Write off the humble newspaper at your peril


SIDELINE CUT:If newspapers are to become a thing of the past, what are people going to use to clear out their ashes and carry their fish and chips in? asks KEITH DUGGAN. 

CRANKED UP the auld compu-ther the other morning and among the breaking headlines was the news that Kaka is bound for ‘City’ for £100 million quid, that Jennifer Aniston is ‘too thin’ and that Cobh Ramblers are ‘struggling for survival’.

This was an early January morning, it was still dark out and on the radio, the weatherman promised that the freezing fog would soon lift. There was a lot of talk about Ireland’s new ghost estates, factories closing and ‘savage’ spending cuts, all of which kept perfect mood with the prevailing weather conditions and must have made thousands of folk want to bolt the doors and dive back under the duvet with the whiskey bottle.

At least the screen was bright and friendly and attractively presented and other stories from around the world were flashing up by the minute – a ferry disaster here, a fashion show there. Still: Kaka, Rachel and Cobh were the eye-catchers of the moment.

But it was hard to distinguish which of these stories should be considered the most important. What city? How thin? And aren’t we all struggling for survival? There was little to do but stare in puzzlement at the screen trying to establish some cosmic link between the Brazilian superstar, the malnourished actress and the hardy Corkonian soccer outfit but needless to say, the attempt failed miserably. As Midge Ure lamented back in his Ultravox days: “This means nothing to me, Ohhhh, Vienna.”

They say the traditional and much maligned newspaper is quickly going down the same plughole as vinyl and George Bush: soon to be condemned and ditched for the sleek and the new. Newspapers, are, after all, noisy, awkward and slow to navigate and leave murky ink prints on hands and clothes. They are a throwback to the most primitive print age and have no real purpose in the technological age.

Some forecast a global demise in about 30 years, other predictions insist the end is nigh for the demoralised world of newsprint: that they could be a ‘thing of the past’ by 2025. They could be finished, in other words, before U2, Alex Ferguson and the Dublin-Galway motorway. That vista struck me as particularly sad for the simple reason that I might never get to read about Donegal winning the Ulster championship in print again.

But you have to concede the pessimists probably have a point.

The old ritual of walking or driving to the newsagents for “a bit of gossip”, a pint of milk and the daily rag is old hat as far as the future kids are concerned. It is as time warped a practice as writing letters by hand and posting them instead of firing off an email.

Those Sunday afternoons when the old man disappeared behind a wall of news sheet, grunting and chuckling and scolding for several hours only to suddenly fling the thing aside and declare “there’s nothing in that thing anymore” are officially history – the world over. Time is too precious.

And in any event, the tired old newspaper is by necessity ‘so yesterday’. This is particularly true when it comes to sport, where one can read about the latest big event live on line, get instant access to the (actual) statistics, hear the views of the former stars, watch the entire event in replay and bang out one’s own opinion on the matter.

All of which are good things. By the time the paper gets printed and circulated and lands on the shelves early the next morning, the modern world has moved on. Nowadays, the poor newspaper is the guy who laughs at the joke five minutes after the punchline. His more hip and youthful pals just roll their eyes. That is why the old newspaper is a funeral waiting to happen.

If so, it will mean that a culture is going to be erased in the blink of an eye. Paddy Downey, formerly the GAA correspondent of this newspaper, once told a story of being taken ill at the Munster hurling semi-final and being rushed to hospital in Limerick. He was drowsy and weak and all the rest but habit and conscience meant that the nagging duty of the deadline would not leave him and so he persuaded the staff to wheel him down the corridor to where the public phone was so he could deliver his report to the copytaker from his hospital bed. That story illustrates the universal truth that the mere matter of ‘getting a newspaper out’ was a half miraculous and precarious business at the best of times. All that oil and ingenuity and manpower are fast becoming irrelevant.

Maybe the end will come to pass, although the feeling here is that the disappearance of newspapers would affect us in ways that nobody has really considered yet. What are people going to use to clear out their ashes? (Presuming, that is, that we haven’t moved on to virtual fires.)

Is there not still a whole army of people out there for whom doing the crossword in a pub with the paper folded and a biro in hand constitutes a perfect afternoon? Newspapers have a practical worth: tomorrow’s fish and chip paper was the old rebuke. But what was wrong with that? Newspaper comes in handy. Ask anyone who has ever slept rough. You could have the finest laptop on the market but it won’t save your feet from frostbite.

They say that the big newspaper houses around the world are beginning to crumble and that the big leap from the print sheet to the computer screen has already happened, that it is in mid-flight. So be it. The grubby old newspaper may not even be missed. Newspapers have always been easy targets – unable, as Shaw memorably complained, to “discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation”. Just as well old GB never had to sit through an hour of Fox News.

Still, though. There is surely some comfort to be taken from the humble, unfashionable newspaper. There is no question that their on-line sisters have the cutting edge now when it comes to time and style and presentation: they bring us fresh updates and new calamities complete with video and audio links and consumer blogs and all the other paraphernalia by the minute. All at the touch of a button – and for free. The mass appeal of that is undeniable.

But surely there is a faint warning bell to be heard if we listen hard enough.

Already, it is hard to know how to deal with this ceaseless flood of information, how to stop it from becoming blurred so that, when we switch the power off and walk away, Kaka is playing midfield for Cobh Ramblers, which has been bought for £100 million quid by Jennifer Aniston, who watches League of Ireland games from the directors suite while munching contentedly on chip butties. Of course, wonderful as all of that would be, none of it could happen because it would constitute good news. And there never seems to be good news nowadays. You only have to pick up a paper to see that.