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Waste Paper: Communications and the Decline of Print

On some advice column, somewhere on the Internet, I recently read a rant about how our culture is once again degrading itself, as expressed by changes in normative social behavior in public places. What particularly struck me as possibly "made up" was the author's rant that in crowded subway cars people have lost the art of folding a newspaper tightly as they read it during commuting. His complaint was that people no longer bothered and had offensive, "wide stance" newspaper reading habits.

Now, maybe you live in or visit a large city with a good mass transit system. If so, I'm very interested in your observations about this, but when I visit large cities and use mass transit, what I see is a lack of people reading anything. Mostly they're listening to an iPod-like device or looking bored. If they're not looking bored, then they are teenagers, there are a pack of them, and they are annoying others by not being bored, which means they are <gasp> probably actually talking to each other.

In fact, it's been a decade or more since anyone stuck a rustling newspaper in my face on a crowded bus or subway car.  From my perspective, if we are in fact losing the art of tightly folding a newspaper while reading it, it is because (a) fewer people are reading newspapers and (b) those who do so have more room to read it unfolded because of the fact that there are fewer other newspaper readers, and thus more newspaper air space.

It's well known that print newspaper subscriptions are declining. Even readership online is something mainstream media outlets worry about, and, thus, The New York Times recently ended its "Times Select" subscriptions, which had required an additional annual payment to access certain choice content. (The Times, by the way, is entering the higher education arena this fall with a series of educational offerings, including a webcast next week about student technology use and expectations, produced in collaboration with the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), titled "Education in Exponential Times," with Diana Oblinger (Educause), Joel Hartman (University of Central Florida), and Times futurist in residence, Michael Rogers.

Electronic News
Are print newspapers following the lead of print newsletters? Remember those? Where 10 years ago I might have received 15 to 20 printed newsletters a month, I now get only two or three in the mail, but I get hundreds of e-mail newsletters a month. SCUP, mentioned above, was a pioneer in the e-mail newsletter realm, first publishing "SCUP Bitnet News," now "SCUP Email News," in October of 1987--20 years ago this month. Nevertheless, it took us more than an additional decade to stop printing our expensive, quarterly paper newsletter, which was called "SCUP News." Now I wonder why we don't call our e-mail newsletter "SCUP News" instead of "SCUP Email News," which sounds a little ... antiquated?

Who still prints and mails newsletters? Judging from the ones I still get, most are produced either by well funded organizations that can afford to publish and mail print without an expectation of direct revenue or very local organizations, such as a gardening club, which might still have a substantial constituency of people who don't spend much time on line.

Reducing Print on Campus
Now, our students by and large spend a lot of time online, on average about 16 hours a week. But how much time do they spend reading? And what kind of reading do they do? One thing is sure: We don't expect them, or our faculty and staff either, to spend much time reading print that we mail them. Do a Google search on "paperless" and "university," and you'll see that while we all doubt that we can get rid of paper, we're certainly trying hard to do so.

When an institution is successful in reducing large amounts of print, it seems that the motivation is primarily economic. For example, at Sacramento State University, it is estimated that just e-mailing students to go online and check their registration via the Web, instead of mailing them printed reminders, saves the university $70,000 a year. Christopher Dawson, writing at ZDNet, is quite emphatic about the cost of printing things on paper:
Of all of the Education IT purchases you could possibly make, purchasing just one more printer is the least cost-effective of them all! 

Don't believe me? The average business-class laser printer costs in the neighborhood of $2,000 (including extended warranty over its lifetime).  Over the life of the device, it will produce at least 2,000,000 simplex pages.  If you can buy paper, toner, and consumable printer parts in volume, you will pay close to $40,000 to produce that printed output over the lifetime of that single $2,000 printer! 

If you, instead, spend $2,000 on a server, you could provide your students and faculty with instant access to over 50,000,000 pages worth of information for every 100GB of hard drive space on your server! 
I really love one of his throw-away bits of advice, which parallels precisely what I have intended to end this week's column with anyway. He implies it's time to go and do the equivalent of dumpster-diving: Spend an hour or two on your campus looking into the content of the paper recycling baskets that are all over the place. (Or ask your campus recycling people to look for you and gather some statistics.) It's almost certain that an analysis of what you find in there will give your some ideas about where your institution is spending money printing stuff that needn't be.

I've been spending time reading blogs on my handhelds, first a Treo 650 and now an iPhone. If you haven't yet, give it a try. Waiting in line, riding a bus--not so much on subways, which dive underground and cut off signals--it's more than possible to do it; it's actually easy to enjoy doing it. And, so long as you mute the sound or wear headphones, you'll be far less annoying than a "wide stance" newspaper reader.

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