New York: For those of us who cherish the habit of a newspaper over coffee each morning, the gloomy harbingers are mounting: the Web-only reconfiguration or total collapse in the US of hoary nameplates such as The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News; the $800 million bailout for French newspapers proposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy; and layoffs and page consolidations at papers everywhere—including at my employer, The New York Times.
Pressing concern: A copy of the final edition of the New York Sun at a New York newsstand on 30 September. In an increasingly carbon-conscious world, newspapers have another sort of sustainability to worry about. Bloomberg
Says Paul Gillin, the operator of the website Newspaper Death Watch: In an electronically mediated world, where frictionless access to information is the norm, “the high fixed cost of print publishing makes the major metro newspaper business model unsustainable”.
Insiders and armchair analysts might quibble over the real root of the industry's woes, but a move last week by Marriott International, the global hotel and resort chain, suggested that, in an increasingly carbon-conscious world, newspapers have another sort of sustainability to worry about.
The hotelier announced that it would no longer deliver newspapers automatically to the doors of its guests.
Guests who request delivery of a paper will still receive one, the company said. Those who don’t, won’t.
The reason for the change? As my colleague, James Kanter, noted at our Green Inc. blog, it wasn’t simply due to lack of interest on the part of guests—though the company’s chief executive, J.W. Marriott, suggested in a statement that he was too often “stepping over unclaimed newspapers as I walk down the hallway”.
In its official announcement, the firm also said this: “Based on preliminary data, the company projects that newspaper distribution will be reduced by about 50,000 papers daily or 13 million papers annually, thereby avoiding 10,350 tonnes of carbon emissions.”
“Stop the presses,” I thought to myself—and then: “to save the planet?”
There are plenty of reasons to believe that noting the carbon savings was a specious move on Marriott’s part—a bit of green spin on an otherwise straightforward cost-cutting measure. But the implication was inescapable: The decline in newspaper readership was being expressed as an environmental victory.
Some of our online readers at Green Inc. agreed.
“It’s an excuse to save money, which it will, but it will also reduce environmental impact,” wrote Russ Finley. “Win-win.”
Another reader, named Rick, said: “Newspapers are bad for the environment. Now it’s been said out loud. Let them fail.”
“Forsake the paper, save the planet,” he added.
But are such assertions accurate? Not exactly—or at least, not all the time. Not yet.
As several of our readers pointed out, weighing the environmental and climate impacts of a physical newspaper against the impacts of its online manifestation is profoundly complex. Life-cycle analyses for both forms of distribution—that is, the detailed accounting of impacts at every stage of a product’s life, from creation to use to disposal— remain few and far between.
One study, published in 2004, compared the cradle-to-grave environmental implications of reading The New York Times the old-fashioned way with reading it on a personal digital assistant, or PDA. The conclusion: Receiving the news on a PDA results in big reductions in the release of carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen and sulfur oxides.
Not certain that consumers were reading newspapers on PDAs as much as browsing the news using computers and laptops, I asked Michael W. Toffel, a co-author of that study and a fellow at Harvard University’s environmental economics programme, whether he had crunched the numbers.
He had not, but in venturing a guess, Toffel said it was likely that computers would still win an environmental showdown with newsprint. “Paper manufacturing and distribution is so water- and energy-intense,” he said. “I think it would be hard to overcome that.”
Discouraged, I turned to a more recent analysis, published in 2007 out of the KTH Center for Sustainable Communications in Stockholm.
That study compared a print newspaper with its Web counterpart—as well as with a version delivered to an electronic tablet reader—in an abbreviated sort of life-cycle analysis that considered major inputs such as energy used for editorial work, production of paper or electronic components and so forth.
The results were interesting.
Time spent online, for instance, mattered. So, too, did the locale. In the Swedish market alone, reading the news online for 10 minutes, or even for 30 minutes, or using the tablet reader, resulted in lower CO2 emissions than reading a physical newspaper.
In the wider European market, however, things were different. Using the tablet or reading online for just 10 minutes generated less CO2 than the printed product. But when the time spent reading online was increased to 30 minutes, the printed product proved more eco-friendly.
What does this mean? Hard to say. Certainly differences in power generation matter.
About two-thirds of Sweden’s energy, for example, comes from nuclear or hydropower—both of which produce negligible carbon dioxide emissions. That means using electricity to read the news online there is less costly in climate terms.
Make the baseline all of Europe, however—with its more widespread use of natural gas and coal in power generation—and the picture changes.
One might reasonably conclude that the same would be true in the coal-rich US. At some temporal tipping point, might reading a newspaper online become a greater resource drain and climate burden than tucking into a printed edition over that hot cup of coffee?
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES