PHILADELPHIA — 'Do not go gentle into that good night," wrote the poet Dylan Thomas in the late-1940s, lines inspired by the imminent death of his father. "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." The same context could hold true for newspapers.
Newspaper circulation has fallen 2.6 percent nationally in the past six months alone, more than any comparable six-month period since 1991, according to figures released Nov. 7 by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Of the nation's 20 biggest newspapers, 18 reported losses in circulation, many significant.
Print journalists are losing their jobs. Others are being pushed into early retirement (buyouts), or forced into taking on additional duties (if you can write three news articles a week, why not four?). The only consolation is that people who have worked for "dailies" have known for some time that they are knocking nouns against verbs down in the hold of a sinking ship.
If newspapers appear to be dwindling away, however, they aren't going quietly. There is hope. A neighbor of mine, who lives in East Falls, Philadelphia, affirms: "I love my newspapers. There is a never-ending pile of them that I never finish reading - I can't help it. Besides, I am a bright, 70-something widow, and the newspaper is really how I survive and stay in touch with my world. Who wants to read the news online?"
Apparently a lot of people do - just about everyone under 30.
This fall I will write college recommendations for about 10 seniors. One of them is an avid reader of the newspaper, but she rarely reads the printed version.
"Don't you hate it when the paper tells you that the story is 'continued on A6' or something," says Ritu Arya, who also lives in Philadelphia. "The online version is much easier to read."
We are, right now, at the nexus between two "different" protocols for reading and understanding text. Some people, like me, prefer the top-to- bottom, left-to-right approach. We prefer newspapers that you can hold and fold.
But today's children, college kids, and 20-somethings absorb and process text differently. They may be the first generation to feel more comfortable navigating through hypertext links and multiple texts (and images) in cyberspace than reading dry ink on a page.
This fall I received an e-mail from a student whom I taught during my first high school teaching gig in Montgomery, Ala. I haven't seen or heard from him in more than 13 years. He contacted me after reading an op-ed of mine earlier this fall:
"It might interest you to know that your article was flagged today by Romenesko [a popular news blog], which was how I found it. In a world sans Internet I would still be in the dark on what my old high school English teacher was up to these days. (Seriously, a Quaker school?) Embrace the future, dear sir." - from Taylor Upchurch, presently living in San Francisco.
Seriously, Taylor, how did you learn how to write so well? The last time I saw you, you were still struggling to write coherent sentences. The Web hadn't even been unveiled yet - at least, not outside the wireless coterie of a few computer geeks in California.
Many young people have no trouble writing essays for school on computers, while carrying on Instant-Message (IM) conversations in the margins (with as many as 20 people), while their mobile phones go off in their laps, heralding text messages that most adults still don't know how to access, much less read and understand quickly.
Translation: "Are you going to the dance this weekend?" Response: "Definitely."
All roads lead to Rome, as the adage goes, and eventually all written communication will be online in one form or another: free-access sites, subscription sites, and blogs of all shapes and sizes. Sooner or later the power and ease of communicating in cyberspace will obviate the need for just about all daily paper communication.
It may not happen this year or next - maybe not for another 10 years - but the switch will occur. Young people are already there, waiting for us "geezers" to get on with it.
Can the old guard - readers and writers like you and me - make the jump, with our skills and talents intact, ready to embrace, learn from, and improve the online community? 4sure.
But we won't go gentle into that good night.
• Mark Franek is the dean of students at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, where he also teaches English.