Commentary

Intangibility of the news

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I have wholeheartedly embraced the Kindle experience. It’s been years since I read an actual bound-between-two covers, ink-on-paper book.

I like everything about e-reading, not the least of which is the sheer volume of material. I have downloaded more than 1,000 titles, and millions of others are but a click away. No more devoting an entire vacation suitcase to a few volumes of reading pleasure. I carry a library in my hip pocket.

But that puts me in a minority.

The decline of our analog reality has devastated bookstores just as it has eliminated so many department stores. But books are still as valued as the furniture and appliances people once left the house to shop for. Readers have just started buying them online.

According to the Association of American Publishers, books in all formats made almost $26 billion in revenue in 2018 in the U.S., with print making up $22.6 billion and e-books taking only $2.04 billion. The COVID-19 pandemic has stopped the gradual erosion of e-book sales, but physical books still dominate in 2020.

I am in a peculiar position, in one way celebrating the digital revolution but in another way devastated by it.

Three years ago, I was still working on my retirement plan to die at my desk when disappearing subscribers and plummeting advertising revenues yanked my newspaper out from under me. It limped along for a brief time with a pathetic online presence but finally succumbed. The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, which covered its community for 187 years, is gone.

As are about 2,000 newspapers that have died in the last 15 years. The number of newsroom employees has been cut in half since 2008, and circulation is down to barely 30 million from a high of more than 63 million. Today, only about 24 percent of households get a newspaper, down from the peak of 74 percent.

It’s something to ponder. Why is the rise of electronic publishing killing newspapers but not books?

I think it is, at least in part, because of our search for permanence in an ephemeral world.

We are acutely aware of the finite limits of our lives. We are here for a moment, then gone forever. That knowledge defines our existence.

So we hunger for that which endures, truths that were passed down to us to be added to and sent along to the next generation. We are desperate for assurance that the fire burning in the human heart leaves more behind than smoke in the wind.

Books represent our feeble attempts to grasp eternity, and their collection, in our public libraries and our personal shelves, displays a record of that journey. Gutenberg’s revolution gave us the information to free ourselves of the ignorance imposed by knowledgeable authoritarians. We can seek our own interpretations of the Bible’s truths or Shakespeare’s wisdom. Those algebraic formulas in the math book will not succumb to the political whims of briefly ascendant lunatic fringes.

And our books have even helped us nurture our emotional pleasures into something more than of-the-moment diversions. I’ve read “Catch 22” half a dozen times and always laugh at something I missed on previous readings. And despite more readings of “Our Town” that I can remember, Emily’s belated graveyard appreciation of life’s ordinary pleasures still moves me to tears.

Newspapers, on the other hand, have always been meant to be disposable, a chronicle of fugitive joys and transitory crises.

When the moment passes, all our passions about it become nonsense. Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s footnotes. Go to the library and check out an old edition — not even from 10 or 5 years ago, but any front page from last year — and consider how much of it that seemed so vital then is utterly irrelevant today.

And when the moment passes, it matters little how its story is disposed of — whether it is yellowing paper lining a bird cage, stacked in the attic or hauled to the recycle center, or digital blips that vanish into the shimmering ether of the Zeitgeist. News will still be what it always was, a fragile reminder of our own mortality.

But when we have made the final transition in the way news is distributed and consumed, I think something will have been lost.

People to this day obtain copies of photos of them published in the paper and keep them with the edition they were in. They make scrapbooks of clippings about their kids’ high school sports exploits. They cut out and frame stories about the weddings, births and funerals in their families. Bookmarking a Facebook entry or mass emailing a favorable Tweet does not have quite the same feeling of adding to the permanent record of our lives.

We’re still on the quest to capture something lasting from the fleeting moment. It’s always been a difficult reach, and it will only get harder.

 

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.

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