This past week, word came to me that a close friend and book-review editor of a major daily newspaper had been laid off after 16 years of service.  The book page, one of the nation’s best, would be reduced by half, and his “replacement” would be a youngster from the city desk, a competent young woman utterly inexperienced in book-review editing; her salary is considerably lower than my friend’s was.

A day after hearing this, I learned that another editor I know would find out in a few weeks if he would survive the latest round of cuts.  The irony is that he was one of the “youngsters” who replaced a venerated and higher-paid editor laid off about a year before.  I can name more than a dozen veteran editors, feature writers, and reporters for major dailies who have been terminated in one way or another over the past two years.

It’s not news that the nation’s newspapers are on their way to extinction.  Two substantial papers in Denver and Seattle have recently folded; rumor has it that three or four more are on the brink of closure; perhaps as many as a dozen will either go bankrupt or be forced to truncate themselves into unrecognizable entities before the end of the year.

Such a change is probably inevitable.  An entire generation of Americans has grown up without developing so much as a casual relationship with a daily paper, relying instead on television and the internet to find out what’s going on.  They become defensive if anyone suggests that those sources don’t measure up to the integrity or reliability of the traditional print media.

As immediate as TV and internet news coverage seems to be, the absorption and understanding of information reported and written by the “ink-stained wretches” in the narrow columns of a daily paper somehow have a deeper and more lasting impact.  Newspapers offer a much richer and more thorough source of information than electronic media can provide.

When we read on a screen, we tend to scroll past material that seems overly complex or might require some lengthy contemplation.  We may see a “hot link” that will take us to a headline, but we are not likely to go there just out of random curiosity.  If we do, we may forget some other link of potential interest that we didn’t use on the previous page.  On the web, smaller items escape our notice, and we’re not apt to happen across something we didn’t know was there until we found it.

Of course, people often skim over a newspaper, too.  But in a paper, something—a word, a phrase, a name—might catch the eye, cause a diversion, and lead a reader to learn something he didn’t know he didn’t know.  No action—such as clicking a link—is required, and there’s no ten-second wait for a page to load, then another while a pop-up ad forms itself and blocks the page.  With a paper, one doesn’t have to know about something to find it.  It’s right there.

Television, of course, reduces news stories to heavily edited ten- and twenty-second summaries.  Viewers who want to know more are directed to visit the station’s website.  I suspect that few do.  When I view a TV news report of interest, I usually make a note to check out the next day’s newspaper to find out what really happened.

Recently, I put a stopwatch on a morning network news program.  In the hour I surveyed, for every minute of actual news or even feature reporting, there were a full six minutes of commercial broadcast.  At one juncture, nine minutes of commercials separated actual news reports.  Newspapers also rely on advertising for revenue.  They devote full pages to ads, but if you’re not shopping for furniture or clothing, or looking to sell gold or to buy a car, it’s easy to turn past them in a second or two; you don’t have to wait while the ads load, only to find out you’re not interested in the product in the first place.

When this happens on nearly every click, it becomes annoying.  It also discourages people from seeking out the news.

Since I was about 12, I’ve greeted the day with a perusal of the paper.  (I used to end the day with an evening edition.)  I don’t read every article.  Depending on the time of year or day of the week, I may skip lightly over the sports section or only glance at the entertainment section.  Until recently, I almost never read the business section.  But I always give a thorough read to the front section and the metro, state, national, and world pages.  I read the editorials—including those I don’t agree with.  I also read the comics.  (There’s more wisdom there than one might think.)  Every time I read a newspaper, I learn something I didn’t know—and often something I didn’t know I didn’t know.  I can’t say that about the web or television.

When I’m on the road, I go out first thing and look for a newspaper kiosk.  Failure to start my daily routine with the paper always results in a nagging feeling that I’ve neglected something.  On mornings when we don’t have to go to work, my wife and I might spend an hour or more reading the paper, talking across the table to each other about this article or that editorial or feature, maybe handing it over to share.  We may discover some festival or concert we might want to attend, learn of the pending nuptials of an acquaintance’s child, chuckle over our horoscopes.  Somehow, our sitting at individual computer screens and shouting comments and hyperlinks from room to room isn’t the same.  Neither is trying to discuss some TV report during commercials for erectile dysfunction and bowel regularity.

A newspaper offers timely suggestions about gardening and fashion, cooking and civic activities.  There are book, movie, play, and concert reviews, celebrity gossip, tips on household chores and auto maintenance, and a crossword puzzle to work while waiting for an appointment.  We might not know we wanted to work a crossword puzzle until we found one right in front of us, might not realize that our favorite movie star had broken up another marriage until we caught a feature article about it.  These things can be found on the internet, of course.  But they have to be sought out.  They also require electricity or well-charged batteries.

Newspapers put the whole world right in front of us, and all that’s required is daylight.  They tell us who was born, who died, who will be missed, and who won’t be forgotten.  We can learn all of this from electronic media, but we have to hunt for it.  In a newspaper, it’s right there.

Demagogues and dictators fear nothing more than a free press.  Able to be read anywhere by anyone, newspapers can be shared, clipped from, quoted.  They have chronicled the best and the worst of human endeavor, preserved it.  They have rallied patriots, calmed fears, assuaged worries, hooted victory, lamented disaster.  A sensational headline is often worth keeping for posterity.  How does one preserve a digital image, a television report?  Who would want to?  If you did, would you drag it out 50 years later and tell a wide-eyed grandchild, “I remember when this happened”?

There is something about reading words printed on paper, knowing that they have been written by someone who cares and vetted by someone who thinks, that give them a heft no blog, web page, or sound bite can match.  Newspapers tell us who we are, where we have been, where we may be going.  The World Wide Web mostly tells us that our virtual memory is inadequate, and a cellphone reminds us that our batteries are low.

Not long ago, a technophilic colleague of mine declared that the print media are already dead.  He may be right.  I know that the days of cigar-chewing, fedora-wearing newshounds frantically pounding out a story to beat a deadline are as gone as newsboys shouting “EXTRA!” on street corners or anxious performers and politicians staying up all night to see what the morning editions may tell them about their fates.  If present trends continue, newspapers may soon become similar quaint archaisms, as much a part of the past as the corner bookstore and roadside diner, places people commonly went to read the paper.

I do hope, though, that the daily paper will someday reemerge in all its glory.  I don’t think that a free and literate people will ever completely abandon the need to be able to stand or sit down almost anywhere and unfold a daily edition of all the news that’s fit to print.  My best hope is that the daily newspaper will find a way to survive and to reassert itself as the penultimate public forum of, for, and by the people who just want to know.