Living in a Material World: The Vanishing of Print Journalism and Its Effects on Culture

February, 2022
Jaclyn Pahl, Blog Correspondent

The newspaper is a fascinating cultural object.  The newspaper, in the exceedingly recent past, epitomized the dynamism of modern life.  From the time of its invention, mechanized production was thought to enable the stripping of the senses and the speeding-up of time.  The newspaper was an emblem of fast-paced modern life.  That the newspaper is now a symbol of the past proves just how fast time has moved.  To think of the newspaper now is to think of nostalgia.

The newspaper is no less fascinating now that it is, by all accounts, dying.  

Across Canada and the United States, newspapers are folding at an unprecedented rate.  Indicative of our ever-digitalizing times, an increasing number of communities now live in what Forbes has referred to as “news deserts.”  In 2019, The New York Times reported that in the past 15 years, one-in-five newspapers in the United States have folded.  Since the pandemic began in 2020, at least 85 local newspapers in the U.S. have shutdown.  A similar pattern exists across Canada, with one example being the Cut Knife Courier, which was Cut Knife, Saskatchewan’s paper-of-record for 100 years, until its shutdown in 2020.  According to an article in The Walrus, by the time the paper folded it was already regarded by the community as a novelty, a “throwback” to a time before “media contraction.”

It is clear, looking back, that the genesis of the internet was the beginning of the end for print journalism.  It became more profitable for advertisers to buy space online and newspapers subsequently lost financing.  The 2008 subprime mortgage crash and ensuing financial crisis also played a major role in the decline of print journalism.  When the advertising industry tanked, media outlets suffered, because there was less advertising revenue.  Now, just 12 years later, another major blow comes in the form of a pandemic, drying up demand for commodity items and spurring on another advertising recession.  The lifespan of the newspaper, as a cultural object, magnifies these larger trends that have taken place over the last twenty years.

Fran Lebowitz prophetically joked in the 1970s that the only news people care about is news that concerns themselves.  A form of personalized news now exists in the age of the internet and social media.  What you see online (regardless of whether you get news through a specialized news app, social media, or Google) is tailored to you.  As we all know, algorithms filter what we see without our knowledge.  An algorithmic news cycle affects the journalism industry, within which, the types of news produced depends on which stories perform the best.  Thus, our current news trends are insipid: such as formerly reputable outlets releasing TikTok-style videos as information bulletins.  As opposed to being a welcome shift, the propensity for what one sees online to be highly personalized is exactly what is concerning about online news.  The loss of the tactile, material newspaper has created a shift toward personalized, digital news—subjective news—a world to one’s self.

These days, it seems that most reliable online news exists behind a paywall.  Some critics claim this is undemocratic, but buying the newspaper at a newsstand also costed money.  The difference was that you were just as likely to find a newspaper lying on the next table over in a café and were free to give it a look if you pleased.  As Walter Benjamin wrote, glass is the enemy of secrets, of possession.  Our screens are glass-like, but they are also portals to other people, other places, other temporalities.  We see through the glass and into another world — and that other world is watching us right back, in the form of surveillance.  

Online news is, in fact, less democratic (not because of paywalls but), because it is, in a sense, less fair.  Owing to algorithms, the same news is not displayed for every person.  The newspaper had to be interpreted.  The first act of interpretation, reading, preceded the second act of connecting the world described in the newspaper to knowledge and experience.  This means the newspaper assisted the act of contemplation.  Now, we are unconsciously nannied by our technologies.  One cannot even be sure of what reality looks like; there is, therefore, little room for interpretation.  The news, intended to be the voice of authority, bearing down from external reality, is faltering beneath our culture of hyper-individualism.

The origins of our current cultural paradigm can be traced back to the 1960s, when, every-day people—which is to say, people other than elected officials and policy-makers—suddenly be-gan to imagine that responsibility entailed a punctilious awareness of politics.  The 1960s saw the emergence of youth culture.  The decade also sparked a new protest culture, arising from the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

The 1960s, of course, followed the 1950s.  The decade after World War II was marked by the fear of atomic annihilation and an equally pressing threat of banality.  The era of suburbanization and mass consumerism ushered in the next generation’s rebellion against authority and traditional social structures.  Young liberals of the 1960s and 70s believed in individuality.  Many radicals sought out lifestyles different from that of their parents, and they found them in the subcultures that emerged on the American coasts.  The spirit of radicalism was freedom.

Liberalism is now marked by rigidity, intolerance, and an eagerness to correct and police.  The word “freedom” is inextricably tied to political conservatism.

Today, the individual, once monolithic and complete, has collapsed in on itself.  There is no figure of modern life more metonymic than the individual, and no feature of modern life more de-fining than isolation.  How we assert our presence to the world—feeling, for the most part, that we are meta-physically absent from it—is, today, through ethics.  What in the 1960s needed to be out-right asserted is now entrenched in our culture.  The issues that spurred the political movements of the 1960s are so far in our collective rearview that they are strange to us.  The inequalities of today looks different from the inequalities of yesterday.  Though there is still progress to be made toward equality for all, we are now witnessing a counter-reaction to the unfettered magnitude of the individual.  We do not need to assert that the individual exists and has rights—at least not in the way we needed to in the 1960s.  Today, we have too much freedom.  We are exhausted by freedom.  What we feel the need to do today is to curtail the power of the individual, to restrict the contours of individuality, so as to ensure the individual is kept civil, moral, decent.  The impulse to enclose the individual, to compelled the individual into containment, represents an attempt to strike a balance between individual power and collective moral good, and this is why we have the current rigidity in the culture.  It can also be said that when the structures that upheld past hierarchies col-lapsed, their indispensable responsibilities were placed squarely on the shoulders of the individual.

As ethics are outsourced onto individuals, we are forced to confront far-reaching ideological and political questions concerning the future of civilization on a highly personal, even emotion-al, level.  We might ask ourselves: how am I contributing to the climate crisis?  Am I working to abate societal collapse in the wake of COVID-19?  As we internalize issues—issues that span cultural, economic, political, and social lines, and range in importance from trivial to monumental—we come face-to-face with our own chaotic existence.  We might, for example, find that our purchasing patterns do not align with our values.  Perhaps our behaviour is at-odds with our processed beliefs.  

As we traverse these ethics on a personal level, policy-makers and elites are granted the space to manoeuvre and contribute (or not contribute) as they see fit to the issues the masses will eventually confront through ideological address—which, though experienced in public, is processed in private.  As we are held responsible for systems and histories we had no role in creating (and have only a marginal role in upholding) we are left alone with only ourselves—ourselves to ponder, to pick-over, to scrutinize.  We run into ourselves.  In doing so, our ability to enact change is impeded.  Befuddled by our own pesky, incessant lack of coherence (or even lack of integrity), we struggle to hold responsible those in positions of power, whether that power be elected or con-ferred.  We struggle to hold responsible those who are truly responsible, and, beneath our own self-consciousness, we crumble.  The self suffers from anxiety as a result of this slippage of au-thority, and the erasure of any and all distinction.  We are meta-physically untethered and, at the same time, asked to saddle a heaping aggregate of outsourced social responsibilities.

In an increasingly mechanized and now digitalized world, the tactile is lost.  As Buckminster Fuller said: “all major advances since World War I have been in the infra and the ultra sensorial frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum.”  The newspaper reminds us of a different world — a material world, full of oddities, of difference and distinction, where hard, found objects might be located in funny, backward places.  The newspaper was a vulgar, artless object — stuffed inside garbage bins, crushed beneath shoes, claiming seats on the subway, and collecting the oils of every finger that passes over it.  By contrast, the online world—because it lacks tactility and the sense of realness that tactility brings to life—arouses meta-physical isolation, creates an unstable sense of reality, and causes anxiety.  As the dilapidated newsstands of old are replaced with sleek, clean commodity-containers, we realize slowly that, for all we have gained, we have lost the comforts of authority, the coarse strength of the body and of nature free of technology, and the potential for grittiness offered by a world of objects.

The loss of the tactile, material newspaper has created a shift toward personalized, digital news—subjective news—a world to one’s self.

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