Online news won’t save the planet.

My newspaper didn’t show up today. A missing Sunday paper is particularly irksome because it’s top-heavy with sale and coupon supplements. Happily, another paper was delivered about an hour after I called the Seattle Times circulation department.

One of these days there won’t be a paper – and not because someone stole it, or because my carrier’s Saturday night stretched into Sunday morning. It will be because newspapers have gone the way of the dodo.

At that point I’ll be seriously bummed. So will dog lovers, bird owners and the thrift store cashiers who insist on wrapping each cup or plate you buy in sheets of yesterday’s news.

The death of the newspaper has been predicted for ages now. But I think it’s really going to happen — certainly in my lifetime, and maybe within 10 years.

And then what will I use to cushion fragile items that I mail? What will my daughter put at the bottom of her cat’s litter box? For that matter, what will the folks who make their own cat litter use in place of shredded newsprint?

It’s versatile stuff

As an old print newshound (Anchorage Daily News, Chicago Tribune), I feel glum at the thought of not having a paper to enjoy with my morning oatmeal. I subscribe to the Seattle Times although it becomes thinner and sadder by the day.

Yet no matter how slim the news content, the physical product is pretty useful:

  • Without newspapers, what will I put at the front door to soak up moisture from wet shoes? And boy, will I miss being able to say, “These are the Times that dry men’s soles.”
  • What will bird owners put in the bottoms of the cages? How will people potty-train their puppies?
  • Without the color comics I’ll need to buy gift wrap, or get creative about making my own.
  • All you folks who use newspaper and a vinegar-water solution to clean windows and mirrors: Get ready to pony up for paper towels.
  • Each summer when I make jam I cover the countertops with newspaper to catch the sticky drips that happen when I fill jars.
  • And finally: Will all those Brits and Canadians be expected to eat fish ‘n’ chips from plates? Blasphemy.

Even if you don’t subscribe, many regions have “shopper” publications or alternative weeklies free for the taking. You can also use pages torn out of last year’s phone books – until phone books go bye-bye, too.

After that you’ll have to start paying for replacement products: bird-cage liners, foam packing peanuts, “training pads” for puppies. Oh, and paper towels. Lots of paper towels.

Whose news?

Much more troubling: Online-only news means that people who don’t have computers, iPhones or other electronic wonders won’t have ready access to information. In an essay on this topic, a writer named Amanda Moshier says that “modernizing the way we receive our information is a slippery slope.”

“(Once) commerce begins dictating who gets access to what information based on who can afford the latest wireless reader or a computer in their own home, we’re headed down the wrong path,” Moshier wrote.

Right now, people who don’t have computer access can use a newspaper as a way to make sense of the world. Sure, the news is “new” as of only about 11 p.m. the day before. But it gives the basics of a situation, coverage that will be updated in subsequent days’ papers.

And you can read and re-read it if necessary, if an idea is too amazing, unclear or infuriating to appreciate fully on the first try.

Please don’t write and tell me that “everybody” has access to computers now. Everybody doesn’t. Maybe everyone you know does, but here’s the thing: Not everyone in the world looks like you. Two potentially disenfranchised groups that come to mind are people with extremely limited incomes and people who live far from free Internet sources like libraries.

Besides, don’t be fooled into thinking that Internet-only news will save the planet. Sure, newspapers are a waste-heavy product – but so are the products I mentioned above (puppy pads et al.) that will replace the free fishwrap.

Of much greater concern is the recycling of “e-waste” – a growing ecological hot-button issue. How many people do you know who regularly upgrade computers, PDAs and cell phones?

Myself, I used the same desktop for more than five years. Then again, I’m still a newspaper subscriber. Fish ’n’ chips, anybody?


11 Comments

  1. Very interesting. Some points that popped up in my head while reading:

    1. Another use for newspapers: we use it to start up our wood stove.
    2. We just cancelled our subscription to the local paper about a month ago. It was just piling up without being read much. I’d just scan it each morning to see what was going on locally. Now we check the online edition. I also had a subscription to our hometown newspaper (we moved away 3 years ago) but cancelled the paper edition (mailed by US mail twice a week) and spent money to subscribe online instead. Works better for us this way until we run out of paper to start the wood stove! Guess we’ll start saving scrap paper (instead of recycling it) for that purpose.
    3. Yeah, supposedly everyone has access to a computer, but I know for sure that if we did not have computers, I would be cut off from much access. The library is not conveniently located to my home. I do not attend college for access to computer labs. I’m not sure how else one would access the internet without owning a computer.

  2. Oh sorry – one more thought!

    Right now you pay money for a newspaper subscription to get that paper delivered to you. And then you use the newspaper for the various purposes you mentioned. And then you worry that without newsprint you would have to buy paper towels (or puppy pads,etc.). You actually would not be paying for the subscription anymore, so I don’t think buying something as a replacement would create an added cost to you. And it really would not cause more waste – you are just substituting one paper product for another. Maybe your subscription is more budget friendly, but we were paying $140 a year for our local newspaper subscription. I believe that would buy me enough paper towels to last way more than a year. :)
    But my logic here may be faulty? Maybe the money you pay for the subscription could be considered the cost for reading the news and what you do afterwards with the paper could be considered “free”?
    And I am actually in total agreement with the spirit of every point you make here.

  3. Cynthia

    We stopped subscribing to the newspaper over a year ago because the cost became unaffordable for us. I miss it desperately. I used those papers for some of the same things you mentioned, plus underlayment for peeling vegetables, fruits, and melons; and placed in the microwave under one layer of paper towels while cooking bacon. That saved many paper towels. By the way, when we had a wood burning fireplace, those bacon fat soaked paper towels and newspapers made great fire starters. But mostly, I miss reading it. It just isn’t the same experience online. Some stories are missing, others you have to hunt too long, and in our paper, the job classifieds aren’t local, they are run by Monster. I used to read everything except the sports page, and sometimes even that. Now I read the headlines. I miss sitting at the table with my husband trading sections back and forth, while we drink our coffee. The internet is a one person activity, so we are yet again pushed away from human contact by technology.

  4. In answer to those things you’re worrying about:

    - old towels will soak up moisture from wet shoes, and you can wash and reuse them afterwards (sadly, however, I cannot think of a replacement pun)

    - I recently read about a cat owner who was using her shredded junkmail to line her cat’s litter box. Since I see no reason why junk mail is going to decrease, bird and puppy owners could, likewise, put shredded stuff (credit card applications!) in the bottom of their
    cages and crates.

    - dishtowels from the dollar store make great wrapping paper. Butcher paper from the craft store is a cheaper option that’s also attractive

    - while newspaper does make mirrors sparkle, my old rags + vineagar-water combo works just as well. Plus, since the rags are reuseable, less landfill!

    - instead of using newspaper, set your jam jars on a draining board, if you have one, and then rinse it off after. Equally fine: large cutting board, cut-open cereal box, one of those postal service bags that large pieces of mail come in

    - my local fish ‘n’ chip place has switched to cartons resembling Chinese take-away containers, made from recycled paper. This is actually much handier than the cones of newspaper, since it contains more, is easier for storing leftovers, and is a lot less messy. As a citizen of both Canada & the UK, I’m okay with the blasphemy.
    (Mind you, if malt vinegar disappears, I’m going to mutiny.)

    I’ll still be sad to see newspapers go, but since I read everything online now anyway — and (horrors!) do the crossword online too, I can’t say I’ll personally miss them terribly. Except when I shine my shoes. I guess I’ll have to start picking up brown packing paper at my bookstore to use for cleaning off excess shoeshine, instead.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Rachel: Those “worries” were rhetorical. I was just using them to highlight how many ways we use newspapers.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  5. I have not subscribed to a newspaper in over 30 years, so I have no paper habits that will cause me to regret the demise of the newspaper. Plus, NO paper products ever enter my home.

    That said, I do read the newspaper at the library or online. Because of the intimacy of reading an actual paper, I would terribly miss the newspaper. Besides, a paper left behind by another person in a restaurant can be read by several people. I love to find a newspaper.

    I don’t really believe there will be a demise of the newspaper. The news will be distributed by fewer and fewer entities until the diversity of reporting is wiped out. This phenomena is well under way.

  6. Never fear on the newsprint– we get plenty of advertising circulars in the mail each week to take their place for the most important uses.

  7. Not to mention all the bagel shops that would go out of business were it not for the Sunday edition of the New York Times which takes all of a glorious Sunday to read!

    I’m frugal, but I still subscribe to my local daily AND the Sunday NY Times.

  8. average joe

    when I lived in the city, and didn’t own a car, took bus and subway everywhere, I had time to read the paper during my daily commute to and from Brooklyn.

    Now that I live in the burbs, and drive everywhere, I don’t have the time to read a paper, so it is an online world for me.

    However, I do agree with a recent comment that said that the demise of newspapers is the wet dream of all corrupt politicians everywhere. Once local newspapers are gone, it will be harder to uncover all the corruption that permeates politics and government.

  9. One option that many papers have these days is the e-edition. I use the e-edition if I need to look up or print off a specific article. You’ll see everything in the news pages, you just won’t have actual paper for secondary use LOL!

    To be honest, I still want the hard copy when I’m reading the paper. It is a also lot faster for me to find the grocery sales by using the newspaper ads than looking them up on the web.

    I send all our household paper – including catalogs, office paper and junk mail – to a grade school recycling bin. So I do what I can to be ecofriendly with that resource.

  10. Great stuff, God Bless you !

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