What if Internet had come before newspapers?

Kenneth A. Paulson, president and chief operating officer of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., delivered a speech to The National Press Club in January of this year. The speech came on the last day of Paulson’s tenure as editor of USA Today, America’s top-selling newspaper, and we think his words are particularly insightful this week during National Newspaper Week.

        Here is a portion of his speech text, reprinted with his permission:

        There seems to be a collective sense, both inside and outside the newspaper industry, that news in print is about to disappear.

        I do think there’s room for some perspective. Yes, it’s true that there have been significant layoffs at America’s newspapers, but there have also been huge layoffs at Home Depot and no one is predicting the demise of hammers.

        You have to separate the troubled economy from the special challenges facing the news industry, and it’s important that we not undervalue the power of print.

        I can certainly understand why newspapers are not viewed as trendy. After all, they were really the Ipods of 1690.

        But humor me, and consider this alternate history: Imagine if Gutenberg had invented a digital modem rather than a printing press, and that for centuries all of our information had come to us online.

        Further, imagine if we held a press conference announcing the invention of an intriguing new product called the “newspaper.”

        That press conference might go something like this:

        “We’re pleased to announce a new product that will revolutionize the way you access information. It will save you time and money and keep you better informed than ever before.

        “Just consider the hours you’ve spent on the Internet looking for information of interest to you. We’ve hired specialists who live and work in your hometown to cull information sources and provide a daily report tailored to your community, your friends and your neighbors.

        “We also know that you sometimes wonder whether you can trust the information you see online. We plan to introduce a painstaking new process called ‘fact-checking’ in which we actually verify the information before we pass it along to you.

        “In addition to saving time online, you’ll also save money. You won’t need those expensive color ink cartridges or reams of paper because information will be printed out for you in full color every day.

        “You’ll also save money on access charges and those unpleasant fights over who gets time on the computer because this product will be physically delivered to your home at the same time each day, for less than what you would tip the guy from Pizza Hut.

        “You worry about your kids stumbling across porn on the Internet, but this product is pre-screened and guaranteed suitable for the whole family.

        “And in a security breakthrough, we guarantee newspapers to be absolutely virus-free, and promise the elimination of those annoying pop-up ads.

        “It’s also the most portable product in the world, and doesn’t require batteries or electricity. And when the flight attendant tells you to turn off your electronic devices, you can actually turn this on, opening page after page without worrying about interfering with the plane’s radar.

        “To top it all off, you don’t need a long-term warranty or service protection program. If you’re not happy with this product on any day, we’ll redesign it and bring you a new one the next day.”

        I can see the headlines now: “Cutting-edge newspapers threaten Google’s survival.”

        My point, of course, is that newspapers remain an extraordinary information bargain and we shouldn’t be selling them short — or lose sight of the qualities that make American journalism so critical to our democracy.