08/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Charging for the Air We Breathe

I checked in to a Courtyard (owned by Marriott) this week and a sign on the front desk alerted me to the fact that beginning earlier this spring Marriott Corp had discontinued free distribution of USA Today to hotel rooms. The newspaper would still be available to guests free of charge in the lobby. The good news, said the sign, is that Marriott's carbon footprint would be reduced by 10,350 metric tons per year thanks to the newspaper cut-back.

Newspapers can't buy a break; not only are fewer people reading them, it appears curbing a newspaper appetite may be good for you.

Marriott did the math and determined demand for newspapers at their hotels had dropped 25% over the years. They were feeling badly about throwing them out at the end of each day. Fortunately, I learned from their press release, Marriott Reward Members can still request automatic delivery of a newspaper, which I will do. I really only read newspapers when I travel, notably USA Today, and I miss that benefit.

The relationship between Marriott and USA Today goes back over 20 years. It helped to define USA Today as a business traveler's newspaper and then solidify its position as the Nation's Newspaper. Media planners would occasionally question the validity of the hotel distribution -- called "Blue Chip" by USA Today, and which also included distribution in other chains such as Sheraton -- but based on my own experience as a business traveler, with long wait times in office lobbies and airports, no portion of the circulation was ever likely more valuable to advertisers.

That said, there is the niggling fact that guest requests for newspapers went down 25% from where they had been. What displaced them, one must wonder? Business travel conditions did not improve over the years. It is still a long wait in lines and lobbies, which create perfect conditions for the portable, comprehensive and even colorfully dramatic role of newspapers. Is the answer obvious?

Is it digital mobility? Mobile telephones? Blackberry? iPhones? iTunes? In-room, on-demand movies? 24 hour news channels? Wireless laptop technology? Elevator TVs? Taxicab TVs? Airport TVs? All of the above?

It occurs to me that in 1995 when O.J. appeared in court to hear the jury's verdict in his trial for the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman I was able to listen to the entire proceedings walking from Grand Central Station on 42nd and Lexington to my office at 44th and 3rd at mid-day in New York City. All the windows and doors of all the stores and taxi cabs were open that day and all the radios and TVs tuned to the same thing. It was surreal. It was surround sound. I heard it all as well as if I was listening through earphones plugged into my real-time streaming Internet connection.

That says the answer to the question for newspapers -- and information generally -- is probably all of the above. The conditions that existed for that one instant during the O.J. Simpson verdict exist continuously today. We are a super-interested species and news and information is everywhere. It surrounds us. It radiates. We absorb it through the skin.

I'm not sure what that means for carbon footprints, but it can be truly said we live in a news environment. It has to make you wonder, therefore, how anyone thinks they will be successful charging for the air we breathe.