No Substitute for Newspapers

May 6, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

One of the few web sites I read religiously is the Archdruid Report, by John Michael Greer, celebrating its 10th anniversary this week. Some months ago he wrote a piece about newspapers, and I wrote back this comment:

This piece hits home for me, as I boarded that sinking ship of newspaper journalism in the 1990s, even as newspapers were shrinking their articles and redesigning their pages to look more like web sites.

Before my time, newspapers carried a vast range of information. Many had labour sections written for the majority of people who work for a paycheque, and not just a business section for investors. Some ran synopses of the Sunday sermons of their area’s most prominent religious leaders – important not just for piety, but for politics, as the local preachers and bishops had, and still have, enormous influence. Many came out twice a day, so people could read the news more often than most of us check web sites now.

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important then presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign. Transcripts of church sermons are even harder to find online, so some of the most important shapers of public opinion go unknown by anyone outside their circles.

I’ve worked on a number of issues with community activists in the USA, some left-wing and some right-wing, but no one wanted to associate with a church unless they belonged to one, and then only with their own. When I suggested to one auditorium of activists (left-wing, in this case) that they go to various churches and learn about them, I was actually shouted down; animal sacrifice, I think, would have earned less outrage.

Of course, as people readily point out to me, you can surf the internet and do your own research, but you must work diligently to winnow the accurate material from the dubious claims – anyone can create a web site that says anything. Moreover, most people are not going to do all that trouble themselves – we have lives, after all – and you shouldn’t have to. We used to have people who did that for us, and they were called reporters.

When I talk about newspapers this way, people often respond that we have made progress, for we no longer destroy forests. Of course some people used to harvest trees for newspaper and not replant them, but it doesn’t have to be that way – you could plant willow and get ten tonnes of wood to the hectare per year in this climate, and never fell another ancient forest of giant trees. >

Contrast that with the mountains of coal we have to burn to feed server farms, the rare-earth-metal mining, the semiconductor factories and the global shipping that we need to employ just to create a mammoth server farm and global telecommunications network, all to do what we did with a piece of paper.

Once a newspaper was read, moreover, it had only begun its useful life – then it would be used to wrap gifts or groceries, then to line insulation or chicken coops, then as tinder for the fire, and the resulting ashes could then make soap or fertiliser. Once an electronic device has a single minor problem, however, it tends to go into a dump, with all its heavy metals and plastics, perhaps to contaminate the soil for thousands of years to come.

Computers are useful for some things, of course – I’m writing this on one, and you’re all reading this on another one. What I don’t like is that we have come to depend on them entirely for everything else in our lives — reading, organising, music, storytelling, faith, and general human interaction. Moreover, when everyone is doing this, we no longer feel the need to maintain paper records or photos, and even if we wanted to look at card catalogs or the telephone book, no such things exist anymore. We burn our bridges, and raise generations who forgot that bridges ever existed to anywhere else.

Brian Kaller

Former newspaper editor Brian Kaller wrote his first magazine cover story on peak oil in 2004, and since then has written for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, Front Porch Republic, Big Questions Online and Low-Tech Magazine. In 2005 he and his family moved to rural Ireland, where he speaks to schools and churches, and writes a weekly column for the local newspaper.  

Tags: newspapers, the internet