Ready, Set, Go

The newspaper is no longer a necessity. It is a choice, a deliciously wasteful object in terms of time, energy, and money.

Things are quiet on a Tuesday evening at a printing press in the Northwest of Berlin. Advertisements have been folded into the evangelical weekly paper, the blueprints for the next month’s football-fan paper have not yet arrived. Beyond lockers plastered with buxom blondes, the presses are still—there’s been a jam. In the very back, one ton spools of paper form a couple of impressive towers. “Back when they had more contracts, the paper filled this entire hall, all the way up till there,” says Micha, the newspaper delivery man, waving towards the door.

The drivers gathered outside are on a tight schedule. One of them has to leave no later than ten past eight in order for the papers to arrive in the city of Frankfurt (Oder) before daybreak. Another has a whole militia of newspaper stand owners waiting for him in the city. These drivers will meet other drivers at nameless rest areas off of the highway to exchange bundles of newspapers at the early hours of the dawn: an elaborate information relay system.

The factory’s last daily newspaper contractor is in the midst of a war of attrition between print and online. As all wars, this one is fraught with inconsistencies and misconceptions. At the editorial meeting that Tuesday morning, there was a show of hands to see how many journalists checked the number of hits they got on-line. Hardly anyone raised their hand. But when it came to understanding why articles consistently failed to come up in Google Searches, everyone’s ears perked up. The internet has grudgingly been accepted as an unavoidable part of their lives, but it remains something cheap, elusive and dangerous. It is a matter of pride to not be “click-fixiert”: watching the number of hits is superficial. But the luddites defend print media without acknowledging that newspapers are no longer a matter of necessity, but rather indulgence and inertia.

The unwieldy system of the printed daily news developed because it was the only way to get information to individuals. People cherish the habit of the morning newspaper so dearly because it used to embody the world outside their kitchen. The sight of the glorious machines of the press was enough to convince me that it is time to let go of whatever nostalgia I may have harbored. It took over a century to perfect the system: having to produce the news by 5pm for the next day, copy-editing to ensure that typos would not be printed irretrievably thousands of times, sending data files to the presses, then fiddling with the machines until they get the color-balance right. And finally dispatching a small army of drivers and deliverers shuttling through the night to reach every mailbox in time. Why would anyone want to uphold this incongruous, debilitating system unless it were absolutely necessary?

It is only necessary insofar as so many jobs rely on the print industry, and these skills cannot be transferred to the internet media. I don’t mean the editors: the printing press in Berlin, for instance, had to cut about two-thirds of its employees some years ago. No one has figured out how to make up for the imminent loss of more jobs. This is all the more reason to look ahead and identify the future, inevitable growth pains of the industry.

I once met an old lady from Berlin, who told me that she still drove the same roundabout routes with her car as she used to before the reunification of the city. In 2009, she was avoiding a wall that no longer existed. We cling to the habit of print journalism for reasons that are no longer there. A newspaper is a choice, a deliciously wasteful object, in terms of time, energy, and money, that one may choose to support or not. Journalism’s Cassandras should be aware of this before they decry the decline of democracy in dramatic terms.

Updated on January 25.

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