Monday, February 1, 2010
On Reading a Newspaper (on paper, again)
I flew back from Los Angeles to New York yesterday and had a novel experience: reading two Sunday papers the old-fashioned way, on paper, section by section. I used to read the New York Times regularly, religiously, on the weekend in paper form, but that ritual ended when a delivery service could not dependably deliver my paper (in a downtown Manhattan apartment building, no less; and much to the incredulous chagrin of the Times circulation office). For the last two years or so, I’ve been reading it at nytimes.com and on my iPhone.
So with substantial but now, with each passing weekend, increasingly receding experience with newspapers on paper, I picked up both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times as I was boarding my flight. The cost was not insignificant, $8.25 for the two, and neither was the weight. I did so in part out of nostalgia but also out of curiosity: I regularly find myself in discussions about the future of newspaper, print and journalism and I realized that I had not immersed myself in print in some time.
While I didn’t read every article or word, I spent most of my five hours on-board with the papers. Along the way, and reflecting afterward, I had various thoughts and reactions. Most are familiar and have even been the subject of careful research (I myself share insights on such matters to the NYT). Yet returning to print personally was, I must say, instructive, for the directness if not freshness of ideas that otherwise have been well-analyzed in the abstract. It was also enjoyable.
Here are some reactions:
1. The feel of the paper
There is a feel of paper in the hands that transcends the experience on the eyes (and the efforts of “e-ink” designers to replicate). There was a tangibility and texture that was different from any screen or device I’ve used. And then there’s the gritty charm of blackened fingers.
2. Having the news organized for you
Online news is also organized, in many cases, into subjects like the sections of print papers. Yet the physical coherence of the paper sections and the contiguity of multiple, related stories on a single or facing broadsheet pages offered a more coherent impression around that subject than I’m used to. The NYT Book Review is a great example of this, with page after page of happy discoveries. If only as an occasional variation, I liked having others do the work of organizing that I otherwise enjoy doing myself through clicks and links. Perhaps like the mix of movies, where one ordinarily gives oneself over to the storyteller, and games or websurfing or mobile apps, where one is in greater control of the narrative journey, print and digital news may offer a pleasing variety.
3. More diversity in what I read
It’s counter-intuitive, but I felt like I was reading more diverse stories in the print papers than I would have on my Mac. This is also somewhat a matter of control and our own filters. Though advantages abound in personalizing our digital news, it’s also a process that excludes much that we either don’t like, care about or agree with. I ordinarily might not read online about extremists in the Russian republic of Dagestan but did so with interest in the front section of the NYT.
4. Fewer perspectives in print
If I read more diverse topics, I nevertheless found fewer perspectives about each individual topic in the print stories. Maybe this is inevitable. The glory of digital news is that it’s unending: on a given topic, the immediate links and then the limitless searching beyond multiplies the viewpoints around the story. Some might say that not all perspectives are equal and that print offers a knowledgeable summary, but ultimately I felt limited while reading stories I couldn’t immediately pursue details of as I wished.
One of the crucially missing perspectives, for me, concerns the press itself. Reading about Davos in the NYT, where the focus was on the lack of trust expressed in institutions expressed at the World Economic Forum, I couldn’t but wonder about the role of media and journalism itself in covering the leaders and pronouncements there. Besides the carefully positioned voice of the Public Editor, a reflexivity around journalistic practice seemed lacking in print that is – sometimes excessively among aggregators and bloggers -- abundant online.
5. Losing myself in the source
Without that reflexivity, and the skepticism it engenders, my print papers impressed me as more authoritative. The consistency of style and voice and presentation all contribute to a kind of intellectual coherence that’s utterly lacking across multiple digital sources. While some say that the web has a flattening effect, for instance, and makes the information on nearly all sites seem similar if not the same, most thoughtful friends of mine are very attentive to the site they’re on and the source of information it represents. (I know there are also claims about generational differences here, with alarmists saying digital natives don’t distinguish their sources, but my experience teaching college undergraduates suggests exactly the opposite.)
6. I wanted analysis not headlines
Despite leaving my hotel before 6am, I had already thoroughly perused the day’s headlines on netvibes, digg, iGoogle, and my Google Reader. By the time, I sat down on the plane, in other words, I already knew most of the major, timely news of the previous night and now early morning. What I didn’t yet have was good analysis, background or context for those stories. I hadn’t clicked through and read more about those headlines that interested me. That meant I was eager, when reading print news, to have deeper analysis and thoughtful mixing of perspectives. Again, with the two papers I was carrying, especially on a Sunday, I was mostly satisfied with longer stories. It’s ironic, though, at the very time print papers are needing to scale back because of advertising and business challenges, that more and better analysis beyond the headlines seemed a worthy differentiator. (Interestingly, this same argument for less time-critical analysis has been raised by some who suggest weekly magazines may fare better in print than daily newspapers.)
7. Reading the articles more closely
Maybe it’s the lack of links, boxes with related content, or even separate windows that can distract from reading news on the web or mobile – grazing for digital news can be fun – but I find myself more concentrated on individual stories. Of course it could also be they were better written or laid our more appealingly. (Or perhaps being on a plane further reduced my usual distractions.) Put another way, while both turning print pages and clicking digital ones are both physical acts required to advance one’s way in reading news, handling the papers and read their stories, with a certain stillness, felt different and allowed me to focus more.
8. I miss the interaction
The saddest section in both the NY Times and the LA Times has to be the letters to the editor. This is not to say they’re unimportant or unintelligent. As a form of interaction, though, they seem like letters lost in the past when compared with the instantaneous opportunities not just for comments and readers’ responses to news stories online but to blogs, Facebook posts, and the whole gamut of possible digital mass information collaboration. More generally, print – and not only because I was on a plane without wireless – offers fewer opportunities, certainly immediate, direct ones, for responding to what’s being read than digital.
9. Loving the local stories
Perhaps it’s my own selection of digital information sources, but I tend not to follow much local news online. It’s there but most of my attention, particularly in the analysis and commentaries about news, tends to focus on larger stages. My focus on the local tends to be more on social an cultural matters and to come through (often localized) social sites like Yelp, Going and Facebook. One of my favorite stories in print was the complicated search for a new animal services manager in Los Angeles in the LA Times. Really interesting issues but probably never would have read it online. Makes me think about hyperlocal services like everyblock.com, outside.in and Patch and all they offer.
10. Print ads are cool
I paid a lot of attention to ads in the print papers. Of course, they’re what papers have fewer and fewer of these days. But they’re also big, many of them are beautiful, and they’re part of the layout. I’m accustomed to ignoring digital ads and rarely click on them. Yet in print, the positioning of ads makes them part of the flow of reading that’s very different from digital banners or sites that are a click away. Even more, the NYT magazine, with its glossy color ads, shows off the lushness of print that wowed me even more than large-screen computer displays of online ads. Of course, video ads are absent (as of now) but for the most part they’re still a click away or unwanted or at least not integral to the layout of the digital realm the way ads are in print.
As most of these suggest, my readings left me appreciating the sometimes distinct, sometimes overlapping advantages of both print and digital news. There is a physical feel, a coherent voice, and a most digital news doesn't replicate, despite my own efforts at aggregation and curation. My takeaway was that continuing to read news on multiple platforms, including print (not to mention TV and radio), is valuable precisely it provokes thinking about how we gather and process and filter what we learn and know about the world around us. Yes, business models and public information are important and necessary to consider, but news should also help us to understand who we are individually and as communities. Besides probably returning to print occasionally in the future, my transcontinental experiment made me pause and think about how and what of the stories and sources that I otherwise hungrily consume and process in digital form. It was a good flight.