Kicking Ink: The Guilty Pleasures of Print

    by Mark Glaser
    October 22, 2009
    Image by "Bill Gracey":http://www.flickr.com/people/[email protected]/ via Flickr.

    On a recent trip to Washington, D.C. for “Public Media Camp,” it happened again. I was tempted by print.

    Starting in May, I gave up my print newspaper subscription, and then compared how the iPhone beat the Kindle when it comes to reading periodical publications on electronic devices.

    As much as I'd like to kick ink completely, I have to face the fact that print still has its charms for me."

    My fingers have remained relatively ink-free each day because I get my news fix electronically. But what about when I get out of my hermetically sealed home office chamber and head out into the wild? I sat down innocently at the airport gate for my hour of repose, and next to my chair was an abandoned San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.


    Before I knew it, the newspaper was in my hands and I was leafing through the pages. I noticed that the actual size of the newspaper had shrunk since I last read it in print, and I saw that many articles in the print paper are not included in my Kindle edition (not to mention box scores, listings and many graphics). While I’ve sworn off getting a print subscription to the newspaper, that doesn’t mean I can’t read it out around town or while traveling, right?

    On this trip, I fond myself reading print newspapers and a print book much more than my Kindle 2 or iPhone, even though these electronic devices were loaded up with books, newspapers, my email and Twitter feed. How do I explain the allure, the pleasures of print? Here are a few things that come to mind.

    One Man’s Trash…

    Perhaps one of the strongest reasons that print newspapers could survive the twin holocausts of the Internet and economic meltdown is that people still like holding them during mass transit commutes, on airplanes (“turn off your electronic devices”), and on the toilet. When newspaper boosters talk about the “pass-around” rate for newspaper readers, they mean that one print edition easily makes the rounds from person to person to person.


    And that includes strangers. I remember being in London a couple years ago and seeing Metro newspapers sitting everywhere inside the subway cars. When you got on the train, you reached for a paper, read it, and put it back when you were done. These free commuter papers are so convenient, so easy to find, so trashable, that you don’t even mind the holy waste you are likely creating on the back end. Just grab and go.

    On my recent trip to D.C., I found the Chronicle and the front section of the New York Times to read on my flight over, and then USA Today appeared under the door of my hotel room, free of charge. One morning I took the paper to breakfast; the next day, I stuck to my home routine of reading the New York Times on my iPhone. I would never have gone out to buy these papers, but their ability to appear magically at the right place and right time made them hard to ignore.


    So how did my reading experience differ with print newspapers compared to reading on the iPhone or Kindle? The first thing I noticed was that I could read a lot more in print than I would on those devices. With the print newspaper, I could quickly determine which stories were interesting by their headlines, images and placement. On a Kindle, it’s more limited to one story at a time, or a partial list of headlines and cutlines. On the iPhone, most apps only load about 5 to 10 headlines and cutlines at a time.

    i-be2dd0d90066d2c845450182777d0017-iphone vs kindle.jpg

    For instance, I read all the front page stories from the New York Times front section, as well as many other articles the paper. On the iPhone, I usually read about five or six stories in the “Latest” section, and rarely go beyond that. Part of the reason for that could be that I have less time to read on the iPhone than I do while sitting on a five-hour flight. But the other reason is that it’s quicker and easier for me to jump around to different stories and flip through pages with a print paper.

    On an electronic device, there is the stutter-step effect. Click and wait. Scroll down. Page up and page down. A small window on the content. On a computer screen, scannability comes a little closer to the print newspaper. A home page of a news website is bathed in headlines, photos, cutlines, and even video. But, still, the print paper remains the king when it comes to scanning through a lot of content in a short period of time.

    I remember when I first got my Kindle 2 and happily read through nearly every story in the Sunday New York Times. But perhaps that was a function of the newness, the excitement of seeing all that content and not having to carry around a huge print publication. Over time, the Kindle 2’s magic has worn off. The more I read on my iPhone, the less I want to read on the Kindle.

    The Beauty of Print

    Finally, the eye-catching color images in a newspaper rarely transfer well to electronic devices. The Chronicle, in particular, uses almost gaudy amounts of color in its page designs. I quickly picked up that abandoned paper in a “monkey see, monkey read” moment. USA Today obviously operates with a similar modus operandi. The riot of color — and even color-coded sections — make it perfect for travel-weary souls who are more ready to be entertained and dazzled than put to sleep with monotones.

    i-5e218899098b63de001e36056c39805c-chicken on usatoday.jpg

    That goes for the ads as well. I haven’t noticed the ads on my iPhone, and the Kindle is still ad-free. The ads in print newspapers are massive and difficult to avoid. Oh yeah, that’s why they still charge an arm and a leg for them. Yes, the colored ink does stain, but the marketing message burns a hole in the retina, too.


    As much as I’d like to kick ink completely, I have to face the fact that print still has its charms. I realize the clear-cut forests, the big carbon footprint, the sheer energy used in making print publications is not good for the environment. And I don’t want to pay ungodly sums to get them delivered to my doorstep. But, occasionally, when something colorful and flashy is sitting forlorn and unused, I might just have to dig in.

    Image of chicken on USA Today box by ira via Flickr.

    Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

    Tagged: iphone kindle new york times print usa today
    • Christopher Connell

      Interesting and honest post. I let my NYT subscription lapse last winter for several months, since I was on the Times web page repeatedly each day. After re-upping, I am surprised how many stories escaped my notice online. And while I love the Times’ audio slide shows and visuals, it came as a shock to discover that some photos — the recent one of Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and its new Richard Meier building, for example — actually look and work better in print.

    • There is a deep point about print as a medium that you highlight with

      ” I could quickly determine which stories were interesting by their headlines, images and placement. ”

      This is exactly what I was pointing to in a column about print medium being superior for search in phsyical space. It engages the right side of the brain that can process orders of magnitude more information than the left side of the brain that is limited by words.

      The huge field of vision is in the nature of the medium, not merely a feel good aspect.

    • Years ago I did a study by immediately interviewing newspaper subscribers when they called in to say their carrier had missed them (http://tinyurl.com/yj8l8t2). I was impressed by how many non-news factors they cited. My later research on this “comfort” factor showed that included the feel and smell of the paper — even the ink on their hands.
      It’s still hard to cuddle up by the fire with a good laptop.

    • Carole Christie

      Once costs and prices realign paper will be the luxury technology. The one for people who can afford it.

    • bill sutley

      Print news vehicles offer a lot more opportunity for serendipity … finding something you didn’t know you needed until you saw it. For the same reason, I still get a thrill going to a library — even though I’m pretty capable at doing research online in my pajamas. You never know what you’ll find until you’re really looking for something else.

    • Joy

      There’s no curling up with a Kindle and a pot of coffee on Sunday morning! I’ll take my Sunday Times on paper, please! The rest of the week, online is fine!

    • Joanne

      There is nothing like curling up with a wonderful book, or enjoying a newspaper with coffee. How in-depth can electronic media possibly be ? Great for quick scans, but not for reading, digesting, and thinking. The brain ( and maybe there will be some prestigious study one day to back me up on this) simply absorbs printed matter in a more lasting and meaningful way.

    • Kent

      I recently started reading ebooks on my iPod Touch and now I wonder why I haven’t done this before. It’s such an improvement for me to be able to carry my books in my pocket to read anytime I have a couple of minutes to spare. I wish they had the Kindle in Canada, I’d love to try that!

    • I think today’s eReaders aren’t there yet where newspapers are concerned. For one thing, I think only the iLiad will let you do the crossword puzzle. On the other hand (sorry, @Joanne) novels work absolutely fine on the Kindle, as do mostly-text magazines like Asimiov’s.

    • carbonware

      I have felt the same and often bring up the point when people ask me if paper is dead. I work in both print and web marketing. But one thing holds true when going to the restroom paper rules. Tactile experience and fast scanning is far superior in print than electronic and I’m a gadget freak. One last point, no one clear cuts tress for newspapers, not anywhere. In the US newsprint is from farmed replanted trees and a mix of recycled. There are more trees in North America right now than were here 500, 200 or 100 years ago. Same for Canada.

    • Carbonware,
      Thanks for the comment. Where did you get the information about no one clear-cutting trees in the US or Canada for newspapers? And your statistic about being more trees now? Would love to see the research on that.

    • Carol Christie (above) is right, I think. The Washington Post started tucking a monthly fashion magazine in their deliveries in certain zip codes and it began promoting a new business-news magazine, anticipating the day when it won’t pay to print a complete daily newspaper for ordinary but nonaffluent people — except for the sports and celebs sections. The front page will be available separately online from Politico or its successor.

      But pounds of newsprint, recycled or otherwise, will still be deposited on our front steps every week for poor as well as rich — fat “shoppers,” 100 percent ads, lotsa coupons and no labor costs for writers or editors.

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