I'm torn to see newspapers go

I love my laptop, but I'll miss the feel of paper.

Every morning in the summer it's my job to pad down the outside steps of our apartment to pick up the Los Angeles Times in its plastic bag from the sidewalk.

After retrieving it, I straighten up and survey the sweep of the L.A. harbor. I breathe, savoring the salty San Pedro air. Inside, my husband awaits me with a mug of tea. It's our practice to sit at the kitchen table and read news stories out loud to each other.

But something has changed. There we sat one morning but, without even thinking, we had plopped open our yin and yang MacBooks (mine black, his white). Clicking away, Ted read me a headline from CNN, and I remarked on a wacky forward from a friend.

This went on for about 15 minutes before I remembered to get the paper. When I brought it upstairs and guiltily unsheathed it next to the two sleek laptops, it seemed an awkward suitor.

"Ah, the paper," my husband said, and set aside his laptop. But I can't deny it. Lifelong addicts to the printed daily paper, like chocoholics who lose their taste for the bonbon, we are moving on.

The print version of the L.A. Times is skinnier every day. And recently the cuts, resignations, and layoffs at the Times, in particular, were featured on CNN and the News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

The Times Sunday Magazine is only a monthly now, and the Sunday Opinion and Books section, a pullout tabloid my husband and I always fought over, ended its long run July 27. It has been merged into other sections. That day the editors mournfully wrote, "This final issue... is a regrettable concession to the economics of the newspaper business and the particular travails of this company."

My young friends don't see why we waste a single moment mourning the printed newspaper's probable demise. I look down at my laptop. It has advantages. I don't have to recycle it, carting heaps of it to the blue bin. Newspapers are cumbersome and environmentally problematic.

But, I think part of the reason we are saddened by the end of the physical newspaper has to do with the senses. There's the sound of pages turning, the feel of the paper, the smell of the ink.

I don't expect to give this up casually. I'm clinging to a 38-year-old love affair. For me the infatuation hit in the summer of 1970, between my junior and senior years of college, when I did an internship at a little out-of-the-way paper in Iowa.

The newsroom, a dusty high-ceilinged chamber cluttered with Mississippi River charm, was on the second floor. On the first floor were the big, black presses and the hot linotype machines.

I loved going down there and watching the typesetters at their machines, flawlessly lining letters up backwards. I loved the smell and sound of the presses.

In the pressroom, language was machinery with exciting physicality. Words were three-dimensional and muscular. To me, the typesetters were heroes – men who loved the shape of words, the literal style of a line, the fonts, the spaces, the ens and ems. The newspaper of the pressroom was visceral, noisy, oily, and thrilling.

I remember seeing typesetters pick up the first paper off the press, snap it open, still warm, and read it like a lover. You've never seen a reader as avid as a hot-type pressman. Sometimes they'd tell a reporter they liked some story or other. Getting praise from a typesetter was among the highest compliments.

They all lost their jobs, of course. Soon after I left, the paper went offset, the first big shift of my lifetime with print. And of course that was just the beginning of ceaseless change.

About once a year I go to the Huntington Library in Pasadena, one of my favorite places. The thing I always want to see – practically a religious icon for me – is the Huntington's breathtakingly beautiful Gutenberg Bible. I feel emotional looking at those gorgeous golden words, letters painstakingly crafted into words of enduring import. I revere those pages, recumbent and quiet in the dim protective light.

Of course Gutenberg's press changed the world. And that's how, I'm sure, future humans will regard the first PC.

I'm not fighting it. I love my MacBook, I even love the explosion of shared language that Bill Gates and other driven geniuses set in motion. In fact, I'm using my MacBook right now and hoping you read what I've written on it, whoever you are. But there also should be time for a respectful period of mourning for the newspapers we're leaving behind.

Jan Worth-Nelson teaches writing at the University of Michigan-Flint.

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