The Weight of PAPER

An ode to pen and page


There is a permanency to print mediums that other forms of communications lack.

I’m reminded of this every time a Folio Weekly intern gets their first byline. The excitement is palpable when they open that issue to the page on which their words are printed for thousands to read.

That flush of pleasure whenever one of our writers, interns or even the subjects of a story themselves gather an armful of Folio Weeklys for keepsakes takes me back to the day my first byline appeared in the Stanly News and Press in Albemarle, North Carolina. It was a straightforward feature story about my college’s men’s golf team, which had performed extraordinarily well that year, the kind of puff piece a seasoned reporter could churn out in a half-day. I’d spent days agonizing over every word, every comma and all the facts.

I don’t remember how much it paid, but it was probably well below minimum wage, certainly far less than I was earning waiting tables.

It didn’t matter; the moment I saw the piece, I was hooked. To this day, I know the lede by heart.

People say print is dying, that in the future there will be no papers, no magazines on grocery store shelves featuring glossy babes in fashionable threads, no tabloids screeching out the scandals, tragedies and triumphs of the rich and famous, that instead we will get all our news via lit screens and broadcasts.

I don’t believe it, certainly in part because I work in print, love print and truthfully don’t want to live in a world without print; but also because I’ve seen that fire light up in someone’s eyes when they’re published for the first time. I’ve even had people tell me that they don’t want to talk if their story is going to be published online only. This may seem strange, but I don’t blame them; I witness firsthand week after week the impact of the printed word.

Paper has a connection to place and a reliability that a URL will never have. You can hold it in your hand, it’s part of the physical world and can’t be changed with a few surreptitious keystrokes by someone on the other side of the globe. Words written on dead trees matter in a way that electronic words just don’t.

If you don’t believe me, mail someone you love a handwritten letter. A postcard can courier more feeling than a dozen emails.

Last weekend, I joined hundreds of my print-loving brethren at the annual Association of Alternative Newsmedia conference, held this year in fabulous Washington, D.C. For three wonderful days, we listened and talked about the media landscape, politics, the arts, our home cities, shared our struggles and triumphs, worst and best moments, strategies and shortcuts. It’s impossible not to feel inspired and, at times, challenged when surrounded by so much intellect, curiosity and passion.

In our field, there’s an ongoing ‘new media v. old media’ debate. New media sees the internet as the future for reporting, likes the 24-hour news cycle, and believes instantly communicating news is superior to waiting a day or a week or a month for a story to be reported. Old media believes that news is only legitimate if it’s gathered, analyzed, confirmed and digested by a reporter who then encapsulates it, gives it context, decides what matters and what doesn’t, often with help from editors, proofreaders and other staff.

As one might imagine, at a conference for alt weeklies, there are enough young, hip, tech-savvy professionals to make a Silicon Valley executive fantasize about yachts and haute couture. Every single one of the 114 member papers relies heavily on electronic communications; the collective social media literacy and might at an AAN conference would strike terror into the twisted little hearts of any of our many, many trolls—assuming they’re programmed to have feelings. But even among these tech-embracing reporters, editors, designers and more, there is a shared reverence for print, an awareness that print news is more lasting than the web or a broadcast.

Yes, you can reach more people with 90 seconds of film or sound and the internet is literally accessible to anyone in the world who can connect to it. But not everyone has an internet connection; if you miss the broadcast, you don’t get the news. Paper doesn’t disappear when the power goes out. You can’t unplug it.

Perhaps that’s why print means more to me than a soundbite, a moving picture or a blog. In the literal sense, paper is flesh, pulp; in the figurative, ink runs through a reporter’s veins like blood.

Though it may weigh only a few grams, and can be torn apart on a whim, a single sheet of paper is stronger than you can imagine. It has to be; it bears the weight of the truth.

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