Commentary: There's nothing like the printed word

What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg.

So said Mark Twain in 1900 about the man who invented the printing press.

What would the American novelist say today?

Does print have a future?

I don't know the answer to the first question, although it would probably be funny.

But the answer to the second question is yes.

Print does have a future.

Those of you reading this on your laptop, PC, Kindle, Nook, iPhone or iPad might wish you were reading the Sun-Star newspaper so you could wad it up in your fist and toss it in the nearest wastebasket.

Rubbish. Fishwrap. Birdcage liner.

It's true. To many, the future of print looks like the future of the stamp, the landline, the check, the CD -- in short, not much of a future at all.

But some -- most of us who remember black-and-white TV shows -- believe print will survive. We know it won't be anything close to what it was when we were growing up, let alone even 10 years ago.

Ralph Gage, director of special projects for the Lawrence, Kan., Journal-World, mentioned over breakfast a year ago that he thought that as long as the baby boomers were around (the generation born from 1946 through 1964 ), the printed newspaper would keep an audience. His take is important, because the Journal-World has been in the forefront of what was once called "convergence," using online and other digital platforms to get the news out.

Mike Hedges, managing editor of the Washington Examiner, and a boomer himself, isn't so upbeat. "There will be a news business, and journalism will continue, but delivering it via printed newspapers will soon be as dead as delivering ice by wagon, milk by truck, loading a cassette tape to listen to music or going to Blockbuster to watch a movie," he wrote in an email last year.

But we both agree that there will be exceptions to that forecast. He includes his Examiner, "distributed via newsstands and hawkers at subway stations and elsewhere for free." And places like Merced, where newspapers that survive "may be in towns under 100,000 in population, where the hyperlocal news, high school sports, etc., loyal local advertisers and a fairly narrow distribution pattern make it economically viable."

Mike's too modest to mention the hundreds of stories his crew of scrappy, hungry reporters (like our own Feral Dogs) has published that the Washington Post and Washington Times have had to follow after the Examiner beat them to the punch

You've seen our mantra in this space before: We're too small to fail.

And that view got some recent support from two local women who know a lot about the demand for print: Jacque Meriam, the county's head librarian; and Nancy Smith, owner of Second Time Around, the used bookstore on Main Street downtown.

"Libraries are being rediscovered," Jacque says. "We get a lot of people coming in who say, 'I can't buy this book -- I'm going to get it from you.' " Each quarter, 3,000 to 3,500 requests come from Merced library patrons seeking books from other libraries in the San Joaquin Valley.

In a cruel irony, one reason the library has been rediscovered is the lingering economic recession. "People are getting library cards because of reduced circumstances," Jacque says. More patrons come in to use the free Internet service, looking for jobs, composing resumes, searching databases.

And because many Mercedians can't afford Kindles or other e-devices, they resort to checking out that two-pound rectangle of printed words on paper.

Nancy Smith believes bookstores like hers will stick around because they've found just the right niche between the giant chains, such as Barnes & Noble, and the Amazons of the world. "A used bookstore offers out-of-print books, rare books, unusual books," she says. "You can't approach those qualities online."

Her niche has led to customers coming from as far away as Napa, just because they know she has or will get what they want. One customer from Sacramento "comes once a month to see the latest books I've gotten about Vietnam. Another comes from Fresno to see what I've got on the Far East."

Both women agree on a key but overlooked part of print's survival -- what it feels like to touch the page. "I don't want to hold a Kindle in bed," Jacque says. "People still will want that tactile stimulation." Her pet peeve: parents who put children to bed letting them hold hand-held devices to read a bedtime story. "There's no interaction," she says, "between parent and child."

Adds Nancy: "One of the things that keeps people buying books is the tactile sensation. There's a charm to coming in and browsing and seeing something you weren't even looking for."

Books aren't newspapers. The Sun-Star and our parent, McClatchy, are charging into the digital world, avatars flying. Our website, www.mercedsunstar.com, has become Merced's coffee shop, its water cooler, its village well, where hundreds of conversations go on every day.

Maybe nobody under 30 in our county reads a printed newspaper. Except when they want to, such as when Le Grand High's football team made its run to the state championship game. But thousands of other Mercedians do read our newspaper every day. Maybe that number will drop.

But the calls and emails and letters and conversations from our audience strongly suggest that when something really matters to them, they want to see it in print. Birth of a child. Death of a parent. Marriage. Horoscope. Comics. A website update just won't do.

So if you're reading this at the breakfast table and happen to spill coffee on the front page, no sweat. We'll print another one for you tomorrow.


Mike Tharp is executive editor of the Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.