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Online/on paper debate

March 04, 2009|DAVID SARNO

Last week I asked readers of this column to send in questions about the Web and social media. The premise was that, because I do much of my writing for The Times' Technology blog, I often interact with online readers, for whom leaving a comment is a fast and frictionless process. But the print newspaper is not an interactive medium, which makes conversations with readers -- and between them -- a trickier proposition. So I thought I'd try an experiment and attempt to bring an online-style discussion into print.

A couple of dozen readers wrote in, and more than half of them completely disregarded the assignment, ignoring my question in favor of commenting upon the future of The Times and the printed newspaper itself. I was delighted at what a webby reaction this was -- sidestepping the main topic in favor of an evidently more interesting tangent. In that spirit, I'll answer the individual questions via e-mail so we can dive back into the troubled waters of newspaperdom.

Several readers were less than sympathetic to the plight of the newspaper industry, writing that The Times and other papers have only ourselves to thank for our uncertain future. "When I hear of newspapers' demise, I can't help but think of the music business or the American auto industry," wrote Howard Schlossberg of Woodland Hills. "It is so clear to me that you (the industry) brought on your own problems that I frequently wonder why you can't see it."

David New of Manhattan Beach was on the same page. "The question you and everyone else at the L.A. Times should be asking its print subscribers is: How can we save our paper?"

Well, it may sound radical, but my answer is this: We can't save the paper, and we shouldn't even try.

Let me explain by way of a distinction: Newspapers like The Times, which was founded in 1881, have distributed the news in paper form since they began. Until recently, there was no reason to use separate terms for the industry and its physical product -- the word "newspaper" sufficed for both. But as we're seeing now, that word is no longer enough: One "newspaper" is an institution whose mission is to gather, distill and present a world of information to its readers.

The other is just a piece of paper.

And as much as we cherish the newspaper that arrives on our doorstep every morning, as a medium for delivering news, it loses to the Web in too many ways. At the top of the list is, of course, currency. What you read on front pages is, quite literally, yesterday's news -- while what you see on home-pages is what is happening in the real-time present.

If you're an environmental type, you'll know that newspapers are not a green product, either. The Green Press Initiative estimated that in 2006, newsprint consumed 95 million trees, to say nothing of the energy consumed or the pollution generated by printing and vehicle delivery.

Recently on "Charlie Rose," the Web entrepreneur Marc Andreesen dispensed a bit of brutal advice to the newspaper business: "You've got to kill the print edition." That way, the massive resources newspapers use for the print version could be routed into their thirsty Web operations.

Andreesen's position is extreme -- and he admitted it would mean "acute pain" -- but it's hard to ignore his credentials as a media visionary. In the 1990s, he co-created Netscape, one of the first major Internet browsers. Now he's on the boards of Facebook and EBay, and was a person to whom Barack Obama turned for insights into Web media and social networking at the outset of his campaign.

Andreesen told Rose, "If you're the guy delivering ice to peoples' iceboxes, at a certain point you'd better go into the refrigerator repair business. . . . If you're the village blacksmith and the Model T comes along, you'd better become a mechanic."

That Darwinian model is already playing out. The latest casualties arrived last week as Denver's Rocky Mountain News printed its last edition and the Hearst Corp. said it could shutter the 144-year-old San Francisco Chronicle.

So what if papers take Andreesen's advice? Many readers are less than excited about the prospect of an all-digital newspaper.

"People read the newspaper, they scan the Web," wrote Kathleen O'Donnell Hunt of Huntington Beach. "The newspaper is a meal, the Web is a snack."

"Reading the newspaper is like reading a book," agreed Elizabeth Dobbs of Vista. "Getting online is like walking into a library. I can get lost in the library of the Internet, flitting from one bit of information and e-mail to another."

That's a bull's-eye. The Internet is a medium without limits -- it has no bottom, no end and it continues to grow explosively. With all its competing types of chaos, the Web is ill-suited to provide the peace and quiet that deeper reading requires. It's a rough market for anything longer than a few pages -- books and newspapers included.

But the Web isn't the only alternative. If you've been following the saga of Amazon's Kindle, the electronic reading device the Web giant has had trouble keeping in stock, you might feel optimistic about the future of slow-read media.

Just so, we learned last week, on the heels of Hearst's grim news about the Chronicle, that the company was also planning to market its own e-reader for periodicals, reportedly with a larger, more newspaper-friendly screen.

Which sounds pretty good -- on paper.

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david.sarno@latimes.com

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