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Saturday, May 9, 2009

That Story on Page A38 that Makes You Go “Hmm” -- Or, Why We Might be in Deep Doo-Doo if Newspapers Truly Go Down the Tubes

The idea for this post took shape as I read a copy of Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country? that my wife found in a box we never unpacked after moving a few years ago. As I read the first few pages and saw how well Moore had documented each assertion by citing newspaper articles supporting his points, I was saddened by the thought, which has been frequently on my mind of late, that the newspaper as we’ve known it for so long seems now to almost certainly be a dying medium.

Like Noam Chomsky (in his political rather than linguistic work), Moore demonstrates that, in major, page-heavy newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post that have extremely expansive coverage, in-depth articles are there, for the enlightenment of anyone willing to make a little extra effort to find them, that show just how much more than meets the eye is going on beneath the simplistic surface of front-page headlines and broadcast sound bites. They’re just more likely to be buried 20 or so pages in.

For instance, one of the articles Moore cites to support his assertions about the heavy influence of Saudi Arabian money on U.S. politics and policy appeared on Page A38 of the August 9, 1990 edition of the Post.

Moore’s work consists mostly of after-the-fact research and analysis, and it seems likely that he took every advantage of the power of online research to find source material to shape his ideas and support his points. But print newspapers that include those sorts of “articles that make you go ‘hmm’” in the deeper reaches of their pages theoretically provide the opportunity for people to learn about issues that, while currently receiving limited attention, may be of great concern, at a time when there is still a chance to do something about them by such means as providing feedback to politicians or changing voting decisions based on better information.

As the newspaper crisis has worsened over the past year, much has been made of the impact of Google News on the business. I haven’t looked into hard data, one way or another, on the factors behind declining newspaper subscriptions. But I’m skeptical about just how much of a role that online newspaper content has really played.

Do people really sit at their computer monitors and comprehensively scan through all of the news articles of a major daily edition the way they used to flip cover to cover through print? I know that I don’t, and I have my doubts about how many people do.

Content from newspapers, largely free of charge, has been available online for some time now, and Google News for not quite as long. But based on my unscientific, personal observations, the gradual trend toward seeing fewer and fewer morning papers on residential stoops seems to go back further. The effect of online content might be just the tip of the iceberg, or the last nail in the coffin, if you will.

The decline of newspaper reading may be generational rather than technological in origin. For the parents or grandparents of people my age, reading the daily newspaper was a much more entrenched ritual. But subsequent generations, starting with the baby boom, became increasingly accustomed to relying on the briefer news treatments of television and radio, and many perhaps came to view a newspaper subscription as an expense they could forgo.

I also think the dynamics of the online news phenomenon might be different from what people tend to assume they are, or from what they want to admit. While people might like to think they don’t need a print newspaper anymore because they are reading everything they need online, the reality may be that they’re forgoing the newspaper not because they’re reading it online, but because they know that everything they could need is available online. There’s a big difference. They’re right, to the extent that the content is there for the reading; but my doubt concerns how much they actually are reading.

I’m not being self-righteous here -- I don’t currently subscribe to a print newspaper either. I love Google News as much as the next guy, and I use it all the time. The feature that proactively builds a page of relevant content based on your past search history is quite effective. But even though I know I’m getting a good selection of relevant stuff, I don’t delude myself that I’m getting everything, or that I’m going to have as deep an understanding of the day’s news as I would if I scanned a high-quality print paper cover to cover.

My use of Google News has a “quick in, quick out” pattern. Normally I scan headlines on the main page a couple of times a day for major stories on topics that interest me. Sometimes, for certain sections like Business, I may click through to the full list. When I’m looking for stories on a specific event of the day or doing research on a particular topic, I use the Search function.

Neither the scanning nor the Search habit gleans as full a level of news awareness as does a scan of a major daily’s print edition. Google News pulls headlines into the main page from numerous sources, and what shows up on that screen is driven largely by rankings based on the popularity of stories and topics.

One could theoretically create an analogue of scanning page by page through a print edition by going to a major newspaper site like washingtonpost.com, clicking on each section (Front Page, Metro, Business, Style, etc.) of the daily edition, scrolling through all the headlines, and clicking through to the full-text of those articles that warrant reading. I never do that, however. And, although I again have no data to support this, I doubt that many other people do, either.

Ironically, even though we’re dealing with an electronic environment that has the supposed virtue of speed, the main issue that would seem to discourage people from this approach is probably time. It seems self-evident that it’s faster to flip through each page of every section of a print edition than to click and scroll through every section of an online edition.

The online medium is well suited to finding specific things, but less so to serendipitous discovery of interesting things you didn’t realize you wanted. A good analogy for those of us who’ve spent a lot of time in a university library is the difference between searching for items in an online catalog vs. browsing through books that have been shelved together in a topical section.

During my academic career, more often than not, I would find neighboring books on the shelf that would prove much more valuable than the book I originally came to retrieve from the stacks after a catalog search. This is not to say that online searching doesn’t provide its own form of serendipity, but that its dynamics are different from the serendipity of print -- for which, it seems, an effective online analogue has not yet been developed.

And therein lies the problem. As long as major papers like the Washington Post and New York Times remain in business, “stories that make you go hmm” will be published, and they will appear online. How widely they will be read, however, is a different question.

With online content, the ease of access is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness. If I think something is there any time I need it, I have less urgency and may fall into the trap of taking it for granted. A print newspaper on the doorstep, in contrast, confronts one immediately with the force of a limited range of choices. One can read it in a reasonable timeframe and then dispose of it; or one can leave it lying around indefinitely until getting around to reading it; or one can simply dispose of it immediately, unread. Since the second two choices are inherently less appealing, the first choice carries a strong motivational force to read the newspaper promptly that, in my opinion, does not yet have an electronic analogue.

In an online environment, the stories that venture into greater depth than the basic front page items are likely to be at even more of a disadvantage than they are in print. The result will be even fewer people exposed to a deeper and more sophisticated treatment of the news and, in turn, less accountability for political leaders, who will be receiving less feedback from a constituency less informed on issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy.

To close on a less grim note, however, I believe that, with some emerging technologies, there may be some cause for rekindling (pardon the pun) our hope. While I have not yet had the pleasure of reading a newspaper on the Amazon Kindle, I have heard positive reports from others that it succeeds in delivering a much more print-like experience.

When and if newspaper publishers finally discover a sustainable electronic business model, an approach along the lines of the Kindle that maintains some strong points of the print model may be what will preserve and renew the status of in-depth written journalism. For the sake of having an informed public that truly participates in democracy and political processes, let’s hope so. Sphere: Related Content

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