An online defense of print—and a plug for the Public Press' first print edition

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Comic strip reporting by Shawn Gaynor, illustration by Andrew Goldfarb

I spent my lunch hour yesterday indulging in what media critics say could soon be a lost experience: reading the first print issue of a newspaper.

As I turned the pages of a pilot print edition of the San Francisco Public Press, which has been in existence online since March 2009, I was surrounded by folks who were tapping out messages on plastic coated cell phones or sitting scrunched at table trying to read stuff on laptops.

And I began to wonder, will there be a print renaissance in my life time as upcoming generations begin to feel the impacts of too much screen and keyboard time? And begin to realize the benefits of having a print presence in this increasingly digital world? Or is print really going to go the way of the dinosaurs?

Maybe it’s because I’m old school, but I actually believe there’s a future for print journalism, though it may be a limited one. To my mind you can’t beat the sensation that comes from leafing through a newspaper, while sipping morning coffee, or the welcome relief of reading the news in hard copy, after staring at computer screens all day. And then there’s the fact that I’m never going to get mugged, or have my car broken into, because someone wants to steal a newspaper--something that can't be said if you leave your Kindle or Blackberry or fancy laptop around.

Yeah, I never have to worry about sand at the beach, or water in the bath, when I read a print newspaper. And I can rest assured that when I am done with my paper, and leave it in a coffee shop, someone else can read it, or recycle it in their blue bin or reuse it as the proverbial bird cage liner or fish wrap.

Now, what’s especially interesting about the San Francisco Public Press—and distinguishes it from most other print newspapers currently available—is that it’s free of advertisements. Or, as the folks at the Public Press like to say, it's “ad-free news in the public interest.”

    “Why no ads?” the Public Press asks. “As the newspaper advertising market has drained to Internet competitors, we need to search for other sources of income to support quality journalism. Advertising has also warped the content of the newsroom, both explicitly and subtly, encouraging newspapers to shift their coverage to topics of interest to businesses and wealthy readers—the target of ads. Noncommercial news, while often less lucrative, has the luxury of independence.”

The Public Press also devotes some wordage to explaining why they have turned to ink:
    “Newspapers help bridge the digital divide,” they state, noting that San Francisco’s 2009 City Survey showed that more than 34 percent of households with income under $50,000 cannot access the Internet at home via personal computers.
    “Newspapers serve as communal touchstones,” they continue, observing how isolating digital widgets can be, compared to reading a print newspaper in public.
    “We want to pay our hardworking staff for the work they do,” they add, reminding us that folks buy 50 million newspapers everyday in the US, but are still averse to paying for news online.
    “People use paper and electronic devices differently,” they conclude. “There are times and places when even the most tech-savvy Bay Area digerati enjoy some screen relief.”

I got my hands on a copy of the San Francisco Public Press’ first print edition, because Lila Lahood, SFPP’s director of operations, and SFPP contributor Christopher D. Cook, who wrote a timely piece about Lennar using federal taxpayer funds to balance its books, stopped by the Guardian with a stack of papers.

And while they were in newspaper delivery mode, Lahood and Cook also shared their thoughts on "Lessons Learned" from their first foray into print.

“We missed our deadline,” Lahood admitted, observing how, in future, the Public Press plans to focus less on breaking news and more on timely features to avoid deadline stress. The plan going forward, Lahood said, is to publish a print edition on a quarterly basis, with the hope of becoming a monthly print publication at some point next year.

“Some of us we stayed up the whole night, filings our full package at 6 in the morning,” Lahood added, tipping her hat to the “strong and committed core” of Public Press workers that made this first print edition possible.

‘Though most of us are journalists, we worked for publications that were already in existence before we arrived,” Lahood continued, acknowledging that the team had much to learn about putting out a print edition from start to finish this first time around.

‘But we showed it could be done,” Cook added.  “There is a solid professional publication now in the public sphere, making a dent in the San Francisco community.”

Available in 35 bookstores and newsstands in the Bay Area, the Public Press’ print edition is also available on the street for $2 a pop—an exercise in sales that isn’t as easy as the guys who peddle the Street Sheet (a monthly tabloid written primarily by homeless and formerly homeless people) make it look.

“It’s hard to sell newspapers on the street,” Cook acknowledged. “We knew it was going to be challenging. When you are out there, standing on the corner in the urban crunch, no one has an interest, but the minute you connect to folks, on an individual level, it changes.”

On June 22, the Public Press’s first pilot newspaper hit the streets. At 28 pages long, it includes two sections, three investigative reports, a full-page graphic novel and 50 articles from staff members and a broad spectrum of public media and civic groups, including KALW, KQED, Commonwealth Club, World Affairs Council, California Watch and Consumers Union.

I found the Public Press’ special section on Treasure Island intriguing and informative—the kind of in-depth investigation that’s hard for one journalist to pull off, but is crucial if the city of San Francisco and all its many residents are going to make informed planning and development decisions.

I appreciated the wide-range of articles in the Public Press’ main section, including items on the ongoing battle over the future of the open-air sewage digesters that have been stinking up the Bayview for decades now.

I loved the "Sit, Lie, Get Deported" comic strip that merges photos with hand-drawn illustrations and uses the actual words of politicians, city officials, activists and gadflies to help illustrate its point.

And I’m still trying to finish the crossword. In fact,  I plan to read the SFPP's first printedition from front to back over the July 4 holiday weekend, when I'll have the time to really absorb and enjoy it.

“Ideally, news will appear in print first, then online, so there’s interest in seeking out the print edition,” Lahood told me, noting that the Public Press’ first edition amounts to about 70,000 words. “So, it a novel, in length,” Lahood laughed. “People are, if not starving, at least very hungry for news analysis and investigative reporting. There are a lot of online sites that aggregate other publications content, and then there’s the corporate model of the Chronicle, but while there is some good reporting in town, there are fewer reporters.”

No kidding. All the more reason for this reporter to write an online defense of print, in the hope that you rush out to secure your copy of the Public Press’s first print edition and evaluate this new model of journalism. I think you'll be glad you did.