Post No Bills

Apropos of Monday’s article in the Times that “print is here to stay”: We would rather read a magazine or a book on paper. The quality of most newspapers (and, to be fair, a good many magazines) resonates well with the populist qualities of the internet. In our experience, most newspaper articles do not demand a deep read, where the reading experience would be enhanced by a premium medium. Companies that produce a lot of low-quality print—simple, dumbed-down narratives, quick-hit info-blurbs, ads for sexual services, the general infantilization of mass print media—had better worry about the internet. Raw information, service journalism, even broad-band advertising campaigns are infinitely reproducible, and they work fine in an infinite-reproduction medium like the internet. This sort of information gains or loses nothing by being on a web page, pasted into an email, or even queued to the color laser printer. This is as close to raw text as language can be, and there is no reason why the medium should have a significant impact on the reading experience. The instant, low-cost, low-impact world of the web is the perfect vehicle for this kind of reading.

Conversely, high-quality print has nothing to worry about. Hardcover novels aren’t going anywhere, for the simple reason that no one wants to read them on a computer screen. Alternatively, plenty of people are reading newspapers solely online (this sometimes gets us into trouble!)—the better to avoid the hassle of recycling a lot of paper that lives and dies without a living human being ever setting eyes on it.

In other words, the old cliche that no one likes to read a lot of text online is only partially true. If it’s good text that you really want to wrap your mind and your lap around, you want to see it on paper, freed from its delivery device. If you want to get in and get out with some useful information, the web is your medium. Or you can read standing up in the bookstore.

We think this truth is demonstrable on a simple, mechanical level. As computers and desktop publishing have advanced, the letter form itself has gotten better, clearer, and stronger—on the printed page. Isn’t it interesting that the gold standard for resolution on paper has risen into the stratosphere—say a minimum of 300 DPI, but why not shoot for 1000?—while the tools for creating that sort of photo-realistic resolution have stayed the same? In other words, computers are still operating in a paradigm of print: If the ultimate output is going to be on paper, then it had better look as close as possible to the real thing (i.e. letter press, or plate printer.) This is a bit like using a sharp chisel to do work that looks as if it were done with a razor blade, because the basic resolution of the CRT screen (and its flat-screen equivalents) has not changed. It is still woefully low, at 72 dots per inch. Newer operating systems like Mac OS X have tried to anti-alias the edges of letter forms—the better to make letters and words on your screen look as if they are the resolution of a printed (even letter-pressed) word, but without actually increasing the resolution of the hardware itself. So no matter what trickery is used to amp up their appearance online and onscreen, they cannot have the same look and feel as printed words on paper until there are some dramatic breakthroughs in screens and screen resolution.

It’s like audio. If all you want is a phone number, hearing a prerecorded message over the phone is just fine. If you want to hear Beethoven’s Seventh, you might prefer a CD, a stereo, and some good speakers.