Paper is an island of peace in the digital "chaos" and an "emerging strength" for media which demands much more examination, a leading American media critic told the annual Readership Conference of the World Association of Newspapers in Amsterdam on Thursday, 16 October.

"The world needs ­ desperately needs ­ what newspapers do," said William Powers, the media columnist for The Nation magazine in the United States, and author of Hamlet's Blackberry, an essay on the enduring power of paper.

Digital media have well-known advantages, but many people often overlook the things that print does better, he said. Newspapers would do well to exploit these qualitative advantages. Among other things, paper: "frees up the brain to think," he said.

"Paper"s great strength is that it allows the mind to "settle down" into that peaceful deep-dive state in which we do our best thinking. This state is much harder to achieve when we"re reading in the digital medium, where there is endless information, and so many possible tasks to undertake at any moment. On the internet, there is no beginning and no end."

Though the limitless internet is "wonderful in many ways," its vastness is also its "greatest flaw", said Mr Powers, who is currently writing on book on the history and enduring appeal of paper.

"When you"re reading an article on a screen, your mind is conscious of all the other information that"s just a click away ­ from your inbox to the latest headlines to your bank account to a billion YouTube videos. Thus, instead of escaping other demands on your attention as you read, you are mentally fending off those demands every moment you"re at the screen."

The fact the paper is "disconnected from the digital grid" isn"t a negative attribute ­ it"s paper"s "secret weapon" and bears scrutiny, he said.

"In a multi-tasking world, where pure focus is harder and harder to come by, I believe print media"s seclusion from the Web is an emerging strength. Paper is a still-point for the consciousness, an escape from the never-ending busyness and burdens of the screen. It"s an island in the chaos. Rather than "everything all the time," paper"s slogan could be "Just this one thing."

Mr Powers said newspapers should do more to increase the public"s awareness of such issues.

"Much of the media coverage of digital technology reads like product marketing. New digital devices are released, and journalists cover them the way they cover new movies. There"s a cheerleading to the whole exercise, an air of hype," he said.

"By focusing almost exclusively on what"s new and hot in the technology marketplace, we are missing the larger picture. We aren"t helping people understand and organise their technological lives. I think this is an area where the public craves insight and guidance that they"re not receiving. It"s crucial that we all learn to think more intelligently about our devices. Not just how they work, but how they fit into our lives. We need to ensure that the devices work for us, rather than us working for them."

Mr Powers was the keynote speaker at the 11th Readership Conference, which drew hundreds of newspaper executives to Amsterdam to examine strategies for increasing newspaper readership, in both print and digital platforms, in difficult times. His full presentation can be downloaded here.

Summaries of all conference presentations can be found here.