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
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT