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In the course of any dinner conversation with friends or colleagues, the subject of media usually comes up, soon followed by The Question: When will print publications become obsolete? If the Internet gives us access to publications from around the globe on topics so diverse they couldn’t possibly fit in a newsstand or our mailbox, why bother reading them in print?

Most people of a certain age (meaning: older) will simply shake their head at The Question, taking the stance that this is a subject not open to debate. Their media habits are ingrained. They read the New York Times in print every morning, come hell or high water. They like the format. They like the feel of it, the touch of the paper, slipping page after page through their fingers, without a worry about ink-stained fingers.

They even like the surprise, the happy accident of finding a story in the Sports or Lifestyle section they wouldn’t have sought out in an online search or browsing session. They like the idea that a team of well paid editors are sitting in a room — formerly smoke-filled — arguing over which stories should make print, should make the front page, should get their attention. While they might well be smart enough to make their own decisions on which story is important each day, they are fine with outsourcing that decision to someone else.

There’s also the convenience factor. They want to take the paper with them on the train to work, they want to be able to read it where and when they want at their leisure, without having to be hunched over a computer monitor. If there’s one thing that most people can agree on, it’s that the form factor of a computer screen (and computer desk) is not conducive to lengthy reads. Most print publications have a disposable feel to them. We carry it around until we’re done and pass it on to someone else or to the recycling bin.

But with magazines comes a different set of habits and rituals. People who really love a particular magazine, especially the high-gloss, high-design type such as Wired or Vanity Fair, might keep those magazines on a special shelf and collect them forever. The printed magazine delights their senses of touch and sight as much as stimulating their intellect. Each glossy page feels so distinct, so thick and bursting with color, tactile and real as opposed to the virtual pixels on a computer screen that are so fleeting. Each in-depth story has a heft that feels solid, feels permanent, feels almost like it belongs in a book.

And that brings me to another important point about our addiction to print. Our kids are taught in school from Day 1 about the importance of the written word, the importance of reading books, the importance of literacy. While computers are infiltrating classrooms at every level, no one talks about children’s books becoming obsolete because of technology. Despite all the attempts to bring mass acceptance to e-books, the print book publishing industry remains a powerhouse and there is no denying the power of the simple, unelectronic book for imparting knowledge or entertainment on a day spent lounging at the beach or sitting on a plane.

Hating Print

And yet, there are people of a more delicate age (meaning: younger) who want to jump all over The Question. What’s in a newspaper that’s of interest to them? Why do they have to fill their heads with negative news about war and suffering? They can go online and get any news they want, filter it through an RSS news reader, or a social media site such as Digg, or just read the blogs that fit their lifestyle: liberal, moderate, conservative, libertarian, gossip, baseball, fashion, humor, etc.

The print publication they adore the most, The Onion, was made popular by its website and pass-around emails. Even alternative weekly newspapers, built on the premise that young folks need to know about hip events around town, feel like they’re in a mid-life crisis catering to middle-aged folks, while the younger set finds what they want through social networks and be-friending their favorite bands on MySpace.

The digital natives don’t mind getting information they want online or on their mobile phones. It’s natural and effortless. The print habit was not ingrained into them from birth, because digital media has been around for more than 10 years, and has always been an option right alongside print from the moment they could read.

I was recently playing videogames with my 5-year-old son at the Sony Playstation store. I know he doesn’t play videogames that often, but his ability to play them is almost built into his DNA. I don’t remember ever explaining to him how to use a computer mouse, or how to use a videogame controller. It was a natural impulse from the moment he picked one up. And the same is true for digital natives who expect to be informed and entertained in a digital medium vs. print.

While I do subscribe to many of the pro-print arguments above — and I am indeed a person of a certain older age — I also can’t help but wonder about the harsh environmental impact of all these newspapers and glossy magazines. It’s much cheaper, much easier, much less carbon-intensive to deliver news and information online vs. in print. Print publications demand the destruction of trees and forests, not to mention the energy expended in delivering them to your doorstep.

So I’m left hanging when it comes to answering The Question with any kind of finality. I know there are plenty of tech-savvy older folks who hate print publications, just as there are plenty of tech-unsavvy younger folks who love print publications. Nothing is monolithic or as stereotypical as we hope as opinion-writers trying to suss out a trend.

I know I am addicted to print, and can’t imagine replicating the newspaper-reading experience online somehow. While I don’t subscribe to any print magazines, I still enjoy reading them when I find them at a conference, in an airport, or on a friend’s coffee table. Even a magazine in serious format decline such as Time or Newsweek somehow makes the ugly wait for a doctor seem tolerable.

I wonder if the problem is more with The Question than with the wavering answers. Perhaps it’s not about figuring out when print publications will become obsolete, but more about figuring out how our media habits are changing, how we are mixing in the digital with the analog, what place print publications will have in our future media diets. I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon, but I also doubt they will remain the same as they ever were.

What do you think? What makes you addicted (or over) print publications? How do you see them evolving along with digital publications, and how is your media diet changing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of newspaper reader by Navpreet Amole via Flickr.