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Paper Versus Pixels

A few months ago, I invited you all to talk about what kind of device you would find acceptable as a permanent substitute for the printed newspaper. Now--as I'd promised back then--I'm going to take a look at the other side of the argument, whether print has its own inherent advantages over any electronic medium.

I started thinking about this after following a suggestion from Post CEO Don Graham to read an article by National Journal media columnist Bill Powers titled Hamlet's Blackberry (PDF). In this 2006 essay, Powers--who wrote for the Post years ago--argues that paper has advantages foreign to any interactive medium:

By virtue of being unconnected to other media, paper sometimes makes it easier to concentrate on the subject at hand. For the centuries when there essentially were no other media, this "feature" of paper didn't matter much. But in a multi-tasking world where pure focus is harder and harder to come by, the value of print media's seclusion from the Web is arguably increasing.

((Disclosure: I read this "paper" online and felt like I was cheating the whole time. )

I've been thinking about this essay on and off since then--and in particular, every time that I find my attention fading before I can get to the end of a single blog post. Why is it that I can enjoy spending half an hour to digest an 80-inch feature if I can spread the paper out before me, but reading the same amount of material online feels like a chore? Why does the thought of reading an entire novel on a computer's monitor seem absurdly painful?

I think the distraction factor Powers outlines is real. (If your RSS reader distracted you from some other task to alert you about this entry, my apologies!) It certainly matches my own experience: I am at my most productive when I'm not interrupted by one blinking or bouncing screen update after another, and I seem to get the most reading done on planes or other places beyond the reach of the Internet.

I once had no problem ignoring the outside world when reading--I remember looking up from one book in study hall in grade school to realize, to my profound embarrassment, that everybody had gone on to the next class. I worry that the Internet is grinding out that ability to focus.

That might explain why I am seeing an increasing number of programs written to fight that problem. For instance, the WriteRoom word processor does away with an interface to present you with just your text, in green type on a black background, while hiding every other program on the computer.

Put another way: Why do catalogs persist? Interactive Web sites provide far more information about a product you might want to buy than a printed catalog can (although colors usually appear truer to life in print than on a monitor). They can be updated instantly and never take up space on the coffee table or the recycling bin. Catalogs, on the other hand, require lengthy production cycles and careful management of mailing lists but don't generate any extra income upfront for the merchant. And yet companies continue to put vast efforts into mailing these things to their customers.

True, the long-term survival of printed newspapers will depend on more things than just its absolute efficiency at delivering information. But if these issues are real, any paper-replacement technology can't just match the contrast, resolution and durability of paper: At times, it will also have to do no more than paper.

When did you last refrain from reading a story online so you could sit down to read the same article in print? Discuss...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  November 5, 2007; 10:01 AM ET
Categories:  The business we have chosen  
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