On reading the newspaper

by Casey Newton


I read a newspaper the other day.

My friend Dan had invited me to stay with him during my trip to Washington, DC. Dan never misses an opportunity to sleep past noon, and one morning after reading the entire Internet I decided to duck out for a cup of coffee. When I opened the front door there it was -- the Sunday New York Times, beaming at me from Dan's welcome mat. I slipped it into my backpack and left the apartment. 

I've read newspapers for 20 years now. It started with the Los Angeles Times, which my parents still have delivered to their doorstep every morning. As a 12-year-old I wanted only to read the sports pages, so that I might keep up with my Dad in conversations about the Dodgers and the Lakers. In high school I fell in love with music and movies, and devoured the paper's Calendar section for its news and reviews of my favorite artists. From there I persuaded the Orange County Register to include me on a couple of "teen panels," and spent a couple years covering young-adult issues and writing capsule movie reviews.  

In college I had my first exposure to the New York Times, delivered free to campus as part of some promotional effort, and I was enraptured. It was the most authoritative reporting I had ever read, but also warm and clever and sophisticated. The thing that left me gobsmacked was how each week the Times could put out an impossibly thick Sunday edition, full of incisive reporting and commentary on the world, and still have enough left over to deliver a beautiful glossy magazine better than most rags that come out monthly.

I read the Times online, sure, but the print edition transfixed me in those days. I liked the heft of it. The dean of my journalism school, for whom I worked as an aide, had an amazing stand-up desk built in his office for the express purpose of newspaper reading. Each morning he would unfold the pages of America's great newspapers on the desk as he sipped his coffee, and I wanted nothing more than to have a desk like that of my own. 

After school I took a newspaper job myself, in a small Indiana town, and each month parted with what felt like an enormous sum of money to ensure I could wake up on Sundays with the Times. I would drive to a local sandwich shop and spend two or three hours tearing through the paper -- the A section first, then Book Review, then Week in Review, then (somewhat guiltily) Sunday Styles. I had hardly a friend in Indiana in those days, but no man is alone who has the Sunday Times in front of him. I carried it around town like a talisman, as if to warn people that I wouldn't be sticking around Schererville very long. 

During those years the newspaper industry I had joined with great enthusiasm was in the throes of a wrenching transformation. The costs of stationing reporters in every American town, and delivering their work to a large public via diesel trucks and printing presses, were proving more than companies could bear. Friends who worked with me at my college newspaper headed for the exits -- to public relations, to law school, to nonprofits. 

The threat of layoffs hung over me wherever I went, like a guillotine. But the more I worked in journalism, the more fun I had. I stuck around. 

My love of print gradually left me, though. When I moved to Arizona for a new job, I didn't bring the Sunday Times with me. By then I was reading it online every day, and as a socially active twentysomething I found it suddenly infeasible to devote three hours per Sunday to catching up with the Bush presidency. (It should also be said that around this time I became a devotee of the great Sunday pastime known as gay brunch.)

Each morning I would walk into my newsroom and see a stack of papers, free for the taking, and almost every morning I would simply glance at the play of stories on the front page and sit down at my computer. The most interesting stories from the day's paper, I knew, would find me early in the day: I would see them on our paper's website, or a colleague would mention one to me, or a source would ask me what I thought about something hidden inside the B section.

My enjoyment of print ended for good one summer in Scottsdale. Each week I paid a discounted employee rate to have the Arizona Republic delivered to my apartment, and like most people who have ever subscribed to a newspaper was nearly driven mad by the giant piles of newsprint accumulating on my kitchen table. Eventually a separate trash can was purchased, and given precious space in a hallway closet, for the express purpose of disposing of the weekly fishwrap. Inevitably I would wait until the can was overflowing, weighing three or four hundred pounds, before staggering down three flights of stairs in the unreal Arizona heat and hurling yesterday's news into a dumpster a quarter mile away. 

I was willing to die for my journalism, but this seemed to me the wrong way of going about it. 

* * *

How delightful, then, to find the Times' print edition remains such a boon companion. Inside a  DC Starbucks, I instantly I fell back into my old patterns, reading the A section (a terrific front-page piece charted James Holmes' descent into madness), then the Book Review (Hanna Rosin's takedown of Sex and God at Yale made me laugh out loud), and eventually even Sunday Styles. (I scanned Vows first for gay couples, as I always did, but found none.) 

I was actually somewhat upset, after I had returned to Dan's house and opened up the magazine, that he finally rose from his slumber and suggested we get breakfast. John Jeremiah Sullivan's piece about the Williams sisters was as good as everyone had been saying all week, and when I asked if I could keep it he sneered and his girlfriend explained that no one touches the magazine until Dan finishes the crossword. 

There we were, in 2012, thirtysomethings fighting over a newspaper.

It made me happy.

* * *

Aside from the odd encounter with the Sunday Times, I'm not reading much in print these days. I shifted my New Yorker subscription to digital-only after they began to insert audio into the iPad version of the magazine. Suddenly I could hear poetry and fiction in the actual voices of the authors, and after listening to them read for a few weeks I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to go without them. 

News comes to me today via streams and feeds, by texts and e-mails, and day and night from the broadcasting machine called Twitter that has upended the newsgathering process. This all happens blindingly fast. The old what-it-all-means thumbsuckers, which used to trail the news by a day or so, now arrive on the Web a few minutes after the original headlines. All this materializes wirelessly on a 9.5-inch screen with a display whose clarity rivals print. (Battery life does not, but give it a few years.)

The Times has made heroic efforts to transform itself for the new world. Other newspapers, with real courage, are following its lead. I'm now stepping away from newspapers, and I hope the print editions long endure for all who wish to read them. But it's clear to me that I am no longer really one of those people.