The dearth of print

The Chattanooga Times & Free Press publisher Walter Hussman, Jr. today announced in a letter to subscribers that the paper his family owned for 110 years is going digital-only 6 days a week. Subscribers will get an iPad and will read the Monday through Saturday news through an app. The transition is expected to finish in June, 2022.

This disappoints me.

I’m no Luddite, but I enjoy an analog newspaper reading experience. My morning routine is built around:

  • Starting coffee
  • Getting the paper, even in the rain and snow and dark of night
  • Finishing the coffee
  • Stationing myself in my recliner with blue lights, some focus sounds, and my coffee at hand.
  • Cracking open the paper

When I read the paper, I disassemble it. Interior pages are pulled, sections are folded and remolded depending on where the story continues, and one specific comic is pressed up against the most microscopic lens bit of my bifocals to be able to read the tiny text.

Reading the paper sometimes takes 20 minutes. Sometimes it takes 2 hours.

The remains pile up to the right of my recliner. Sometimes it is a few days before they are interned for recycling. Sometimes they become kindling. Sometimes they are bits I will save. Sometimes they’re packing material, wrapping paper, filler, saved for a friend to use in her yard, a hat, or a broach, or a pterodactyl. The OSS taught agents in the field that one can fold a newspaper in such a way that it can become a dangerous weapon.

Take that, iPad!

I’m disappointed with the publisher’s letter. He states,

Readers told us at first they were dubious and reluctant, but after reading the newspaper on the iPad, a large majority liked it better than the print edition

Reading the news on a tablet, or a phone, or a laptop is a series of compromises (I am a paid digital subscriber to all of the below except for Google News):

  • Apple News is inundated with advertising, is hard to train (I want news, not long form character studies or opinion pieces or the history of the paving tile, on a weekday morning), and makes sharing difficult; lots of low quality sources
  • Google News is full of click bait and advertising; lots of low quality sources
  • The New York Times makes you move back to the main page to move to the next article, and depending on how long that takes you the main page could be refreshed; they also are way too into their multimedia articles which I usually find to be more flash than substance; reading the NYT in the web browser is a better experience, and it shouldn’t be
  • The Washington Post resurfaces the same articles over and over, even if you’ve actually read it; their headline banner photos are huge; the news stream never ends
  • The Wall Street Journal … oddly, might have the best news reading interface I’ve seen in a while: swipe left similar to book reading to page through an article, it moves on to the next one, and when you’re done with a section, then you move back to the main page; it updates the main content once per day

The best app I used was the New York Times Windows 8 app on my old Surface Pro 3 & 4 PCs. It had the navigation the Wall Street Journal has, was easy to use, and the reading experience was the richest I’ve experienced digitally. It was killed of in the mid 2010’s.

The Chattanooga Times & Free Press app is some amalgam of the paper’s digital proof with transcribed copy. One can flip through by article but the reader ends up with a lot of pages that are only captions for pictures or graphs. Bylines are deemphasized. Navigation is overall clunky. Sharing requires an extra blocking interface to let you know things like “the URL has been copied to your clipboard”.

Take today’s paper for example. In case you live under a rock, it has been 20 years since terrorists hijacked planes and killed thousands of Americans. While I will never forget that day and what transpired in its aftermath, I also do not want to relive it through my memories or other’s. This new format does not make it easy to skip what I uncharitably call “misery porn”.

It also makes it hard to skip award show coverage, or the Olympics, or other zeitgeist moments that can quickly overwhelm news. Skimming my eyes over the printed page makes for a better filter than paging through what is essentially a giant PDF.

The other benefits listed are standard tablet features, not something specific to this transition. Again, I’m disappointed with the publisher’s letter. It was disingenuous at best.

I understand the financial realities the paper faces. Chattanooga is fortunate to have a daily paper. I am sad to see the daily print operation go. If this change keeps the paper running for 10, or 20, or 50 years without becoming the click-bait AI generated pseudo news other cities get, I will be happy.

I challenge the Chattanooga Times & Free Press to do better with their “digital paper” in its new form. I will be here to give them guidance. And do keep the Sunday print run for as long as you can.

Long live the news! Long live the Chattanooga Times & Free Press!