Are PDFs better than paper? No, but …

 Tribune Company Chairman Sam Zell told CNBC this week that he sees a day when home delivery will be replaced by PDFs. Zell sees that as a way for newspapers to reduce overhead (the costly capital expenses of presses, delivery trucks, etc.) as it tries to make good with fewer advertising dollars, as well as adapt the product to new technologies.

I posted this story on my Facebook page, which ignited a firestorm of angst from some of my followers. The idea of eliminating the paper-and-ink edition, they say, is to eliminate an experience that is unique and, by far, superior to any electronic version.

I certainly agree with my followers that the tactile experience of reading a newspaper is far different — and more enjoyable — to reading the same edition on my laptop or iPhone. It’s an experience that  just cannot be copied on any current electronic platform.

However, when I look at my teenage children and their friends — as well as many of my younger co-workers — I see their faces  buried in the screens of their cellphones and iPods,  reading text messages from one another or updating their Facebook profile. I’ve come to realize that this is their “newspaper”  experience. They are growing up getting their information through this method, and that in turn will develop into their adult routines.

Yes, they are missing out on a wonderful experience. But that is their experience, and to survive, newspapers must adapt to that.

I can make a similar argument for music. The sound quality of CDs and MP3 are nowhere near that of a vinyl album playing on a tube-based  stereo system. The depth and richness of music cannot be replicated on a digital platform. Yet I’ve resigned myself to the fact that tubes will never return and that my music will no longer be housed in a grapefruit crate. I can still appreciate my old LPs on my solid-state amp and 25-year-old speakers, but the world has moved on to a new music experience, and if I want to be a part of it, I need to adapt. 

Likewise, PDFs will not replace the look and feel of reading a newspaper at the kitchen table. But we Boomers have to realize that if journalism is to survive for the next generations, we need to meet them on their level.


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