Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 23, 2009


Sam Smith

Since I belong to the class that has been destroying the print media - the print version of the Review even destroyed itself in 2004 (once again ahead of its time) - I thought it would be interesting to check out which print media still survived in our house.

After all, if a publication still arrives in the mail or on the doorstep at the home of such a confirmed cyber obsessive there may be some wider meaning - even hope - to it all.

So here's what I found:

The Washington Post
The Hill Rag
House & Design
Utne Reader
Vanity Fair
New Yorker
Down East

Why do I still subscribe to the Post when I can read it online? Because it's more pleasant over coffee and cereal (or egg beater omelet). While this is, for me, a comforting tradition, the same can not be said of younger readers. Pew found that while 48% of those in the Silent Generation (born in the late 1930s) read a printed paper, only 13% of those in Generation Y (born after 1976) did so and this sorry figure had even dropped seven points just since 2006.

The Hill Rag is a free neighborhood newspaper and while I'm not crazy about it, I do check out the news and columns that interest me and it tends to hang around the house for some time. Further, I can't think of living anywhere and not reading the neighborhood paper.

House & Design is one of those publications that appears mysteriously in the homes of long married men who know that it's best not to bring the topic up or may end up costing you some money.

Utne Reader I like because they've run my articles over the years. How I might react if I hadn't, I can't tell but, like Yes Magazine, it definitely serves a subculture not well attended to by the Internet.

Vanity Fair is the literary equivalent of dumpster diving for intellectuals. You shouldn't really admit you subscribe to it, but it has a great combination of beautiful photographs and trashy articles that the Internet has not been able to match. Besides it would be too expensive to keep a laptop by the toilet for bathroom reading.

The New Yorker is bedtime browsing, specializing in material that's too lengthy to scroll through. Besides who wants to take their laptop to bed with them?

Down East is an attractive monthly about Maine where we will soon be moving. As with Vanity Fair there is a quality to its published photographs that cannot be met on the Internet as well as being the sort of thing that you happily pick up when you leave your computer work and drop onto the sofa.

So what's the deeper meaning of this? Probably this: that print publications have to find ways in which they are instinctively different from the Internet. The top three papers in the U.S. are USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times. They have a distinct advantage over other papers because they are (a) national and (b) different. USA Today was the first paper to break the tradition of the daily press with its layout and use of color. The Wall Street Journal serves the greedster class and the NY Times is for those raised to believe that it contains all the truth one needs to know.

One possibility would be to give these national papers some competition. The most likely contenders might be the NY Post or NY Daily News, as a national tabloid could have considerable appeal.

Why would anyone buy such a paper? For the same reason I subscribe to Vanity Fair: trash and photos. And the tabloid format is much better suited for riding on a bus or waiting in a doctor's office.

The crisis facing newspapers is not entirely the fault of the Internet. Newspapers are strongly tradition bound institutions. For example, when television came along they did much the same thing they are doing now. They surrendered.

TV's big advantage over the print media was its images. But each of these images was only on the screen for seconds. What if newspapers had reacted by taking a more Life Magazine approach to photography - creating images and image stories over which the reader would linger?

Today, there are other things they could be doing such as much shorter stories, more really local news, more names in each issue, more story telling instead of just news reporting, and more creative use of comic strips (again something the Internet doesn't do well).

As for the neighborhood press, I suspect will outlast many of the larger publications because it does precisely what the bigger press could be doing: connect the reader to their place in the world.

The specialty publications such as House & Design, Utne Reader, and Down East may also do well because they represent things that are important enough to readers they like to hold them in their hand. While one can linger over the Internet longer than one can watch an image on TV, the time spent there is, on average, exceedingly brief - less than five minutes a day for each of the publications mentioned above, according to Alexa.

Finally, with Vanity Fair and New Yorker, you have publications that are intrinsically so different in feel and substance than what people usually go for on the Internet, that they can probably continue to create a life of their own.

So while there's no doubt the top of our coffee table has changed over the past few years, don't throw out that printing press quite yet.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Things I still read in print (and value highly):

1) Harpers
2) High Country News
3) The Sun Magazine

I subscribe to a number of other general-interest print publications, but more to support them than to read them avidly the way I do the ones above:

Mother Jones
Extra! (from FAIR)
The Progressive

--- John Gear

April 23, 2009 6:02 PM  
Anonymous Mairead said...

Things I still read in hardcopy: books.

I immediately saw the truth in press-lord Northcliffe's dictum that anything that someone wants us to know is advertising, not news. So I'm now satisfied to get news and commentary by a kind of cognitive brownian motion.

April 28, 2009 5:59 PM  

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