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In Praise Of Print Versions



There must be a word to describe that mixed sense of despondency and dread one feels when faced with information overload in the Internet era. It's how you feel when there are just too many tweets to read or when the number of unread articles in your RSS feed hits the thousands and you're forced to hit "mark all as read." The only way to describe it is: bankruptcy.
Printing articles out (old school and perhaps environmentally unsound, I know) has helped me deal with that overload. Despite owning an iPad and a Kindle, I still like to print out an article to read later. It's part of my whole online-offline experience. I feel a little sense of satisfaction when I see the print icon, and then a little more when the print version is tightly formatted, with few ads, no endless pages of reader comments, or odd breaks where unprintable Java-based things once lived.
Despite being comfortable reading long-form on my mobile devices, I still print for a few reasons: it's an old habit that's hard to shake; when I read something on paper instead of online I feel less distracted by pings or email or Facebook; sometimes it can prove to be a form of procrastination -- the print version languishes in my bag for a rainy day but the rainy day never comes.
Unlike the infinite Web, with its many paths and cul de sacs of distracting pleasure, printing articles out offers something finite. I would print three out a night to read and that would be that. An end was always in sight, unlike the endless scrolling on Flipboard, and the seemingly infinite amount of articles being thrust at me by my social networks.
These days, however, you see the print icon less and less, especially on blogs, and I think that trend will continue as we move further into tablet territory. Of the top 10 U.S. newspaper websites (by print circulation) all of them still have print buttons. But of the top 10 U.S. tech blogs, only 4 have print buttons.
There is no doubt a reasonable rationale for this: blogs are serving up shorter, more multimedia-rich content, which more people are reading on their phones or tablets. There is perhaps also an environmental imperative, just like those email disclaimers asking you to think before printing. The print version and icon is perhaps seen as a remnant of the "horseless carriage" days of the Internet, a little reassurance that it was really just your newspaper in another form and, yes, you could hold it in your own hands if you wanted. Or as one designer friend said, "a case of the fuddy duddies who used to deem this important gradually dying off or doing other things with their careers and designers indulging the ones who remain less and less."
I asked one of RFE/RL's resident design gurus, Camilla Hawthorne, what she thought and she had this to say:
It's probably a deliberate move...I imagine it's a combination of factors: environmental concerns, plus a realization that more content sharing happens online these days anyway so it's better to try and keep people on the site. Besides, from a design perspective there are already so many "share" buttons cluttering up articles. When you triage it, "print" would make sense as the first one to be dumped.
Then again, designers really need to think about "print this" from a cultural/digital ethnography perspective. You and I probably don't print articles to share them with people, but I can imagine lots of environments in which information-sharing happens online and offline -- because of technological limitations, lack of widespread access, security concerns, etc.
Of course, web purists might argue that print versions aren't the real Web: there are no hyperlinks, I can not share paper on Twitter instantaneously nor social bookmark it. But if there is an environmental reasoning behind it, it is flawed. The lack of a print icon doesn't stop me from printing -- I just end up printing an unformatted page with ads and comments, which can turn a one-page article into a 20-page print job, with only half of those pages having anything more than a banner ad at the top of the page. So if you really want to save paper, add a print button.
There's a welcome and growing realization that long-form journalism can exist on the Web and a hope that mobile devices will be the delivery platform of choice. But I hope the print button doesn't get thrown out in that transition. It does represent a welcome respite from the distractions of the Web and still has a place in an online-offline ecosystem. After all, what is paper but a very basic, very mobile, and recyclable tablet. Which reminded me of the ad above.
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