In the last few months, it seems to have become common wisdom that traditional print media is in its death throes. According to every expert, all media is moving to the web. Yet you wouldn’t know it by looking at me. As somebody who works in the media, I’ve always considered that part of my job is to know what is going on the world…especially and specifically in the world of pop culture. On a daily basis, I read the New York Times, Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Every week, I read New York Magazine, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Weekly Variety, Entertainment Weekly, Screen International, Video Business and The New York Observer. And I also subscribe to Film Comment and several monthly tech magazines. I figure that single-handedly, I’ve killed a large number of trees in my lifetime.
I try to carve out a little time every day to keep up. I try to read the Times and the two daily trades at breakfast. The weeklies tend to pile up, and I try to get to them on the weekends, but when they really pile up, I just grab a stack and bring them with me on an airplane. When I’m out of town, I try to find the Times wherever I go. When I can’t find it, I catch up when I get home. I’ve sat for entire days going through missed issues of the newspaper after a long trip. I know this is obsessive behavior, but I can’t stand the idea that I’ve missed something interesting. Whether it’s politics, sports or lifestyle coverage, it unfolds like some unwieldy reality series with daily episodes.
But life would not be complete with only one source feeding me. The weekly publications add the distance of a few days perspective on current events, and even in their choices of what to focus on, they zero in on the current zeitgeist in ways that daily publications can’t (other than the “Week in Review” section). The first piece in Talk of the Town in the New Yorker is a moment each week to pause and ponder some large issue that is coming into focus. The cover story in Entertainment Weekly makes me cringe as I digest what is deemed to be the biggest story that week in pop culture. The fact that these publications (all available in some form on the web) are stacking up in my apartment, means that they won’t move from one pile to the other until I read them. It’s a chore, but it’s more reliable than bookmarking something that I may never get back to.
I read all these publications from cover to cover (except for the Travel and Cars sections in the Sunday Times). That doesn’t mean I read every word. I’m a world champion skimmer. I don’t need to read the entire article about yesterday’s fatalities in Iraq. It’s enough that I’ve read the headline and skimmed the first paragraph, and I know that there still ARE fatalities in Iraq. And flipping every page allows me the serendipity of encountering something completely unexpected.
Yes, I know I can get all the same information on the web, but it simply is not the same experience. On the web, you see the headlines, click on the links to read the full articles, and if there is something interesting highlighted on the front page, you might poke around beyond that. Reading a newspaper (or a magazine) in print takes you to surprising places. I flip the page and find myself looking at an article that if I had been browsing hyperlinks, I may have never been attracted to it. I find myself reading about things that I never would have sought out.
I’ve tried using every tool on the web to personalize my experience to my interests. I have RSS feeds that mash together headlines from various sections of various on-line sources. I’m being fed interesting tidbits by Facebook friends, real friends and family. But I find all this specificity to be narrowing rather than expanding my experience. There is simply nothing that approximates the experience of browsing through a print publication with a cup of coffee in the morning.
Well almost nothing…
The Times has a computer program that they are no longer promoting called Times Reader. You can download it at www.nytimes.com/reader. It downloads the entire day’s newspaper in the background while you are doing other things on your PC, and you can browse through the paper by using the arrow keys. It actually does approximate reading a newspaper without the actual paper. I would imagine that this is the kind of experience that one could have when reading a newspaper on a Kindle or one of the other new devices that are appearing. So, just so you know I’m not a total loser, it’s not the paper I love, it’s the experience of flipping that goddam page. And it does work with a cup of coffee.