Black and white and read all over

Have you seen The Los Angeles Times recently? It looks different. A more dramatic flag on Page One, larger bylines for columnists — a few minor but meaningful alterations. In newspaper speak, that’s called a redesign. They happen periodically for a number of reasons, mostly just to rejuvenate the look of the paper and keep it fresh. The Chronicle does one every year. But this redesign made me slightly nervous when I first saw it. Why? Because newspapers worldwide are in more peril than books were in “Farenheit 451” (the Ray Bradury novel in which the sole duty of firemen is to burn literature) and I worried that The LA Times’ new look was an attempt to revive interest in a world-renowned publication before it was too late.

The Christian Science Monitor, a respected, century-old newspaper, has the following bit of “breaking news” on its website: “In 2009, the Monitor will become the first nationally

circulated newspaper to replace its daily print edition with its website; the 100 year-old news organization will also offer subscribers weekly print and daily e-mail editions.” That means there will be one day a week where someone without a computer could possibly come across evidence of this newspaper’s existence. If that. Keep in mind that, according to a 2007 study by Stanford Professor Phillip M. Harter, one percent of people worldwide own a computer.

So what are we losing as these papers slowly but steadily convert to digital form?

For one thing, people are losing jobs. Under owner Sam Zell, the LA Times announced in June that it would cut 250 jobs by Labor Day. Along with the elimination of jobs, the downsizing cuts 15 percent of their news pages each week, eliminates some sections entirely and cuts the lengths of news stories.

But there’s something else that affects all of us about the decline of print journalism. Haven’t we learned all our lives that America

was founded on freedom of speech? How the pen was mightier than the sword? That the colonial revolutionaries rallied to action through pamphlets and reports and newspapers? Newspapers have always been there to help us synthesize, analyze and put into perspective the traumatic, euphoric or unprecedented goings-on in our world. What is going to happen to our society when we can no longer grasp the gray pages of a newspaper, awkwardly unfold them and read the paper with our morning coffee?

My Grandfather worked as the Letters Editor of The New York Times practically his entire career. He reads the newspaper

cover to cover every day, like many people do – newspapers are and always have been a huge part of his life. Why should the next generation never know what that feels like? It just seems like we should do something to make sure everyone is ok with this monumental departure from a tradition that shaped our nation’s history before the future becomes now and newspapers becomes extinct.

Maybe I’m biased. I’ve watched The Chronicle’s website evolve over the last three years, and I’ve seen us make judgments

between what kinds of stories are immediate and website-worthy and which merit a much- belabored, creative design and layout in the paper. Making these decisions and working on a newspaper gives you an appreciation for the work that goes into publications worldwide. Essentially, I’m not willing to see the art of print journalism die yet. I applaud the history classes that emphasize the news, and the Spanish V classes where students present news stories in Spanish on an almost-daily basis. But it seems to me that there should be more ways to engage young people in the reading of newspapers — I know we’re busy and computers are quick, but there must be a way. Maybe one day there could be a class offered in current events with an emphasis on journalism, or maybe once a month a news quiz could be replaced by a discussion in which the class analyzes how different newspapers chose to portray a particular piece of news. We forget that the way ideas are presented on paper influences the way we absorb them — it’s something worth thinking about.

Newspaper sales increased dramatically on Nov. 5 because people were eager to frame front pages splashed with the momentous

headline “OBAMA.” Clearly, there is still some sense that print journalism holds something powerful, lasting, and resounding. I hope people might look at a discarded newspaper, hey, even a rumpled Chronicle strewn across a table in the lounge, with even just a slight moment of pause and appreciation for a dying art form, one that shaped our country’s history, and that can only be saved with a demonstration of popular interest. That has to come from this generation. But will it? Who knows — but the fact that I’m trying to convince people through a column in a school newspaper has got to mean there’s some hope, right?