I have cycled through many stages of news reading. It started off being the daily pleasures of the 6.30 news on TVB. As I grew older, that was too regular a schedule to keep, and I was a thankful subscriber of the SCMP at school, religiously picking up my copy daily and reading it on the bus. Once I got my own laptop, I was all over the podcasts I could find on iTunes, downloading enough to fill bus-rides and more. That was also of course when I started reading more news online. This last year, HKU thankfully had a steady stream of free newspapers (WSJ, SCMP, FT) which led me to my current obsession with the print edition.
I do of course get much of my news through the TV and online, but despite many strange looks, I still have a great affinity for the print edition where it’s possible. And Jack Shafer’s writing perfectly captures much of why I feel this way. The irony that he is writing online, and that I found the article through online mediums is not lost, but the point remains well made.
But when it comes to immersion—when I really want the four winds of news to blow me deeper comprehension—my devotion to newsprint is almost cultistic. My eyes feel about news the way my ears feel about music driven from a broken pair of speakers—distorted, grating, and insufferable. Reading online, I comprehend less and I finish fewer articles than I do when I have a newspaper in hand. Online, I often forget why I clicked a page in the first place and start clicking on outside links until I’m tumbling through cyberspace like a marooned astronaut.
As a more rudimentary form of media, newsprint has the power to focus me. It blocks distractions. Give me 20 minutes with the newsprint version of the Times and I’m convinced I could clobber anybody in a news quiz who used the same time reading from the Times website. (Make no mistake, I like the Times website!)
What accounts for print’s superiority? Print—particularly the newspaper—is an amazingly sophisticated technology for showing you what’s important, and showing you a lot of it. The newspaper has refined its user interface for more than two centuries. Incorporated into your daily newspaper’s architecture are the findings from field research conducted in thousands of newspapers over hundreds of millions of editions. Newspaper designers have created a universal grammar of headline size, typeface, place, letter spacing, white space, sections, photography, and illustration that gives readers subtle clues on what and how to read to satisfy their news needs.
Web pages can’t convey this metadata because there’s not enough room on the screen to display it all. Even if you have two monitors on your desk, you still don’t have as much reading real estate that an open broadsheet newspaper offers. Computer fonts still lag behind their high-resolution newsprint cousins, and reading them drains mental energy. I’d argue that even the serendipity of reading in newsprint surpasses the serendipity of reading online, which was supposed to be one of the virtues of the digital world. Veteran tech journalist Ed Bott talks about newsprint’s ability to routinely surprise you with a gem of a story buried in the back pages, placed there not because it’s big news but because it’s interesting. “The print edition consistently leads me to unexpected stories I might have otherwise missed,” agrees Inc. Executive Editor Jon Fine. “I find digital editions and websites don’t have the same kind of serendipity—they’re set up to point you to more of the same thing.” Reading a newspaper, you explore for the news like a hunter in a forest, making discoveries all the way. The Web offers news treasures, too, but they often feel unconnected to one another, failing to form a daily news gestalt.
Reading a newspaper is a contemplative exercise that can’t be matched by a screen. Is it because you hold it in your hand? Probably not. Scholars agree that reading retention suffers on a Kindle compared to a book, and that it doesn’t allow for the deep immersion of its paper cousin. Likewise, the literal physicality of a newspaper signals useful information to readers. Picking up a daily newspaper, you can gauge by the feel how much news there is today, something a Website can’t do. Just as the dimensions of a dinner plate communicates how much one should eat, the dry weight of a daily newspaper gives the reader signals about how much they need to read to reach news satiation. Not so on the Web, where no matter how much you read, you feel like you missed something important.