A few weeks ago, a stack of newspaper landed on my doorstep, the first time I'd seen the medium get delivered to my home in years. It wasn't the newspaper, but a newspaper nonetheless: the Arkitip Intel Newspaper Supplement, Vol. 1, gathers contributions from the art journal's 20 bloggers on a 64-page, 22 x 11-inch broadsheet publication. They even put together a beautiful video about its production, starring a real, live printing press.
Arkitip has always striven to make its limited-edition magazines affordable, according to founder and creative director Scott A. Sant' Angelo, but newsprint offered even more room to play. "This price-point encouraged us to experiment with a few new ideas, and the inherent imperfection of this method of reproduction yielded all sorts of happy surprises," he says. "Working with printers whose experience has mostly been with local news publications and supermarket mailers also put our design and layout sensibilities through an entirely different filter." It also gave each contributor a platform to prove that high-gloss is not always necessary for viewing high-quality work. "By putting a quality publication that's printed on newsprint in the hands of our customers and on the shelves of our stock lists, we hope we're helping to legitimize the format as a medium for art publications." (Kyle Blue turned his spread into a public art map of San Francisco, below.)
But throughout the process, Sant' Angelo was surprised to learn much, much more about the magical medium-and the industry that drives it. "Over the last 20 years, newspaper publishers have largely taken it upon themselves to environmentally optimize their production lines with the installation of de-inking equipment to paper machines and drastic increases in the levels of recycled fiber used," he says. "We knew that newspaper is one of the most efficiently recycled materials, but were surprised to find out that it's often more economical and environmental to recycle it into other products such as cereal boxes, egg cartons, and grocery bags than to ship it out-of-state to distant mills for recycle into new newsprint." Suddenly a publication printed on newsprint, by a local press, makes much more of a statement that just what's printed upon it.
Newspapers as an industry may be in decline, but the newspaper as a form is being seized with delight by new generation of designers. In 2008, the "post-digital" collective Really Interesting Group tickled the blogosphere by collecting online stories and images and publishing them as Things Our Friends Have Written on the Internet 2008. It wasn't a statement about the languishing newspaper industry, in fact, it was quite the opposite. "Blogs aren't killing journalism," says co-creator Ben Terrett. "That's just a false comparison, like saying radio's killing comedy. Blogs, like newspapers, are a tool, a channel, a medium. They have advantages and disadvantages. We wanted to see whether you could combine blogs and newspapers in a way that would get the most benefit from both of them." And in keeping with that spirit, he says he must politely decline when people ask for a copy as a PDF.
The group's love for newsprint runs so deep that they have recently launched the Newspaper Club, a service that will help people design and produce their own newspapers. One component of this club will be creating "bespoke newspapers," limited-run publications like the one above-eight essays published for the BBC-or an upcoming piece for the book publisher Penguin. "Newsprint is a great medium," says Terrett, who encourages fans of newsprint to watch the site closely. "Newspapers might be in decline as a business or industry-and note, that 'in decline' is not the same as 'dying'-but the ink on newsprint is still an awesome format."
Whether a clever play on its predecessors, or providing a creative outlet for a designer who usually pushes pixels, newsprint is adaptable, flexible and cheap. And as a material, you can't get much more sustainable: its shape-shifting ability to morph back into itself, or melt into the soil of your vegetable garden, makes it the one medium that is 100% disposable. This very publication has experimented with that aspect, recently on the GOOD Sheets, which you may have seen nestled by the register at your local Starbucks. These tiny squares of newspaper provide a perfectly digestible bit of information while waiting for your pumpkin spice latte. To produce them out of any other material would be pointless; people-except for designers, who will keep an infographic about the U.S.'s closest elections-are going to toss (hopefully recycle) these. That's okay. Take it or leave it. Yet in newsprint's infinite utilitarianism, a GOOD Sheet actually may have multiple lives: could also be used as a coaster, an emergency notepad, a method for sopping up your pumpkin spice latte when it take a tumble in the car. Non-precious and place-specific, it's an ideal twist on coffee and the morning paper.
In 2007, Cahan Associates swept pretty much every annual report category in every design award on the planet for the Gap's 2005-2006 Social Sustainability Report. This 100% recyclable piece not only turned the annual report world on its ear-a land of foiled, French-bound, matte-finished extravagance-it asked its readers to sit up and take notice. "The large-format, black-and-white photography and 40-pound text paper stock give it the feeling of a newspaper, and therefore, a serious subject," designer Bill Cahan told STEP in 2007. I loved this piece, and was anxiously awaiting the next edition. But the next time the report was released, on July 31 of this year, it was in an online-only form. What happened in those two years? Did a zero-waste policy go into effect, or did the "feeling of a newspaper" lose some cultural heft?
The newsworthy quality of newsprint originally piqued the interest of Project M, who published a newsprint piece for Buy a Meter, a campaign to help connect residents to the municipal water supply in Hale County, Alabama. (I wrote about their process for GOOD two years ago: "Real World Studio.") Here it was also a matter of necessity: Newsprint was pretty much the only printing option for the designers, who wanted to produce the piece locally. But I'll never forget the other qualities they mentioned loving about the medium: Its messiness-by the time you're finished reading it your fingers are dirtied and black-and its fragility-the piece would start to disintegrate with the slightest bit of water or sun-both of which they thought brought their experience of working in rural Alabama directly to the reader.
Last week, I was in the Michigan offices of the furniture company Herman Miller (disclosure: I was there working for them) where this rather antiquarian device stood out among the Eames and Nelson pieces. For the last three years, the company has published Spirit, a 40-page publication covering the vast community and environmental work done by its employees. They specifically picked a newspaper format for its democratic qualities-cheap, immediate egalitarian-and specifically decided not to put the paper online, for a reason that I'm embarrassed to say was not immediately obvious to me. "Not everyone at Herman Miller has a computer or consults one at work," editor Clark Malcolm, told me. "The tactile part of reading Spirit contributes to its impact." And there was a far more interesting reason: "We also wanted something people could take home to their families." Sure, a glossy printout, a hand-written notecard, a marbleized certificate might all have been a nice way for Herman Miller to thank its employees for their service. But that employee's contributions suddenly become so much more valuable to them, to their community, to their families, when they become "the news."