We were having some irritating problems with our home delivery of the New York Times so over a period of about 12 weeks I went back and forth between reading the Times online and in hard copy. Reading the newspaper for a few days in one medium and then switching to another has enabled me to recognize some contrasts in the newspaper reading experience between paper and screen.
What I’m talking about is a once-a-day review of the news that many people do in the morning or evening, not the constant grazing for “new” news or to follow a breaking story that so many of us now do using computers or computer-like devices. I like to read the hard copy of the newspaper over tea and breakfast (but after I have checked my email, Twitter and Facebook), but when it doesn’t arrive, I end up going through it online as soon as check my social media.
For all three of the major differences I find in the online and hard copy reading experience, I prefer the hard copy in each case, as follows:
1. It takes longer to read a full newspaper online: It takes a long time to do all that clicking back and forth, from the home or section page to the article to the second part of the article back to the home/section page and on to another article. I have a pretty new computer, but sometimes there is still a 5 or 10 second delay before the copy appears on the screen. Using a finger to scroll around also takes a lot of time. Reading the hard copy is much faster because you just scan with your eyes, then turn the page.
2. An online newspaper makes it easier for people to avoid the news they don’t want to read: When I leaf through a hard copy of the newspaper, I see everything that the editors want me to see on every page, what the Times calls “All the news that’s fit to print.” I might only want to read the headline, but it’s pretty hard to avoid the first sentence, photograph and large pull-out quotes. Thus by leafing through the paper, you get the world, albeit the world according to one view. By contrast, once you get past the home page, it’s much easier to skip articles or even whole sections of most online versions of the newspaper.
3. A sense of time is lost online: The hard copy newspaper represents a point in time that is repeated every 24 hours. On the Internet, stories are constantly updated, so it’s easy to lose sense of the chronology of the news unfolding after the events occur. The constant updating also can lead to errors as media outlets compete with each other to be the first to bring the news to the public’s attention. More problematic is the ease at which stories can hang around, especially at news aggregators that decide what to post based on the popularity of articles. Often you see a story that looks new, but it’s really days and sometimes even weeks old. This loss of a sense of time distorts the long-term significance of news stories.
I’m not condemning online news. I routinely follow stories during the day online, and peruse all the news via Google News and Yahoo! twice a day (but only after I have read the Times). I do think, however, that the gradual replacement of the hard copy of the daily newspaper by online reading off a screen represents a decline in the quality of life and is leading to an electorate that has lost some of its ability to sort out the chronology of events.
I want to close with another of my occasional news story comparisons. It’s sad to consider what the following comparison says about our society, the level of public discourse and the collective wisdom of our editors in prioritizing information.
Here are the two sets of information I fed into the Google News search box some weeks ago. In each case, I used the minimum number of words I thought it would take to produce a result:
Story: Some photographer took photos of the wife of the grandson of the Queen of England while she was topless on a beach.
Key words used: Kate topless
New stories: 4,314
Story: A team from Stanford and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory found that if we harnessed all the wind energy on Earth to produce electricity it would produce 100 times the current global use and the wind turbines would affect temperatures by a mere .2 degrees Fahrenheit and add one inch to the annual rain total worldwide. The team also proposed a conceptual plan for making the wind energy dream come true.
Key words used: wind energy Stanford Livermore
New stories: 211
News editors think we should care more about the boobs of a mildly attractive mediocrity than the fact that a team of researchers has proven that we can engineer our way out of the climate change crisis and our coming shortages of carbon-based fuels. The significance of this preference is, as the Latins would say, res ipsa loquitor – a thing that proves itself.