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 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT