A Life Without Paper

It was the smell I missed the most.

That delicious, woodsy, slightly acidic odor that flooded my memory with images of printing presses and the ratcheting clatter of teletype machines and the remembrance of a newsroom littered with stale coffee cups and lazy clouds of swirling cigarette smoke.

I know. I know. Newspapers now have separate printing plants. Teletype machines are long gone. And smoking is a major no-no.

But those feelings and memories caught up in the smell of newsprint have been what I have missed the most the past six months. On January 1, as an experiment, I cancelled my newspaper subscriptions. I used to read a local weekly, a local daily and, from the newsstands a few times a week, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

I stopped buying all of them.

I wanted to personally see how well I could stay informed by only reading news online or on my handheld Palm organizer or "Web-enabled" wireless phone.

Since January first, I've gone to the web several times a day, reading the electronic editions of my regular papers and several others.

Let me tell you: For a guy who has devoted the last few years of his professional life preaching new media and the Internet, I am amazed how frustrated I have been without my printed newspaper.

I missed it. The smell of it. The crinkly feel of it. The sheer enjoyment and relaxation it brought me when I would sit in my big comfy blue leather chair and read it by a crackling fire. I can't tell you how many times I wished I had it with me in the bathroom, too.

All those things are subjective. I guess I'm a lot more of a touchy-feely guy than I thought I was.

On an objective level, in terms of the main goal of my decidedly unscientific but personal experiment, I can say with certainty that after a half-a-year of consuming only online news, I haven't missed very much in terms of the big stories.

I read all I wanted and then some about Elian. I probably have a better sense of the ups and downs of the markets because of the immediacy of online market coverage. I know about the corrupt cops in Los Angeles. I'm well aware that Rudy has prostate cancer and that Matt Drudge released the e-mail addresses of 300 reporters.

But still, there's been this gnawing concern that, somehow, I missed something. For six months I've had this vague, restless worry that I was ... ignorant. Online news left me unsatisfied. Incomplete.

Everyday I would try to read, if that's what we can call scrolling up and down a computer screen, the online editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as CNN.com, ABCNews.com and the web edition of my local papers, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.

I subscribed to a free News alert service from MSNBC that beeps and flashes a little red dot on my PC screen whenever a major story broke.

The Saturday morning Elian was snatched by INS agents, the beeping woke me up and I trudged in the dark to my home office to read, at 5:50 a.m. what all the commotion was about.

I used a service called Avantgo to download news from a variety of other sources directly on my Palm handheld.

I also tried reading online news on a "web-enabled" wireless Qualcom phone. It was ridiculous. The screen is so small that, at best, you can read half a headline. "Firefighters race"... turn the thumbwheel ... "high winds"... turn the thumbwheel ... "in Los Alamos"... turn the thumbwheel ... "blaze."

Whew. To read the morning paper on one of these is to risk the carpal tunnel syndrome equivalent of the thumb. Besides, like the Palm VII wireless communicator I also experimented with, it often took three to four minutes to make a wireless connection to the news server and then a couple of minutes longer download the Web pages. By then, it was barely news anymore. I didn't have the patience for wireless news.

After six months, here's what I couldn't get online:

  • Local News. Even though I read the online editions of the local papers, they didn't feel local. You had to really hunt to find stories of local interest. On a computer screen, with just links of a uniform size used to navigate around, there's a lack of perspective about what's important. And it's often hard to distinguish between local and world news on a computer screen. My wife, who is very new to the Internet, never did get the hang of finding local news. "It's all a big jumble," she said, clicking off the Net in disgust one night. I sometimes had to resort to printing out stories from the online edition of my local paper to appease her.

  • Serendipity. I have really missed the surprise of a newspaper. Leisurely turning the pages of a newspaper and finding delightful, fascinating little stories that are just, well, there. Features and fillers and fodder for my mind that some real editor lovingly laid out and put there because it fit and was interesting. Stories I just ran across, instead of having to click on. Sometimes I found this online. But not often. I logged on for quick info hits and then clicked off. They may call reading on the Web "browsing" but it always seemed hurried to me.

  • Advertising. This was a real issue with my wife. She missed several big sales at the local department store. Flower Day at our Farmer's Market happened without her this year. Newspaper coupons that would have saved her money at the supermarket went unclipped. I am convinced that this is why newspapers need not worry about being extinct. Advertising is more than just ads. Coupons are currency of sorts. Advertising is just as much news as a bylined story. My household was decidedly uninformed about things that were important to us because, online, we had no idea what was commercially happening around us. I don't think I ever found a banner ad on an Internet site that interested me enough to click on it.

  • Convenience. There's no getting around the fact that reading news online is cumbersome. You have to sit down at a computer, log on to the Net and click and scroll and sit in a chair not nearly as comfortable as the easy chair out in the family room. Online is too "formal," I have decided. With a newspaper, it's right there. Put it down. Go to the fridge for a diet Pepsi. Come back. Pick it up. Put it down. Stuff it in your briefcase. Rip out a story and paste it on the family bulletin board.

  • Recall. This is tough to describe. Somehow, I remember stuff better when I read it on paper. This is probably the result of my conditioning and may not be a problem with younger people raised on the Net. But with a newspaper, it's easier to go back and reread a story that you saw last week, if it hasn't wrapped up the garbage or been tossed in the recycle bin. I bookmarked some interesting web stories but they never were as easy to find as my stack of newspapers used to be.

Again, this experiment was personal and anecdotal. But I have re-subscribed to my old papers. I can't wait to once again walk down the driveway at sunup, serenaded by the birds, and pull the morning daily out of the bright yellow tube next to my mailbox.

The first thing I'll do is put it to my nose and ... inhale. Deeply.

Maybe if I'm lucky, it will even leave a familiar black smudge of newsprint on my nose.

-- Poynter Fellow Mike Wendland specializes in reporting and new media and covers the Internet for NBC-TV Newschannel stations across the country.

This story originally appeared in The New York Times' Circuits section.

  • Mike Wendland

    Wendland is a technology journalist and a Fellow at Poynter. His newspaper columns appear in the Detroit Free Press, his TV reports are seen on NBC-TV News Channel affiliates nationwide and his radio reports air daily on CBS-WWJ in Detroit.


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