I’ve never particularly liked the feel of newsprint. The paper somehow gives the impression of being simultaneously gritty and slippery. After reading a newspaper, I always check my fingertips for smudges of grey.
Growing up, my parents subscribed faithfully to that venerable journalistic institution, the Grand Rapids Press. For as long as I can remember, small drifts of black-and-white pages have collected in the corners of our kitchen counters, lingering until my mom finished skimming the local headlines or my sister copied down that cheesecake recipe she’d been meaning to try. I gravitated toward the comics; even now, every time I visit home, I make sure to check up on the daily antics of Luann, Jeremy Duncan, and the insatiable Garfield.
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In my Public Opinion and the Environment class, our professor has us studying newspapers to gauge the level and quality of coverage that media outlets dedicate to environmental issues. We take turns reading seven consecutive issues of a given newspaper, cover to cover, and tabulating any articles that mention environmental concerns. Our class is small, so we’re focusing on only three daily papers: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and, because this is Ann Arbor, The Detroit Free Press. I volunteered to study the latter during the week of January 29-February 4.
Day 1—Today begins my week-long journey through the Detroit Free Press. Per our professor’s request, we deal exclusively in print editions. Already, I’ve hit a wall. Where does one even find a newspaper these days? The grocery store? A gas station? I walk into the CVS down the road from my house and am relieved to discover a rack of Free Presses just inside the door.
Heading toward the counter with the newspaper under my arm, I feel oddly conspicuous. I’m tempted to grab a Hershey bar or a bottle of lotion, as if that would somehow legitimize my trip to the cash register. I try to look nonchalant as I scoot my crumpled dollar bill toward the cashier.
Back at home, I settle into my arm chair, light my pipe (not really), and spread the newspaper across my lap. My roommate’s cat promptly curls up on the front page. I shove him off and begin to read. Environmental article tally: 1.
Day 2—The “Homestyle” section features a set of eco-friendly kitchen tips. I clip out the article (with scissors!), measure the column length (with a ruler!), and nestle it in a manila envelope with last week’s clippings. All that’s missing is rubber cement and a scrapbook. Article tally: 3.
Day 3—By the time I leave my friend’s apartment on Saturday night and stroll into CVS, it’s after midnight. “You know that’s yesterday’s paper, right?” the cashier points out. I glance at my watch. It’s only 12:07. Does he think I’d been waiting in the parking lot for the Sunday paper to magically appear on the shelves at the stroke of midnight? No, sir, I’ll be back in fifteen hours for that one. Article tally: 2.
Day 5—Snow days may be exquisitely rare at the University of Michigan, but even knee-high drifts can’t keep me from buying my Free Press. I shirk my homework in favor of a crossword torn from yesterday’s issue. Article tally: 0.
Day 6—I describe my assignment to a friend as we walk to a restaurant for lunch. “I wonder if I stand out, this random student walking in every day just to buy a newspaper,” I muse. “Yeah,” my friend agrees, “there’s not enough grey in your hair for that.” Article tally: 2.
Day 7—I walk into CVS to find the Free Press rack empty. I dutifully dig my car out of a snowbank and drive to a gas station to buy my final copy. Weekly article tally: 13.
If I felt out of place carting my newspaper up to the CVS counter, I was. According to the Pew Research Center, only 20% of 18-to-24-year-olds read newspapers nowadays. Even among dedicated readers of all ages, little more than half still flip through print copies.
Stats like these turn me hopelessly nostalgic. I raise a wistful glass to the days when neighborhood paper routes provided a bicycle-mounted kid’s first taste of financial independence, when editors chewed cigars in bustling newsrooms, when the thump of a paper on the front porch promised that the world’s happenings were just a rustle of newsprint away.
I’d like to say that this weeklong experiment converted me, that I’ve resolved to do my bit in supporting the crumbling newspaper industry. But I’ll be honest. While reading the Free Press was an enjoyable novelty, each issue was dominated by business news, car ads (it is Detroit, after all), and the same snippets about ISIS and Congressional bickering that I can get through NPR or the BBC. Now that my weeklong survey is over, I’ll go back to saving my daily dollar and absorbing my news through a screen.
I can always read the comics when I go home.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.