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The view from the digital edge <br> An editor rooted in a deep and early love of books and newspapers answers the seductive call of content on a glowing screen

Dave Eggers sighs. Sitting on a tiny stage in front of a group of newspaper editors, the celebrated writer runs his hand through his unruly hair and bemoans society's headlong rush to all things digital.

"Why does everything have to be on a screen?"

The 41-year-old author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" told the American Society of News Editors audience last year that he doesn't even have an Internet connection in his home.

Eggers finds all those digital bells and whistles far too distracting from his work as a writer, editor, publisher and champion of children's literacy. Besides, he loves ink on paper, finding it much more appealing than the glowing electronic alternative.

He explains it simply: "Print is organic, and we're organic."


The swooshing sound of a text message wakes me on this workday morning.

"i am going to give you something that will change your life," reads the message from a friend who has an iPhone and knows how much I like mine.

"what?" I type back, barely awake.

The second text arrives: "go to app store and download dragon dictation."

I do, and within moments, I realize that -- without awkwardly typing on a virtual keyboard -- I now can dictate e-mails and text messages by speaking into my phone and sending them instantly to my downloaded contacts. I can even punctuate by saying "comma," "period" and "question mark."

I play with this new toy for a while, and then put my phone down, only to reach for my laptop to see if my son has taken his turn in the ongoing online Scrabble game we play on Facebook.

Still in bed, I check a few websites, including the one whose content I'm ultimately responsible for -- -- and then, eventually, go downstairs to get my newspaper at the side door.


Eggers is not alone in his anti-digital, pro-print mentality.

There are still plenty of people who would rather read a book in print than on a Kindle or a Nook -- holding the volume in their hands, enjoying the look and feel of the printed page.

There are people who like to read their newspaper by turning its big pages, scanning the headlines and seeing what serendipity might bring to their attention.

And it should be noted that many people -- the poor, the rural, the elderly -- don't have the choice. The "digital divide," though narrowing, still exists.

So Eggers is not alone. But he's getting there.

Consider just two reports from recent weeks:

The online retail giant Amazon announced that it is now selling more e-books than conventional printed books.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that the percentage of people who get their news online surpassed, for the first time, those who read newspapers in print.

The tide has turned, and there's nothing anyone can do about it.


I grew up in the pre-digital world of the 1960s and '70s. I loved -- lived for -- books, and handwritten letters from friends, and music on vinyl and tape.

Starting in high school, I became a print journalist, drawn by the power of the written word and the romance of newspapers.

So here's the question. Is it possible to be seduced by today's digital Sirens and remain true to your first love?

Or does the new thoroughly replace the old?

And as we give in to the seduction -- for it is difficult to resist its facile, flashy charms -- what is lost?


Perhaps a tiny backlash has begun or at least an understanding that all the attractions of the Internet come with a price.

And its name is privacy.

Consider this. Joining the ranks of OMG and LOL, those annoyingly omnipresent Internet acronyms, is a relatively new one: LDL -- "Let's discuss live."

It comes from the world of business, which has found out the hard way that putting sensitive information in an e-mail can be hazardous.

Just ask Julian Assange. Where would the WikiLeaks founder be if American diplomats had decided to go the LDL route?

"To many observers, the lesson of WikiLeaks was not about Turkey or Saudi Arabia or national security," wrote Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times.

"It's that no one's online communication -- not the government's Secret Internet Protocol, not Bradley Manning's hacker chatroom -- is secure."

As Bob Marley sang, "Everybody's got something they don't want nobody to know about." Former congressmen Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee could elaborate.

In the Internet age, no secret is safe. Spies lurk around every corner.

So, hey: LDL.


My life is awash in gadgets, many of them with a stylized apple symbol on the back.

These days, I travel with an iPad rather than heavy books. I keep in touch with my college-age children by text message.

I could not do without Google's voice search on my phone and would be lost, literally, without its GPS.

What's more, I would not have a media job if I could not talk, with reasonable fluency, about Google analytics, MP4s and widget frameworks.

And yet.

One evening, I come home and pick up the mail. Amid the bills, solicitations and fliers from contractors is a small pink envelope. The return address shows it came from just a few doors down and across the street.

In her curvy handwriting, with blue ink, a neighborhood girl is thanking me for helping her get her first job. I suggested her to another neighbor who needed a cat-sitter. I kept it around for quite a while, smiling whenever I saw it. That is not exactly the reaction I have to much of my work-related e-mail, which I am in a constant battle to process, delete or, better yet, exile to spam.


Jim Brady started as a print journalist, transitioned into editor of the Washington Post's website and then left to form -- an online news company. After leaving TBD late last year, he told blogger Sarah Hartley that he can never look back:

"I definitely want to be in something that's 100 percent digital the next time out. Maybe I'll feel differently some day, but for now, I'm not interested in evangelizing the Web to anyone. In my view, if you still need to be convinced to pay attention to the Web, you probably shouldn't be in the job you're in."

The same goes for Rusty Coats, a 45-year-old former newspaperman who started out with a manual typewriter and now runs a digital-media consulting business, Coats2Coats.

The forces are too big to ignore, he says.

"It's like a meteor hit the planet. The ecosystems are shifting, new business models are rising and old ones are disappearing." Many newspapers, this one included, understand that. And we believe that the important thing is not the platform -- the physical ink-on-paper versus the endless ones and zeroes of news on the Web, or a smart phone, or an iPad.

The print-on-paper format may go away or be published far less often. But it's the journalism that matters. That's what's worth saving and what can be saved.

And we're doing so with every reporter trained to shoot video, with every ad sold for the mobile application, with every strategy to "monetize" what we put online.

"There no choice," says Coats, "but to let go, to move on, to adapt."


The easy answer is that of course it's possible to do both, love both, have digital and print coexist. To toggle happily from iPad e-book to paperback novel; to read the newspaper in print each morning and scan Yahoo! headlines all day; to tap out dozens of text messages and e-mails a day, but still pen the handwritten note on fine Crane stationery.

The truth? Not quite so simple.

My experience is that, eventually, the digital choice always wins out. And while doing so, it eats away at our attention spans. It makes us voracious for information, impatient with a moment's delay; it disquiets us.

Digital favors the perfect over the real. Although it may pose what former Google CEO Eric Schmidt called "the ersatz experience problem" -- life lived on a screen -- it is magic nonetheless.

Put another way:

A child may read an illustrated, hardcover version of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" if he's alone in his bedroom with nothing else to do, but not when he can play "Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure" on his Wii.

Is that a tragedy? The death of true literacy in our culture?

It's just reality. We will do best to leave the sentimentality behind and deal with it.


My friend Betsey, a public librarian and diehard bibliophile, gave me a disapproving look recently when I mentioned that I had finally read -- on the iPad -- "The Help," the 2009 best-selling novel that's soon to be a major motion picture.

But when I put the glossy screen in her hands and she began turning the e-book's digital pages with the slightest flick of a finger -- watching them curl like so many shorebound waves -- quite a different look came over her face. Fascination, maybe?

But all she said was, "Margaret, you're spoiled."


Clay Shirky's seminal essay rocked my world. I read "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" when it went viral, not long after it appeared on his blog in early 2009; and I finally got what was happening. The whole puzzle clicked into place.

"When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution," wrote this leading thinker on technology's effect on society, now a New York University professor.

"They are demanding to be told that old systems won't break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren't in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it."

In short, Shirky wrote, "they are demanding to be lied to."

I love newspapers, books, magazines, letters, libraries. They are all a part of my life, and I hope they will be for a long time. I love what they offer and what they represent -- thoughtfulness, tradition, a home for well-paid watchdog journalism, the utility of information that has been curated by intelligent editors, the impact of a 90-point headline, the beauty of a black and white photograph.

But I also love knowing what I want to know, right now. Connecting to people everywhere. Sharing photos and articles almost effortlessly. Breaking a news story within minutes, and to the whole world, instead of waiting 12 hours until the paper comes out in the morning and even then communicating with people only within range of our delivery trucks. Today, the two worlds coexist. We're lucky that way.

But the tipping point is coming; the digital tsunami has already transformed the world of print as we know it. We can't afford to spend the rest of the revolution wiping tears off our screens.