Reading the newspaper

David Sullivan at That’s the Press, Baby put up a post today that started me thinking. Just what does it mean to read a newspaper anymore these days. Sullivan says that reading the sometimes jangled assortment of articles in your local print edition isn’t all that much different than nonlinear reading habits with online news sites.

He also wonders just what it means to “read the newspaper.” For him, that means picking up the hardcopy, scanning the headlines, reading a few articles, mostly leaving the sports section untouched. That’s just about how it is for me whenever I pick up a paper copy of the… ahem, paper.

But what about online? Does reading Time’s site equate to reading the newspaper because it posts stories every day? What about blogs and news sites that post with regularity, updating themselves around the clock? Sullivan writes:

I have a sense that no one really knows the answers to this, which is part of why newspapers are having the troubles they are having.

The answer to newspapers problems seems to be — as it always is — that they have lost their identity, and if only we could figure out just what newspapers are, then we might solve some of the problems facing the news business today.

Why is it that we are so hesitant to grant the title of “newspaper” to anything that’s not actually printed on newsprint? Is this some language thing? A hang-up so deeply buried in our news-consuming brains that those people who would normally never quarrel over a point of language now refuse, subconsciously, to accept that “paper” can refer to anything online?

And just what is a newspaper, if it is not a collection of the most recent stories that will interest and inform its readers. The fact that “paper” is part of its title is a matter of practicality. When printers started printing these things, there wasn’t a name for them. They were papers that contained the news, hence newspapers. Why should we hold so dearly to a term that was mostly likely chosen out of sheer utility?

Maybe we need some new term to take newspaper’s place before the news online can begin to replace the news on paper. “News site” just isn’t as catchy, too many “s” sounds in a row right there in the middle. Any other ideas?

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