Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

In digital age, recall beauty of paper

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
March 17, 2013 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
 A printing press spins out copies of a daily newspaper, an object handled by fewer and fewer people in a digital age, says Bob Greene
A printing press spins out copies of a daily newspaper, an object handled by fewer and fewer people in a digital age, says Bob Greene
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: With advent of digital age, paper use and demand has dropped like rock
  • In fact, by 2015 paper use could fall 21% -- and then over 40% more in the 15 years after
  • He says new ad campaign (you'll likely read online) makes plaintive case for paper's value
  • Greene: One can marvel at, use digital media, but save spot in your heart for beauty of paper

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- While the rest of the world last week was fixating on the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, waiting to see whether the smoke would be black or white, it wasn't the smoke that intrigued me.

It was the stuff that was making the smoke.

The cardinals, after casting their ballots in each round of voting for the new pope, burned those ballots, as is tradition. The burning ballots created the smoke the world witnessed billowing from the chimney.

The ballots, of course, were made of paper.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Which sometimes seems like an endangered species.

Had the cardinals voted on iPads, they couldn't very well have tossed the sleek tablets into the chapel's cast-iron stove.

Yet an all-but-paperless society is where some experts argue we are headed. The digital upheaval has gathered such force that every business that once depended on paper has felt the earth shift. Newspapers, magazine publishers, book companies, bookstores, offices of every kind ... the transition to digital is beginning to feel as profound as the revolution once ushered in by the invention of moveable type.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently noted the precipitous decline of the North American paper industry: "River towns in the forest from eastern Washington to the coast of Maine have lost more than 100 paper mills in a wave of consolidation in little more than a decade ... North American demand for three types of [coated] paper [has] fallen 21 percent." The Boston Business Journal last year quoted equity analyst Matt Arnold: "There's a secular shift to paperless. It's an overarching mind-set."

All of this echoes a 2011 projection by the research firm RISI, which advises the global forest products industry: "By 2015, most publishing paper end uses in North America, such as magazine, newspaper and book publishing, will fall 12-21 percent, compared to their 2010 levels." The firm went on to project "another 40-50 percent fall over the next 15 years."

Thus, there is a special fascination to a promotional campaign developed in recent years by Domtar, one of the world's largest manufacturers of paper. The campaign is not just for Domtar products -- it is for paper itself, no matter where it comes from or who sells it. The theme is: "Paper Because."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The campaign, hoping to persuade people, proclaims:

"Paper is good. Pass it on."

It offers heartfelt reasons:

"Paper means that you mean business."

"Paper is personal."

"Sometimes understanding the big picture means spreading it all out on the floor."

"Opening a nice envelope is surprisingly exciting."

I hasten to say that I'm not knocking those messages -- I agree with every word of them.

I just find it illuminating, and more than a little melancholy, that we have reached the point at which those messages are deemed necessary -- the point at which the paper industry feels a need to convince people that paper is important.

Before the digital age, the presence of such a campaign would have been puzzling. Tell people that paper is essential to their lives? What else were they supposed to write on -- rocks, using carving tools?

It would have been like running promotional campaigns for air, or for water. Such things did not need promotion -- they were indispensable.

(And, of course, there is the fact that, as clever and well executed as the "Paper Because" campaign is, I found it and browsed through it completely online, on a screen.)

A screen is where you are almost undoubtedly reading these words, too. But before I hit the button to send my editors every column, I print out a copy and do the editing and proofreading by hand, on sheets of paper, with a pen. I love the breadth and scope of CNN's digital reach -- the speed and efficiency with which the stories on this site are delivered around the globe makes me think of it as a planetary paperboy with the strongest arm in the world.

But there's something about paper. I'm currently about halfway through a copy of Time magazine, cover date September 25, 1950 (yes, I'm a little behind on my reading, but I'm slowly catching up). I'll often buy old magazines not just because I find them to be a wonderful way to delve randomly into America's history at precise moments in time, but also because, at the end of a day spent staring at shifting, constantly updating images on multiple screens, there is something calming about holding carefully laid out and edited sheets of paper, and luxuriating in the steadiness of it all.

Maybe you're the same way. Maybe not. Perhaps the magic of paper, and all it has always represented, is something you could just as well do without -- a source of clutter and mustiness.

But as magazines and newspapers and books and business offices and schools make their inexorable leap into the digital future, there's nothing wrong with acknowledging just how nice the tactile, comforting, here-when-you-want-me world of words and pictures on paper has been, even while recognizing and appreciating the marvels of the new way.

I'm very glad that you've found your way to these words on whatever screen you may be reading them, and I don't think any of us are fooling ourselves into thinking the paper-to-digital course will suddenly be reversed. To use a phrase connected to another once-ubiquitous part of our daily lives: That train has left the station.

But you have to hope that the departure has not been total, or at least that it won't become total for a good, long time. In that promotional campaign, there is one line that is meant to be perky and cheerful -- a line that somehow also sounds kind of bittersweet:

"Hi. I'm paper. Remember me?"

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT