Is There Something Fundamentally Better About 'Print' Than 'Online'?

from the please-explain dept

Via Jay Rosen comes a discussion sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America about how to “reinvent” the print newspaper. Of course, it seems like the premise here is a bit skewed. It’s like saying “how to reinvent the horse-drawn carriage” rather than “how do we improve transportation.” There’s no rule that news has to come in print form, but it seems like some newspaper folks believe that print has special powers. As Rosen highlights, Charlotte Hall, an editor from the Orlando Sentinel, says during the discussion:

It stops the clock once a day and takes an assessment, offering the kind of in-depth and analytical work that the 24/7 breaking news world on the Web cannot provide. Print is good at the things the Web is not good at–watchdog, explanatory, enterprise, narrative storytelling.

That sounds good, but it’s not print that’s doing that. It’s the reporters and editors who are doing that — and there’s absolutely nothing stopping them from doing it online as well. And, therein lies the problem. Some folks in the newspaper world seem to have imbued “print” with special powers that it just doesn’t have. Yes, for many people print newspapers are convenient — and they don’t necessarily need to go away. But it seems that so many people get so focused on the physical paper that they forget about actually serving their community.

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Comments on “Is There Something Fundamentally Better About 'Print' Than 'Online'?”

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momo the conquerer says:

didn't anyone mention "bathroom reading"?

taking your laptop/kindle to the toilets with you is pretty icky. taking a newspaper or a magazine is pretty ok.
maybe they should focus on adjusting their printed media for bathroom reading – shorter&lighter stories, smaller pages for easier holding, anti-bacterial stuff in the pages etc… I doubt online media can compete in this market

rogue says:


Print doesn’t mash my eyes up like staring at a monitor does…

However I expect print to be replaced by foldable/scrollable e-ink type devices – similar but more advanced than the Amazon kindle. Download today’s newspapers, magazines, blogs etc – then again just surf the internet on it. If newspaper publishers have something to offer to an established reader base, imagine the cost savings for publishing, distribution etc – but they’ll face a hell of a lot of competition.

Frosty840 says:

I’ve been waiting for years to be able to buy “static visual data” without the associated material baggage.

I don’t want to have big stacks of paper that I throw away / waste daily, and I don’t want data that I do want to keep to mouler and rot away at the back of some filing cabinet on on a bookshelf weighted down with all the other data I have acquired over the years. All I want is the data that’s on those pages.

As far as I’m concerned, print has only two advantages: the ability to pick the medium up and bring it closer to your eyes if you can’t see it properly, and the ability to carry it around with you wherever you are. Both are advantages which are very nearly gone thanks to the progression of technology. After that, all you’re doing is wasting energy and resources on unneccessary production costs.

Valkor says:

Re: Re:

Print has a third advantage: historical archive. When a newspaper prints something embarrasing to itself, it can’t do anything about it. An online newspaper can simply disappear it. Sometimes those same articles disappear from the Google cache, too. Sometimes pulling articles backfires like it did for Fox and the Wolverine review, but if news gets pulled off a website quietly, maybe people won’t notice.
I can go to a library and look through scans of print pages, and I can search archives online. If news is removed from an indexed news archive in the future, it will practically cease to exist to future historians.

Newspaper Shopper (user link) says:

Can we personify the newspaper industry as Dwight Schrute?

The problem with Print is once it goes to press, it’s considered a completed product.

The Web, however offers more ability for the article to live past a day, to something that resembles more of a “living document” that lives past a certain point of time.

Thusly, by incorporating alternative viewpoints, a reader of a website can have a better perspective of the news based not only on the article itself, but also, what others think of it.

It’s quite simple, actually. If someone has to choose between an article with one comment versus something with a hundred, they will naturally levitate with the one with a hundred comments.

Compare this to paper, where often comments, if they actually are mailed, are usually only sent to the Editor as and are received as an “attaboy” or “I plan to drop your newspaper”. Sadly, such feedback is not timely shared.

By relying on paper, you expect paper for the conversation. This is where the paradigm changes.

Referebce This link And yes, Comment #18, I read your info. Thank you.

Note: This has also been cross posted here, as the subject matter held equal merit.

Paul G (profile) says:


OK so I am NOT a newspaper exec so I doubt they would ever consider this.

With OLED advancing slowly will it soon be possible to produce a paper thin flexible A4 or larger device to read? If the news media sold the device as a Kindle style reader it could be updated at a current outlet for a similar fee to the cost of a current paper. Or a subscription based update service but that threatens the resellers.

Dump some funds into a focused R&D project to bring it to market.

End result = Old style media on a new medium keeping both sides happy.

Anonymous Coward says:

I like the format...

In the course of a year I read hundreds of internet news stories on a huge array of sites. However, I have found that I still prefer the format of a newspaper. I thought reading a paper online would be weird, but actually it is fairly easy, and I prefer a newspaper online rather than the layout of most internet news stories. Room for innovation here.

Anonymous Coward says:

It's what you are used to.

Most adults prefer to read off paper. I teach college, and if I make an online assignment online, people usually print it off.

This has definitely changed in the last couple of years. I am now seeing students who feel that a screen rather than paper is the natural way to read. The thing that really marked the change for me was a student who complained about the lack of scanners with sheet feeders on campus. Other students chimed in, and I realized that they were wanting to scan handouts to pdf’s so that they could read them onscreen instead of on paper.

I recommend selling stock for any company that depends on paper printing; I don’t think ink and paper have a bright future as kids raised in front of a computer screen become a larger part of the adult population.

Rod MacPherson (user link) says:

It does have special money making properties

Because the industry looked at the web as a plaything that they had to put stories up on to draw people to their product (the paper) and not as a different medium on which to distribute their product (the stories), they set the bar for advertising prices on the web WAY too low.

As time progressed and people began to prefer to get their news online the newspaper people’s world fell apart. The print paper makes money, the web version of the paper loses money…. why? Because they treated the web as an advertising gimmick instead of an alternate distribution method. If they had started off by setting the advertising rates for online ads at a realistic level they wouldn’t be hurting now. They might be closing off the print side in favour of online distribution, but they would not be laying off writers and photographers and closing up shop.

Pjerky (profile) says:

Old Fashioned

For a web developer I am a bit old fashioned. I still like to read paper books over electronic and I like to hold a magazine or a comic in my hand and I prefer it because I don’t have to catalog it on my hard drive and hope it doesn’t get lost from some mishap. Seems less risky to have a physical copy over a digital one. Plus in comics and some magazine and book editions they can become collectors items, unlike digital copies (where that is simply not possible).

Don’t get me wrong, I use digital media every day and I am all for it. But I do enjoy holding a printed copy in my hand. Plus it is a bit easier on my eyes. Beyond the personal preference and the collectible items thing I don’t really see printed as significantly better than digital. When it comes to newspaper it is really not that special at all unless you like to collect newspaper clippings (again, personal preference).

I don’t think physical copies are given enough consideration these days for their flexibility in being free of a device and electrical source and still being usable. However, I don’t think it is mystically better either.

Rita Arens (user link) says:

Editors and writers

I think you’ve nailed the point here. The content producers — the editors and writers — are the important part, not the medium by which their words are carried to the reader.

Publishers just have to figure out the business model that will enable them to pay those editors and writers a living wage. Subscriptions models don’t seem effective online. Publishers need to figure out how to monetize the back-end.

Tim (profile) says:

I love how the stories in newspapers are static. Yes some stories may have changed in the few hours since they went to print, but you know that story is the news at 3am (or whenever they go to print). What happens after that is a new story. It may continue on from the last one, but it is separate, so there is full re-evaluation each day, which you can follow through.

By simply updating stories (or deleting them), the way the stories are interpreted can be quite different. The wait before print also gives journalists some time before print to do more research and find more information or back story as they are not involved in the race to be first.

Being first is considered to be a major differentiation between outlets on the web and is measured in seconds, where as in newspapers it is measured in days.

I do like the tactile feel of newspapers, but when epaper can provide very thin portable paper then I am happy to move. What I don’t want to lose is the daily news release, that can be digested in one sitting.

SeanG (profile) says:

I do like the aesthetics of a printed page. As others have said, I like the portability of it and I don’t really care if my newspaper or book gets crumpled or wet. I have not yet experienced the Kindle. I would be all for that or a similar device that can mimic the feel and convenience and deliver the dynamics of web based content. I’m sure it won’t be too long before we’re there.

C.T. says:

Besides the issue of readability/eye-strain (especially over long periods), I think the biggest issue for me is the ability to take notes in the margins. As an attorney, I highlight and write all over pretty much everything I read. I realize that you can highlight/insert comments on a computer, but for whatever reason I find the options remain somewhat constrained.

TX CHL Instructor (profile) says:

Is There Something Fundamentally Better About 'Print' Than 'Online'?

Well, yes, there are a few things about print that are fundamentally better than online. Some of which are amenable to change because of improving technology.

1) Higher contrast (display technology will probably advance enough to render this moot soon, but right now my high-res monitor is still about 1/10 the dot-pitch of newsprint, and 1/50 of a typical magazine).
2) Low energy consumption (also subject to technology improvement).
3) Archives. This one may be tough to overcome online. Online stuff is subject to easy and arbitrary change at any time, whether to ‘correct errors’ or to erase inconvenient and politically embarrassing revelations (like the use of creatively-photoshopped photos by lefty moonbats like DailyKos and MoveOn).

On the minus side, instant access to damn near anything and the ability to quickly search and cross-reference stuff is a pretty overwhelming advantage of online media. Unfortunately, most folks tend to use those features primarily for quote-mining to support their own petty prejudices, but that’s not unique to online media. (Thanks BHO, for the fantastic stimulus you have given my buiness!)

sfox (user link) says:

Save a tree

We gave up printed newspapers over seven years ago when we spent two years living in a rural location that had no delivery. Never missed it. Would never go back.

No worrying about vacation holds, missed deliveries. I get my news when I want it. And, you know, I find that I am actually capable of analytical, incisive reading on, gasp, a computer monitor.

The local daily here in Humboldt County, California is available as an online facsimile for $39 year, about a quarter of what the print version costs. Otherwise, the morning read consists of SFGate, Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, Weather Channel, Doonsbury plus personal goodies like Facebook.

And I would want a printed newspaper……why?

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

How about a Better Home Computer Printer?

The “linear rate of advance” of a print head in a present-day inkjet printer is on the order of a foot per second. It covers the page in repeated passes only a fraction of an inch wide.

Suppose you could produce an inexpensive print head eight-and-a-half inches wide, which was mounted across the print carriage and did not move back and forth. In that case, you would have a color printer capable of perhaps sixty pages per minute, and, if monopoly pricing broke down, there is no reason that ink cartridge costs would have to be higher than a penny a page. The techniques involved in manufacturing OLED e-paper are equally applicable to making such a print head.

The print-head would be self-contained in its electronics. It would talk directly to the computer, presumably being able to understand PostScript, and order the printer when to turn the feed roller. This would make it comparatively easy to standardize the print-head as an interchangeable commodity part.

When you have a printer like that, the distinction between on-line and print simply breaks down. There is no reason why you should not be able to print yourself a reasonably finished-looking book.

Here’s something I did one time: I printed off a document from an on-line historical archive, having saved a copy on my computer. I folded the print-off up, stuck it in my pocket, and carried it with me to the laundromat. I read the thing, and made notes with a red pencil while “propping up the laundromat wall,” waiting for my washing to finish. I was doing scholarly research in the fullest sense of the word under conditions where I would traditionally have been expected to read a newspaper that someone else had left on the table. It was a reasonable thing to do, making good use of time which would otherwise have been wasted in boredom, but I felt very strange doing it. As a historian, I had been brought up to have something of the same attitude about archives that a Catholic priest has about the altar and sanctuary of his church. There is a sort of traditional ritual of “traveling to archives.” That is, you are supposed to go off on a tour of the country, visiting all the places where they have old papers relating to your subject. What has happened however, is that large numbers of little archives have realized that they can increase their exposure by methodically feeding everything they have through the camera, and putting it all on-line. Taken in aggregate, these small local archives add up to a very rich collection. So I sat in front of my computer, reading the documents in one window (Acrobat), and typing page-by-page comments in another window (a word processor), and methodically worked my way through several thousand pages of source material. That felt like a normal thing to do, like using a microfilm viewer in the library, only more comfortable.

sfox (user link) says:

How about a Better Home Computer Printer?

How about we move into the 21st century and stop using material resources for things like information, music, movies, etc. that don’t require corporeal existence to be useful?

Previous post spends a lot of time inventing a new buggy whip. More germaine will be to download the document to something like a Kindle or iPhone that has a markup application and carry that off to the laundromat.

The issue is not to try to find a better way to do what has been done since paper was invented, but to say “bye bye” to paper, except for very specific and special things like…..give me a minute, I’ll think of somthing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: How about a Better Home Computer Printer?

You may want to carry around a relatively fragile plastic box, but I still prefer good old-fashioned books. Light, highly portable, and the batteries never run out. The screen does not smash when you drop it. I may eventually buy some sort of electronic book device, but I doubt any of the books I would be interested in reading will be available for it. Your electronic dohickey is a non-innovation from my viewpoint.

JRobinson (user link) says:

New Distribution Model Includes Paper

What the Newspaper Industry fails to understand is that they are no longer just “papers” they are Newsdistributers how the news is distributed is not the issue. It could be on an iphone, Kindle, webpage and yes on paper. They need to focus on the “News” and not how it will be distributed.

I’ve created a customized Newsprint website using the’s news aggregator application. I can read news online or print it out in an easy to read newspaper format. I think this is the future.

Check out my paper at


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