The next generation has made the digital switchover

Future of newspapers and books in the hands of the generation that has just left school

Dead trees: an installation by Scottish artist David Mach of towers made from newspapers, called Here to Stay, at the 2000 Kilkenny arts festival.

Dead trees: an installation by Scottish artist David Mach of towers made from newspapers, called Here to Stay, at the 2000 Kilkenny arts festival.


The traditional class of newspaper – the one made from dead trees – can do certain things that its digital equivalent will never manage. Try mopping up your pathetic, desperate tears with an iPad or a top-of-the-range laptop. It just doesn’t work. Does it?

Useless old fatheads haven’t been driven to blubbing by more news concerning the imminent death of print. Remember all those scenes in movies that found producers nervously flicking through Variety the morning after the big premiere? Alas, they will now, on six days of the week at least, have to turn to their soulless tablet. After 80 years, the daily print version of that trade publication delivered its last edition on Tuesday. “Variety ankles daily pub hubbub” the famously slang-heavy magazine announced on the front page. The weekly version will continue to deliver all the gossip on pulped vegetation. For now.

It is somewhat surprising that Daily Variety survived so long. A slim publication featuring a few reviews and a smear of figures, the paper provided Hollywood insiders with one of the constituents for a morning ritual: jog, shower, coffee, Daily Variety , cry, sack once-promising directorial wunderkind who has just laid an egg. But the scanty information could easily be absorbed via smartphone while idling at traffic lights on the way to Hyper Coffee. Even the most sentimental evangelist for print would have found it hard to argue for the continuing existence of that particular organ.

Curly pipes and the wireless
Is “sentimental” the word? As the printed word begins to take on the quality of minor luxury – the equivalent, perhaps, of shaving with boar-hair brush and cylindrical soap stick – adherents of the cult must pause to question their motivations. A terrifying prospect veers into view: print enthusiasts could end up coming across as the sort of arch cultural reactionaries who insist on wearing bowties, smoking curly pipes and listening to something called the “wireless”. Nobody wants to be that nutcase.

Bookshops are closing. Newspapers other than this one (which, comrade reader, delivers increased tractor production with every passing year) are struggling to justify their existence on the physical plane. When publicist Stan Rosenfield suggested that Variety was getting out of the “buggy whip business” he might have been on to something.

The music industry offers a nightmare scenario. When downloading and streaming became a reality, a great many music enthusiasts – not all grey of beard – argued that fans would always seek out records in physical form.

Yes, they could tolerate the reduction of gatefold sleeves to square inserts in CD jewel cases. But the excitement that derives from actually holding a new record by Biff Toothsome would ensure that record shops survived well into the new millennium. Think of the things we used to construct on album covers. Remember the new-record smell that insinuated its way about the turntable. Blah, blah, blah! Tell it to the receivers, granddad. A gaping hole in the high street’s façade sombrely reminds us where HMV used to stand.

Droning like Leonard Cohen
Set aside this writer’s vested interest for a moment. Pretend this column will never soak its way into newsprint. There are important differences between the two cases. It is true that the downloading process does away with much of the peripheral attractions of record buying. We won’t start droning on like a Leonard Cohen dirge again. You have some idea what we’re talking about. But the actual business of listening to the sound as it emerges from the speakers has remained largely unchanged over 100 years. We can shuffle, skip and pause. The quality of the reproduction improved and then (if you heed haters of all things digital) got a little hollower and a little less colourful. The process of listening remains, however, essentially the same: noise, whether from speaker or headphone, makes its way into your ear.

Reading a screen is, by way of contrast, a different business from reading a piece of paper. The physical heft of the volume allows a more intimate connection with the text. The book fans delightfully on the lap. The newspaper can be scattered about the coffee table and distributed to a gathering of friends or family. Print may still wither. But it remains a different media to its electronic cousin.

One thing is certain. Those who grew up with no alternative to print will not be the ones making the decision on its ultimate survival. Frankly, it doesn’t matter a hoot that superannuated bores fondly remember scoffing chips from folded copies of the Evening Press . The generation that has just left school has always expected books, music, news stories, and films of kittens in buckets to be available instantly on compact screens. For them, the physical object remains the luxury alternative. We will die off and rot. They will then decide what comes next. The decision has been made on records. Print sits nervously in the holding cell.

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