The Universal Notebook: Out of print

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Unless the world comes to an end on Dec. 21, which, with all due respect to the Mayans, I highly doubt, it is entirely conceivable that I may actually outlive print journalism.

I’m beginning to understand how linotype operators must have felt when their craft went the way of the dodo and the dinosaur.

When I first started writing for the Westbrook American in 1965, editor-publisher Harry Foote was still wearing a green eyeshade and arm garters. I’m not sure if Harry, who passed away this year at age 96, was setting type by hand, but I do remember seeing page galleys made up in metal type, as though the words had been sculpted onto the page. Printing a newspaper was a 19th century mechanical process through much of the 20th century.

While still in high school I wrote sports for the Portland Press Herald, hand-delivering football and basketball game reports to a smoke-filled newsroom where old bulls, some in eyeshades and arm garters, edited copy with blue pencils and took occasional snorts from bottles stashed in their desks.

I blame journalism for the fact that I became a smoker.

In the 1970s, I wrote a column for the Portland Evening Express, the death of which created the market for suburban weeklies like The Forecaster. I hand-delivered my typed columns to opinion page editor Don Hansen.

I only switched from a Smith-Corona manual typewriter to an Apple IIe computer in the mid-1980s, forced to join the digital age by Maine Times staffers who were sick and tired of retyping my articles into the system. In those early word processing days, I still hand-delivered my work, albeit on a diskette rather than as a manuscript.

For 20 years or so now, everything I have written has been sent off into the ether via e-mail. In fact, I have never actually met several of the magazine editors I write for, let alone visited their offices. Strange – and a bit disconcerting – to make your living sending Microsoft Words to strangers in places you’ve never been.

When it became apparent that the future of information was online, many newspapers started putting their content on websites, as well as on paper. The fact that they gave away their work online while trying to sell it in print never made any sense to me. The ones that survived were often those, like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, that charged for their online content.

Facing cyber-competition from the likes of The Daily Beast, Daily Kos and Huffington Post, once-proud print publications such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Christian Science Monitor and U.S. News & World Report have become online only. That seems to be the way things are going.

Editor Tina Brown, who is busy trying to create a virtual Newsweek by grafting it onto The Daily Beast, was asked recently in a New York Magazine interview whether there would still be newspapers on paper in 10 years.

“‘No’ is the short answer,” Brown replied, “unless printed at home via the web.”

Grab your Kindles, kiddies. We have seen the future and it doesn’t involve turning trees into newsprint.

Online journalism, of course, is far more economical and environmentally friendly than print journalism, yet it’s hard for an old ink-stained wretch (and former librarian) like myself to trade the reassuring physicality of black words on white paper for the neurasthenic insubstantiality of ghostly words on glowing screens.

When I get up each morning, I make Carolyn’s coffee, boot up the computer and retrieve the morning paper that Mr. Kennedy silently deposits in the box just before dawn. Once I’ve read the paper, I’m ready to face another day. Reading the news on a tablet or online would be like drinking decaf.

I suppose if newspapers do die, it won’t be the end of the world. Just the end of my world.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.