Toward a Paperless Society  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   February/March 2006

Toward a Paperless Society   

And why that will bring happiness to the corporate suites

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


One reason why that desk took on a daredevil quality was an unassuming, red-haired, chain-smoking woman named Margie. Margie was a proofreader. Each evening about 9 she'd stroll in, just as we were closing the night's first main edition, grab a full-sized proof of the front page and start reading. She began with the masthead and didn't stop until she'd read the "continued on" lines. As good as our editors were, invariably Margie would find a goof or three. She was the safety net that emboldened us all.

Then one day, just like that, the net was gone. As we moved to increasingly sophisticated computer programs to edit and process stories, proofreaders were considered an expensive luxury, a vestige of the days when the final versions of newspaper stories came from Linotype operators, not editors with faces bathed in unnatural light.

Margie's departure was a small but highly symbolic victory of the bottom line over quality control. Naturally we tried to compensate by editing with even more care, but now instead of contemplating care-free our next somersault, we were more mindful of the high price of falling. Yet we knew such transitions were inevitable, as was the simultaneous, albeit slower, phasing out of newspaper printers due to technology.

I started my career in those days of hot type, when cavernous composing rooms were full of heavy, rolling tables carrying pages that literally had to be "locked up" for safe transport to the engraving department. Printing was a centuries-old and noble trade, in that it took no small amount of intelligence and, frankly, art, for a printer to build a newspaper page from strips and slivers of metal−a universe in which, lest we forget, all words ran backwards.

But within a few years the production side began its own conversion to computerization, and soon enough these hardened, crusty men and they were virtually all men were reduced to playing "paper dolls," as many derisively called it. From the trade they had apprenticed for years, these "printers" now found themselves cutting type from paper, with scissors or penknives, and pasting pages together. They were simultaneously infuriated, embarrassed and terrified, for they were holding on to jobs by their fingernails, and we all knew it.

As the woes of the newspaper industry mount, more and more people ask me when I think we will see the demise of the newspaper actually printed on pulped tree product.

I'm not sure, but what I do know is that when that day arrives, some of the happiest people on earth are apt to be newspaper publishers. For that day will mark the culmination of a technological march that began nearly half a century ago.

I mean, think about what a paperless world will actually mean to publishers:
No more newsprint to buy and other than the annoying cost of human beings, this is the single largest expense newspaper companies have.
No more presses as long and as heavy as oceangoing ships, and about as expensive to buy.
No more people to run those presses.
No more circulation departments to run.
No more circulation trucks to buy, gas up and maintain.
No more delivery people to hire.

The press roar will go silent. The soundtrack of tomorrow's "newspaper industry" will be the dull hum of computers and the gurgle of idealism being stifled.

To be sure, before this final fantasy materializes, the industry still must figure out the economic model how to relocate its advertisers to the Web and keep craigslist from killing its classified ad franchise. But as analyst John Morton points out in his column this issue, the road to e-profitability is a lot easier if you can shed well over half your existing costs. (See The Newspaper Business, page 68.)

A lot of us who love newsprint will hate to see it go. But you can be sure there will be few tears shed in the corporate suites.

There's no romance in newspapers, boys and girls. If you think otherwise, ask Margie.

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