The power of print
It seems crazy.
A king of 21st-century Internet commerce, Jeff Bezos, purchased a dinosaur — a newspaper. Not only that, this particular publication, The Washington Post, enjoyed its heyday when Bezos was a boy, back before computers, when it toppled a president of the United States. It’s bled money for years despite frequent job cuts; its circulation has plunged to about 474,000 from roughly 768,000 a decade ago.
But obituaries for newspapers, and the printed word in general, are premature. In fact Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is not blind to the power of print — the Web-based company, after all, is the nation’s largest bookseller.
If you consider Bezos crazy for forking over $250 million for a declining newspaper in the second decade of the 21st century, how about a person who launches a newspaper during that time — in fact, not just one, but two?
Last year, in Chicago’s northern suburbs, I helped start The North Shore Weekend, which reaches 40,000 households and businesses each week. Based on its enthusiastic reception from readers and advertisers, in September we’re starting another one, circulating another 40,000 copies to a host of new suburbs.
Why do people want the printed word in the 21st century? First, credibility. Some print publications, from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, have been around since the 19th century. They’ve survived and flourished because people believe what they write and respect their dedication to impartial news gathering (though their editorial page opinions differ wildly). Few independent websites have developed this type of credibility, which takes time and a commitment to detachment rarely found amid oft-inflammatory words online.
Second, compelling stories in any format never go out of style. Match an interesting personality with a gifted writer, and the reader will gladly stay, especially if one can offer context and depth that is seldom seen on the Web. At The North Shore Weekend, we try to combine the lapidary writing of a magazine with the original reporting of a newspaper — we don’t even try to compete with the breaking-news, quick-post mantra of the Web.
Lastly, print still offers, to me at least, the most relaxing read. It’s almost impossible to focus when scanning Web pages on a computer screen. One starts a story, then follows a link to a video, and then jumps to another site, and then an ad pops out of nowhere. In the end, all that bouncing around affects comprehension. In fact, a recent survey revealed that 80 percent of people report comprehending text better when it appears on paper compared to a screen. With print, one can sink into an armchair and quietly turn the pages. Our newspaper, like others across the country, is designed for a weekend read, when people are at home, at leisure, and ready to enjoy a pleasant interaction with print.
One question that crops up when asked about the so-called death of print is advertiser interest. But here’s the thing: When you grab the readers, advertisers will follow. Advertisers, remember, still dedicate the lion’s share of their money toward print compared to the Web.
Despite my dedication to print, I was there at the dawn of the Internet, hired by The Wall Street Journal for its website before it launched in 1996. Despite WSJ.com’s success as a rare subscription-only digital venture from the beginning, the paper version is also still thriving 17 years later. In fact, its Weekend Journal — the Saturday publication brimming with features, columns, and lifestyle stories — is a template for North Shore Weekend, albeit on a much larger scale.
As for our Web presence? We have an address but have never launched the site, believing at the moment there’s no money to be made there (to satisfy former North Shore residents out of our circulation area, however, the paper is available in an easy-to-read format, where one virtually turns pages, on Facebook).
As Stephen King noted in On Writing, it’s about telling stories on paper. One just has to engage the reader.
Maybe the purchase by Mr. Bezos — an innovator who draws millions of people to his online creation every week — is not so crazy. Perhaps an influx of new ideas can re-energize print in the nation’s capital.
David Sweet ’85 is the author of Lamar Hunt: The Gentle Giant Who Revolutionized Professional Sports.