In Defense, Again, of Paper (Newspapers, that is)

By Cristine Russell, Shorenstein Center Advisory Board Member
Shorenstein Center Advisory Board Member Cristine Russell endorses the indulgence of poring over newsprint in the age of immediacy.

After a Monday-night taco and pasta dinner, I sat atop a bar stool in my kitchen with a hefty pile of four different newspapers of many fonts and colors (think light peach Financial Times and pale grey FT Weekend “The Art of Fashion”). I mean old-fashioned physical newspapers—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and USA Today—not the all-important online news sites that provide a regular diet, including snacks, for most of us. I was deprived of newsprint by a temporary stay on California’s Left Coast, dealing with sundry demons and delights but without the trusty early morning papers delivered daily to our doorstep that my husband and I have relied on for five decades.

Going through the stack of newspapers, I was struck by how different—and how satisfying—the experience of wallowing in newsprint is. I loved the texture of paper, and the smell of ink. I had missed the front page which told me what the editors thought were the most important stories. I was happy to be back looking at a full-page jump where I could see so much more easily the structure of a long and complicated story. I was grateful to see on one page—or two open adjacent pages—stories about similar themes and subjects juxtaposed. I enjoyed being able to go back easily to one paper to re-read its take on a controversial subject, after reading the take of a second paper on the same subject but with a different slant. I felt much younger, a news junkie growing up before computers.

After two hours, I had winnowed down to an assortment of tear-outs to reexamine, save or toss-away (as a pack-rat I am often a little late to the tossing away stage, preferring the plumpness of tear-sheets that bear one more look-see). My six-inch pile included a hefty amount of coverage of the Friday, April 7, dueling United States’ judicial opinions on the safety of the abortion drugs. Yes, I learned about it on Friday—who didn’t?—but I mainly picked up the news from ongoing online coverage and family and friends bemoaning the legal opinion of a federal district judge in Texas who struck down the Food and Drug Administration’s longtime approval of the abortion drug mifepristone. Since then, the U.S. Justice Department has asked an appeals court to stay the Texas decision until an appeal can be heard, and states like California and Massachusetts said they will begin to stockpile abortion medication supplies just in case.

The top of my print pile was from the April 10, New York Times, whose prolific, comprehensive coverage of the abortion pill issue bears more than one reading. Most impressive—really impressive—is a full-page National A-12 spread titled “Are Abortion Pills Safe? Here’s the evidence.” It parses out the safety results of 101 medication abortion studies involving more than 124,000 first-trimester abortions, and the share of patients in each study who experienced no serious complications. Bottom line—actually it’s a green line across the top of the page—“in 101 studies, almost no patients had serious complications.” Below it, labeled “less safe,” are five columns of blank space. The 101 studies are also graphically broken apart by sample size, location and decade (back to the 1990s). Congrats to bylined writers Amy Schoenfeld Walker, Jonathan Corum, Malika Khurana and Ashley Wu for making sense of the complex abortion data. Facts not opinions should, but seldom do, make a huge impact on the divisive topic of abortion.

For those who prefer their papers in peach, it is a great luxury to wander through the Financial Times Weekend edition. A front-page story, “Italian birth rate hits lowest level since 1861 as cash incentives fail to deliver,” is a sobering account from Rome and London reporters: “Fewer than 400,000 babies were born in Italy last year, the fewest since the 1861 reunification of the country, highlighting worsening demographic dynamics for an economy already under strain.“ They note that “Italy is not alone among advanced economies in seeing fertility rates decline to historically low levels.” But not everything is gloomy. An FT opinion column by Philip Georgiadis touts that “Business travel’s resurgence defies Covid-era forecasts.” FT Life & Arts talks of “Boy Trouble, Detoxifying masculinity” and a timely House & Home feature “Off grid and on trend” talks about how “advances in technology mean it is possible to build energy-independent locations without sacrificing lifestyle, aesthetics or architectural ambition.” (Tucked aside for my architect son.)

My leisurely reading was interrupted by a Monday evening USA Today news flash on my iPhone home page, warning “100 days into 2023, Louisville attack marks nation’s 146th mass shooting and 15th mass killing.” Yes, I do touch the screen to learn that “at least four people died and several were injured, including a police officer, after a shooting inside Old National Bank in Louisville, Kentucky.” Four of the 15 mass killings (in which four or more people were killed, not including the shooter) were in public, while most of the rest were family-related, according to a USA TODAY/Associated Press/Northeastern University database tracking the killings. (Disconcertingly, inserted prominently below the story’s lede, is an ad, “Don’t Borrow From the Bank If You Own A Home, Do This Instead (It’s Genius). Learn more.” Hitting the button reveals it’s about Lendgo, a New York refinance program).

The news alert is a reminder that instant information, from deadly shootings to dead-serious gossip, is a crucial part of one’s news and information diet. Like millions of others, I dove into the online coverage to learn more about the shooting from excellent, reliable online news outlets I subscribe to, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe (all behind paywalls; and, yes, it is expensive to be a news junkie), as well as The Hill, a freely accessible news policy site. Turns out the male shooter was a 25-year-old bank employee who livestreamed his rifle shooting rampage and was himself shot dead by police at the scene. In the wee hours of Tuesday, the Louisville shooting attack was high or trending in the news; only the L.A. Times buried it.

The ever-growing assortment of news clippings next to my old MacBook Pro is still there, evergreen with information that I might never see in the quick-paced, quickly packaged online news universe. I actually started in the newspaper business in the mid-70s as a national science reporter, just as typewriters were giving way into then-clunky, often untrustworthy, desktop computers. At the defunct great afternoon newspaper, The Washington Star, I could still watch the printing presses rolling out the latest edition at the plant in southeast Washington DC. After the Star folded, I moved to the The Washington Post and still loved watching the latest edition come off the presses in the old 15th Street building.

But the future of newsprint is fragile. I remember hearing a story some years ago from a colleague who read all of his news online. Before a flight with his young daughter, he bought a newspaper. As they sat down in their seats, the child asked quizzically about the paper in his hands: “Daddy, what’s that?”

After combing through my latest newspapers, the black stains on my finger tips are a reminder that, hopefully, print is here for the immediate future, the elder sibling of the array of online mainstays and upstarts now churning out the moment-by-moment news.


Cristine Russell is a freelance science journalist; a senior fellow at the HKS Belfer Center Environment and Natural Resources Program; and a member of the Shorenstein Center advisory board.