without distraction. It can provide a “print-out” with both depth and range. Its tangible formality contributes to principles of aggregation and editing that are by nature more serious than anything that flashes by.
Rupert Murdoch, a man interesting for his past success as media entrepreneur, said in a memo to all his employees last Monday (and to the world via Drudge) that, “We are in the midst of a phase of history in which nations will be redefined and their futures fundamentally altered … Many people will be under extreme pressure and many companies mortally wounded … Our competitors will be sorely tempted to take the easy beat, to reduce quality in the search for immediate dividends … Where others might step back from their commitment to their viewers, their users, readers and customers, we will renew ours.”
I think the better minds in this field have realized that, just as people will always need food and clothing, they will always need reliable information, and they will not be well-served by the reduction of all news and commentary to entertainment. At the very least, those who need to know will always be willing to pay for intelligent reporting, and analysis.
The future of newspapers cannot be assured by making them any more frivolous or sensational.
The other media can always beat us at that. Our medium has a future that points the other way.
The cost-cutting should be aimed at eliminating the frivolous, and concentrating instead on the classical function: fearless reportage and truth-seeking in a world that has always been too full of lies.