In 1976, I took an entry-level college course on mass communications. Mr. Whitcomb, a businessman who taught only this course (and whose name I may be misremembering), derided the daily newspaper’s delivery system.
I’ll paraphrase his rant. “They pull news from what they call ‘the wire’ except there are no wires anymore. They’re beamed to the subscribing newspapers via satellite. Each newsroom is itself a bundle of wires, moving stories from the reporter’s desk to the editors’, then into the pressroom, where a modern marvel of machinery prints thousands of copies every few minutes.”
“And then,” he’d sip his coffee and walk around the desk, letting the pause sink in to the point of discomfort. “They load these newspapers onto trucks, drop them at the end of driveways, and rely on teenagers with bicycles to get each copy to its reader.”
Whitcomb was certain the daily newspaper’s third-world delivery system would quickly collapse under the weight of first-world technology and expectations. Thirty-five years later, it may finally be happening, thanks to the iPad.
In a battle of cultural titans, the vision of Steve Jobs is confronting the legacy of Michael Scott. Vision is gaining ground.
I like paper almost as much as the fictional Michael Scott. I still prefer some ink on my thumbs after reading a newspaper. I tear out articles or mentions that warrant further thought. I use the height of my unread stack to gauge my progress for the week. I will be among the last to give up the print edition of my hometown newspaper.
But I’m not always home. I’ve spent this week in rural New England, where cell phone coverage is spotty and party line telephones feel like a recent memory. Local newspapers count the mildewed tiles discovered in a local gymnasium repair, not the consequences of the 2012 elections.
So I’ve been learning to navigate The Register-Guard’s e-Edition on my iPad. I’m impressed.
Unlike www.registerguard.com, the e-Edition first replicates the newspaper itself and with it the reader’s experience. Only gently does this electronic version add extra capabilities. The pages are the same, only without paper. Shaded boxes indicate where a touch will allow me to quickly turn the page to follow the jump or launch my Web browser for additional information.
I use my finger on the screen. I tap to focus on a single story, tap again to scan the ads, swipe to turn the page. Two fingers on the screen brings up a text-only version of the story. It all makes sense.
More importantly, it feels right in my hand, reminiscent of how a newspaper would. It’s an eBook of the day’s events. The device makes itself nearly invisible.
Computers are amazing machines, but they’ve thrived at the consumer level only by replacing other machines. Word processors replaced typewriters. Spreadsheets replaced adding machines. Email replaced fax machines. Smart phones replaced the land line — and then a camera and a compass and a tape deck and a dictaphone and a Gameboy.
Machines replacing other machines has not concerned us.
Paper has looked like the sandy cliffs of Normandy — the insurmountable beachhead between the wavy worlds of machinery and the sodden sands of tactility. The closer we got to “the paperless office,” the more paper we bought. Dunder-Mifflin stock soared.
Reading a newspaper with a keyboard in front of me has always felt like having the writer on speakerphone, asking me what I think. (Believe me. That’s not pleasant.) Paper products were safe because none of the digital solutions could be made to feel right.
No more. Encyclopedias are out of answers. Map-makers can’t find their way. Booksellers are in a bind. Even the paper in your wallet may soon be discounted as not worth the trouble. The handwriting on the wall is a string of ones and zeroes raining from a satellite.
IPads, Kindles, e-readers and tablet computers may finally offer newspapers a distribution method for their primary product that will be faster, cheaper and more reliable than trucks and cars and bicycles. Newspapers need only swipe their finger to turn the page, leaving me sad and excited at the same time.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.