It is becoming fashionable to talk about the death of newspapers; the end of newsprint and the dawning of maxima digital age when all the news that’s fit to digitally communicate is predicted to be by laptop, tablet, smartphone, and some future cyborg implant wired to our middle-to-late 21st century brains.
But speaking as an advancing middle-aged dinosaur, I’ve decided it is time to protest. Newspapers – the printed artifact, not the flickering digital splat of Wordpress or the flatscreen inflating and deflating splurge of pdf – are as culturally important as books.
Whatever froth and hullabaloo we hear from think-tanks, media consultants, digital futures gurus, newspapers are going to be wanted, needed and read for a very long time.
The demise of the Liverpool Post before Christmas, along with growing closures of regional dailies, evening papers and local weeklies and the continuing decline of newspaper circulation, seems to herald an endgame. The wailing cry of first-world journalists is that newsprint is doomed.
This lily-livered defeatism needs to be challenged. I recall that around 20 years ago books were going to be annihilated by CD-Roms. I am rather phlegmatic on this issue. It has the fraudulent soothsaying reliability of the promised armageddon from the millennium bug.
Digital news is as fly-by-night as Twitter-dom and the wicked world of social media, those fetid swamps of egomania, narcissism, troll-pathy, and internet banality. The young are already fleeing Facebook. Who remembers Myspace and Bebo?
These evaporating and hollow brands of ephemerality are nothing compared to the cultural resonance of Ladybird books, The Beano and The Dandy. I mention The Dandy because 2012 was the year of its retreat from analogue reality to the illusion of online never-never land; a disaster in the history of the civilisation of this country.
My life in newsprint
The Dandy, delivered by the paperboy every morning tucked into my father’s Daily Telegraph, was my right-of-passage transition from comic shorts to the long trousers of the adult press. I started with my mother’s Daily Mail – not some A3 tabloid compromise of today, but something I could just about hold out with both arms outstretched.
When I stopped being a teenager it was time to be seen with The Times, The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph. Newspapers were fundamental to the development of my literacy, of knowledge of news and current affairs. Weekly periodical magazines such as New Statesman, New Society and The Spectator fostered my appreciation and understanding of politics, the arts, culture and society.
The printed form is something you hold without the need for batteries, microwaves, electricity, wires and cables. It is noiseless and peaceful aside from the gentle and reassuring sound of crumpling paper. It has existential spaciality for concentration, emotion recollected in tranquility, yes indeed Wordsworth’s definition of poetry. And newspapers and magazines are the place for poetry, short stories and serials and should always be.
The printed article or feature is something that you can return to with pleasure. In digi-blah-blah land you hyperlink leap from one place to another, half grasp an opening paragraph, blink on a flashing image – and anything worth reading and looking at is surrendered to flibbertigibbet consciousness.
In the printed Forest of Arden you can feel the aesthetics of documentary and photo-journalism, a more tactile textual contact with paper that is in some way a socio-spiritual throwback to the art of calligraphy and illumination.
More than just a paper
The printed word is the last bulwark and antidote against totalitarian censorship. George Orwell explained it through the work of the central character Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He was employed to incinerate the record of history at the Ministry of Truth through small chutes known as “memory holes”. He was imagining the reality of the uncertain nature of the digital record.
Truth can be swiped with the tapping of finger-prints on screens leaving grubby smears and no substance. The censoring perpetrator might leave some DNA spittle or skin whirl marks of his infamy on the palm-top plasma, but the object of the thought-crime disappears as quickly as the turning off of a light. At least with paper you need combustion in the pockets of every reader.
Christmas and New Year have passed and I feel blessed with my subscription to the paper version of The Times, and continue to spurn their offer of Nexus 7 for tablet purgatory. Not only can I still conceal my face while reading quality journalism in the Underground during the rush-hour, I also have substitute toilet paper, tapers for log-fires, insulation for fish and chips and indeed, when mixed with water, the surest way of cleaning any window.
The highlights of my recent print consumption have included Anthony Horowitz’s Christmas murder mystery, Camberwell Crackers, top reporting from Sean O’Neil, Frances Gibb et al, and incisive editorial from Camilla Cavendish, Matthew Parris and many others. I have read of the slaughter of swans in Mistley by speeding cars in my weekly Harwich and Manningtree Standard, my local MP, Tim Yeo, has a new monthly column in my regional East Anglian Daily Times, my weekly New Statesman has given me a flinty profile of the Daily Mail legend Paul Dacre by Peter Wilby, and a brilliant feature by Hugh Purcell, “Whatever happened to Timothy?” (appropriately available only in print) reflected on the hopes of a generation, my generation.
And Timothy says the future is inky. Et tu Digite?