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There’s no substitute for print

The Atlantic
By Andrew Ferguson – April 10, 2019

Sometime this winter, I performed an experiment: I decided to subscribe to home delivery of a daily newspaper. I am so pleased by the success of this experiment that I can no longer remember why I undertook it, although through my daze of self-satisfaction I am pretty sure that money was involved. A promotional offer probably arrived in the mail—the postal mail, I mean—that was as insanely cheap as I am. Succumbing to a printed come-on delivered by a flesh-and-blood letter carrier to subscribe to a real newspaper-on-newsprint gave my experiment the feel of something reactionary and backward-looking—another reason I was eager to undertake it. I even paid by check.

A print copy of The Wall Street Journal

As recently as 15 years ago, before the internet completed its digital disaggregation of the newspaper business, I was a four-paper-a-day man. This period was the high-water mark of a lifetime devoted to the overconsumption of news. Four separate plastic bags stuffed with newsprint were dumped each day before dawn on my front curb.

Over time, their ranks were thinned as I turned first to my desktop computer and then to my laptop and finally to my phone for news; digital subscriptions became my primary “information delivery system.” I accrued logins and passwords (some filched, some paid for) to leap the many paywalls.

But now I have a paper again. The newspaper involved in my little experiment in home delivery was The Wall Street Journal, but any of the daily newspapers on offer in my city would have made for a similar success. There are things specific to the Journal that I love, but the same holds true for The New York Times, and The Washington Post too, and even the Financial Times, which is a magnificent work of journalism, despite being printed on orange stock. Staring at an orange object so early in the morning is an unsettling way to start the day.

I subscribed in the dead of winter. A few weeks after the check and order form were sent off, the subscription took hold and the paper began to arrive. (The delay between cause and effect was another retro touch I had forgotten.) A freshet of anticipation swept over me that first morning when I looked out the front window to see the bagged paper at last, peeking up through a fresh layer of snow.

I shrugged on my bathrobe and stepped into my slippers and felt the cold encircle my ankles when I opened the front door. I felt again the slight wariness familiar from years ago, when I would fetch the papers in this untidy state under the glare of the nosy neighbor across the street. Through her living-room window she kept our neighborhood under constant surveillance, and she never tired of her disgust at a grown man who would show himself on his front lawn in the dawn’s light unshaved and uncombed, wearing an unbelted bathrobe. But my wariness that first morning was just a ghost: The nosy neighbor is long gone. Her house, nowadays, is home to an overachieving government functionary. I’m sure he’d be disgusted too, but he’s always looking at his phone.

The fetching is only the first of the little rituals that attend the reading of a real newspaper. There is the steaming cup of coffee, as essential as a chalice to the Eucharist or a hand-thrown bowl to the tea ceremony, and then the plumping of the reading chair—the quick scan of the front page to get your bearings and then the plunge inside, to international news or an annoying columnist or a review of an unexpected book or (my own preference) the obituaries. (Death is the only news that stays news.)

I unfold the paper, and the world opens up to me as through a parting cloud. But it is a special world, an invented world, and here is the key to its charm: It is pleasingly static, momentarily a settled matter. My news on paper isn’t subject to updating until tomorrow morning. Juan Guaidó, I read, has delayed his return to Venezuela, assuming Nicolás Maduro will allow him to cross the border, and there he will stay until the Journal tells me differently. In a newspaper, the world presents itself in discrete stages—or on stage sets, I should probably say—and each set will be dismantled or rearranged by the time tomorrow’s performance begins.

My experiment has its problems: My recycling bin runneth over, for example. But it also exposes serious advantages over my previous news diet of phone and laptop. In my chair, newspaper in hand, I rest unmolested. On my phone or my laptop, I am beckoned incessantly to click on one link or another or still another, boxes of irrelevant video appear and disappear, audio screeches out unbidden, ads scurry across the screen obstructing the paragraphs I’m trying to read. Mysterious algorithms known only to the gremlins of Silicon Valley push me toward stories that the gremlins reckon must be of related interest, as though, having read a story about Trea Turner’s broken index finger, I will now be eager for a review of the latest developments in orthopedic surgery. But I’m not. My newspaper could never be so noisy or presumptuous. It holds still.

The relative benefits of reading on paper versus reading on a screen have been examined by our ever-busy social scientists, but their findings are unsettled, and will likely forever remain so. How we read on a screen or paper and how much we retain of what we read surely depends on personal history and experience. My experiment in home delivery would yield different results with subjects younger than I, who scroll and swipe without the galaxy of pleasant associations that linger from my many happy years of newspaper reading. To the well-wired mind, the newspaper might seem intolerably limiting. A screen is many things all at once or in quick succession: The New York Times, Netflix, an auction house, a video of last summer’s vacation, a box of recipes, a text from a friend. The newspaper contains multitudes, but in the end, it is only itself. The well-wired mind knows that the screen, as a medium for news, is truer to real life because it brings us life in what we insist on calling “real time.”

As if there is such a thing! Time’s relativity (thanks, Einstein) means we should have some control over the pace with which the world, and the news, comes at us, since neither screen nor paper will ever do better than offer a simulacrum of real life. My daily paper at the curb brings its own simulacrum in its unique way, its own fantasy of what the world is like. I relish reacquainting myself with it each morning, at least for as long as I can. Of course, when my day really begins and I peek at my phone or flip open my laptop, the illusion is destroyed and replaced by another, much more frenetic one—until it returns the next morning with the steaming cup and the plumped-up chair, with the world held in place so I can get a good look at it.