The new challenges of printed paper

«Paper is the technology through which and with which we have made sense of the world», writes British literary critic Ian Sansom on the cover of his latest book “Paper: An Elegy” (Harper Collins).

Nico Zardo

Books and publications are the mirror of our civilization. Our history and our daily life are regularly collected, documented and told on sheets of paper that record facts, documents and opinions on what is happening in the world, yielding a complex image of our existence through time. Before them only architectures, symbols engraved in stone and paintings that survived destruction bore witness to the history that we wanted to tell. Without them, we would know nothing about what took place before photography, the cinema and TV, more or less a century ago, began documenting the events of man. “To hold and transmit memory, to teach through the experience of others, to share the knowledge of the world and of ourselves are some of the powers (and dangers) of books, and the reasons why we both treasure and fear them”, writes Argentinean author Alberto Manguel, in his book The Library at Night, (Yale University Press, 2006).

THE NEW DIGITAL SYSTEMS’ GREAT POWER TO COMMUNICATE is causing important changes on these communication mediums, so much so that many are asking themselves if paper shall have to give way to bright e-book screen displays and to memories made of silicon.

United through a common support - paper - the destinies of books and publications have always crossed. Many great 19th century writers - Alexandre Dumas with The Three Musketeers or Carlo Collodi with Pinocchio - published their masterpieces in serial form on magazines and then later these became best-selling books. Today, magazines dedicate entire pages to books, finding in the works of essayists, researchers, critics or novelists the spur to delve in-depth into topics that give life to the cultural dynamics that spur the evolution of our thought.

WITH GUTENBERG’S INVENTION, the production of books printed through mechanical means certainly created some perplexity among the Amanuensis, who saw themselves robbed of an activity they had performed for centuries. But greater fears were to be instilled in those who held a monopoly on knowledge that, thanks to the multiplication of sacred and secular texts, now became diffused, favoring a revolutionary development of thought and of culture. Maybe it is not by chance that the acceleration in progress was accompanied by a flowering of typographical activities and, when ideologies not pleasing to power were being fought, the first response by totalitarian regimes was to burn books and close off newspapers and magazines.

WHEN, IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE LAST CENTURY, TELEVISION DEVELOPED both in diffusion and as far as the quality of its programs were concerned, it looked as if the cinema and newspapers and magazines would be lost along the way, swallowed up by the new powerful medium. This did not happen: newspapers and magazines not only survived, but they earned an important role for themselves in TV news where paper and ether have a daily dialogue.

The deep evolution that involves the western world effects books and magazines, creating changes and mutations that are not always easy to interpret. The strong incidence of production and distribution costs must come to deal with the powerful competition of on-line sales that have put traditional bookstores on their knees, many of which have closed, greatly impoverishing the urban landscape. Public libraries, oppressed by the blindness of the economy of linear cuts, can no longer afford to buy literary material as they once did and are hanging on for dear life. But it’s interesting to note that, as a counter-trend, the US magazine Newsweek, who had migrated to the screen at the end of 2012, is returning to a paper version in January 2014.

THE COMPARISON BETWEEN A PAPER AND A DIGITAL BOOK OR PUBLICATION is only apparently instrumental because actually, it should be the contents that count. But since the medium through which they are disseminated has great influence (remember McLuhan? - the medium is the message!) it is worthwhile stopping a bit and considering the differences and the quality of the two mediums.

The most immediate is the possibility of accessing the contents: something written on paper can be read anytime and anywhere while digital - much more powerful as far as memory size and possible diffusion are concerned - requires the use of electricity, not always available everywhere. We can read a book dating back a thousand years while a ten-year-old digital document can be obsolete for the machines or the programs in our possession today.

A DIGITAL READER IS LIGHTWEIGHT AND EASY TO HANDLE, it allows us to possess and easily transport an entire library; the characters can be enlarged and back lighting allows reading in the dark without bothering those who are sleeping next to us. On the other hand, traditional books proffer a pleasant contact with paper, the possibi-lity of writing notes on the pages and underlining interesting passages (digital readers, too, allow this but the manual gesture is something else!). Library research is a captivatingly pleasant activity: it allows us to be tempted by attractive titles and book covers. Of course, regarding these different aspects, everyone has their own opinions matured based on personal experience.

It is in any case true that, just like PCs, mobile phones and all digital innovations have deeply changed our relationship with work and with daily life, the reading of books and publications, too, is destined to change, probably hybridizing with other means of communication. One of the most evident signs is given by the QR-Code (bi-dimensional bar code) and the AR-Code (Augmented Reality) that, through printed paper, act as a go-between to access other contents. But differently from what we may infer, digital is not replacing paper.

The Economist’s website has published statistics that reveal that, following the advent of computers, from 1980 until today, world paper consumption has increased by 50 percent. In Japan, historically sensitive to gadgets, 60% of readers have no interest in buying e-books. In the USA, sales of digital books is slowing down and in England, almost two adolescents out of three prefer printed books “because it’s nice to hold them” and “you can loan them to friends.”

ON-LINE NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES HAVE HAD A HARD TIME TAKING OFF but they are doing so in these last few years. The intention to propose a pay information service was slowed by the idea that on the web, everything is free. But with time, the ease of use of the digital medium that allows reaching anyone who has an Internet connection and the speed of communication, together with the offer of qualified bloggers, are favoring acceptance of the idea that news can be free or paid for through advertising, but a serious and independent information service is something that should be paid for.

On-line newspapers and magazines were initially meant as the translation of paper publications adapted to the net, but with time they matured their specificity, modifying the form of communication. Use of the written word diffused to no limits but the length of the messages has become substantially reduced: not only sms and twitter force us to be concise but information and concepts are increasingly transmitted through brief texts, photos, videos, graphs, ideograms that find in digital communication their most effective and “natural” instrument.

BESIDES FEATURING ON-LINE VERSIONS, IN THESE LAST FEW YEARS TRADITIONAL NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES HAVE BROADENED THEIR EDITORIAL OFFER by offering books, films and gadgets. They have created their own TV networks, trying to set up a privileged rapport with the reader, trying to build a relationship of loyalty that could set solid bases for commercial offers. Those that were once only means of communication have become areas for aggregation capable of orienting their readers’ tastes and opinions.

THE GREAT INNOVATORS OF THE SILICON VALLEY are recently transmitting signals of great interest in information and printed paper. Pierre M. Omidyar, founder of eBay, is investing 250 million dollars in creating a new-concept news website, entrusting it to journalist Glenn Greenwald, who became famous for revealing the Datagate vicissitudes on UK’s The Guardian. Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, has decided to invest in Ozy Media, a journalistic startup. Chris Hughes has employed the money earned with Facebook to buy the New Republic and if the giant of the Old Economy, Warren Buffet, has collected 63 local newspapers in the last few months, we can well suppose that digital information and printed paper can come to new life. Another important indication of a change in direction comes from the owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, who spent 250 million dollars to buy the Washington Post, known to be in bad financial waters. A move that prefigures relaunch plans for the American newspaper. We do not know yet if books and publications will be delivered to us by drones, like Bezos himself declared, but we are comforted by the idea that digital can give new life to paper and to culture. *

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