News Without the Papers

The threat to an old medium endangers Americans’
awareness of their broader communities

By Walter Fox

newspapersMarshall McLuhan, the late communications theorist and provocateur, once quipped: “People don’t actually read newspapers – they get into them every morning like a hot bath.” If the closing of daily newspapers continues unabated, however, readers may have to make do with a cold shower provided by radio, television and the Internet.

While some commentators view newspaper closings as part of an evolutionary transition from an older news medium to newer forms, the end of print journalism would bring with it a profound shift in the way Americans perceive themselves and their environment.

Unlike books or magazines, newspapers are a communal medium. Traditional newspapers – if they are well-edited – force readers to confront the whole community whether they want to or not. Readers may purchase a newspaper to read the sports pages or find a good used car, but in the process they will scan a range of important issues, if only as headlines. This communal dimension of newspapers – a phenomenon peculiar to newsprint – is missing in electronic media, especially those that offer news tailored to the user’s idiosyncrasies.

Those who perceive them only as targets of mass advertising campaigns designate newspaper readers as consumers. But the authors of the First Amendment took a much broader view. They saw readers as citizens whose ability to participate in a democratic society would depend on their access to information. Accordingly, they gave the press privileged status in the Constitution.

But information that does not allow readers to see themselves as part of a social and civic community is news from nowhere. It is the connection to an identifiable place that enables a newspaper to make national and international affairs, as well as local news, meaningful to readers in its area. Even the New York Times, long regarded as America’s national newspaper of record, is firmly rooted in New York City and devotes considerable resources to coverage of metropolitan area news.

By scanning the newspaper page, readers get a strong sense of place – a feeling for the flesh-and-blood community of which they are a part – and may be persuaded occasionally to rise above their own personal interests and consider the common good.

It is hard to imagine the kind of investigative reporting that resulted in the Watergate revelations or produced the Inquirer series on the Board of Revision of Taxes taking place outside of a newspaper. One reason for this is that the newspaper page itself is an ideal setting for the juxtaposition of text and graphics that such reporting requires. David Simon, creator of the HBO series The Wire and a former newspaper reporter, has said that the disappearance of investigative journalism would usher in “a halcyon era for state and local political corruption.”

Finally, there is something to be said for the sheer tactility and physicality of news on newsprint – hard copy that can be reread, underlined, clipped, saved, copied, pasted, posted and faxed. News may be ephemeral, but on paper it at least takes on a tangible quality that allows readers to make it their own and share it with others on bulletin boards and in scrapbooks.

Newspapers can be read at the breakfast table, on the subway, in a barber shop or at the beach, but always on the reader’s own schedule. They require neither an electrical outlet nor a well-charged battery.

To make a case for the power of newsprint does not necessarily imply that all publishers have exploited its potential. In fact, a failure to provide the kind of news that empowers readers may be a contributing factor in the current newspaper crisis. But if the newsprint newspaper eventually disappears as a form, it will take with it elements of our political and social life that we cannot afford to lose.


Walter Fox is a freelance writer and the author of Writing the News: A Guide for Print Journalists. This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer of May 26, 2009. © 2009 Walter J. Fox Jr. (for reprint permission contact: wjfoxjr@verizon.net)


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