Black and white and read all over

by Gautam Raja

Several people have looked at an object lying around our house and said, “Wow we haven’t seen one of those in a long time!” Some of these guests are younger than we are, but quite a few are about our age—in their late-30s or early-40s. The object is not one of those consciously ole-timey ones, like a record player, or typewriter, or even a floppy disk. It’s something that’s part of my wife’s and my daily lives, and one we never even thought about as uncommon or outdated: the print newspaper.

For as long as we’ve lived in Southern California (nearly 10 years now), we’ve had a subscription to the print edition of the Los Angeles Times, and have no plans to change that. Reading the newspaper while we drink a cup of chai is not just a favourite part of our morning, it’s a highlight of our lives.

I’ve often idly wondered whether to write about the reaction to our newspaper—which is always one of pleasant surprise, not derision. I was prompted to finally do so when I stumbled upon an article titled “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned” by Farhad Manjoo (The New York Times, March 2, 2018). It was a column in the Technology section of the paper, and—just in case you’re wondering—I read it on my phone.

The thrust of the article was that Manjoo was experimenting with getting nearly all of his news from print, staying away from the alerts, tweets, and constant screen consumption. After the requisite unpluggers’ relish about how much time is now available for pursuits like pottery, spelunking, and spaghetti-from-scratch, Manjoo found great meaning in his “analogue” news reading.

Now, neither my wife nor I are print only, but we tend to read online commentary on our own time. (She prefaces so many sentences with the same words, that a running joke at home is that she should get a t-shirt that says, “I read an article in The Atlantic…”) We don’t have phone alerts, and don’t follow Twitter or Facebook, so don’t have to deal with Manjoo’s complaint that online, you often engage with the commentary before the facts. If you get your news from Facebook, for example, the “I’m so shocked” post from a friend leads you out to the news story.

I venture that one of the reasons why news feeds are stressful, is that a thinking, civic-minded person can be, and perhaps should be, a part of the conversation. Never before have we been able to directly and immediately engage with perpetrators, victims, politicians, CEOs, and anyone making the news. We are able to insert ourselves into stories as they happen, lead conversations, and maybe even influence outcomes.

If we don’t engage, some of us look at it as a neglect of duty, like going to a town hall meeting and not speaking up, not just to push back against the voices you disagree with, but to support lone voices you agree with. In this context, simply sharing or liking a post becomes your voice—you speak out by becoming a disseminator.

And so, deciding to get your news only from print media, without a corresponding log-out from social media is an intellectual exercise with no surprises. Where the delivered newspaper really outdoes itself, is that it offers a shared ritual with other members of your house, and with screens taking up so much of our lives, any shared analogue time is community—even if it’s so local it doesn’t extend past your dining table.

First published in Gulf News, March 13, 2018