10 min

The case for print journalism

Sep 10, 2016 - Politico - Why Print News Still Rules - "I’ve been an online journalist for 20 years—and still, you’ll have to pry my newspaper from my cold dying hands."

I get most of my news from the Web as it flows to my desktop, my tablet, my phone, and now my watch.

I'm sorry to hear that.

Walking through the POLITICO newsroom I inhale the news from the TV screens that cover the walls.

Mmm. It's possible to get "news" over the TV. ?? What's the definition of "news"? The fictional HBO series The Newsroom, which was about a TV news program, defined news as information that a voter could find useful on election day.

When it comes to news, I'm an ocean that refuses no river. 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.

Uh, what? Get to the point, instead of writing the opening to a novel.

Reading online, I comprehend less and I finish fewer articles than I do when I have a newspaper in hand.

I've read a story or two that supports the notion that reading print leads to better comprehension. I don't remember why. That's funny. I obviously read that claim online.

A print newspaper supports my idea of adopting the Slow News Movement.

More form the Politico story:

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.

I don't know about this claim:

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.

Define "important". Who gets to decide what is important? Obviously for a newspaper, the publisher, maybe the editorial board, and the paper's editors get to decide what's important. But what if 90 percent of what's published in a local print newspaper is unimportant to me? Enter the web. It's not the local web. It's the world wide web.

But my Slow News Movement idea of reading news for 30 to 60 minutes per day and that's it may be better supported by a morning or evening routine of reading a print newspaper that has a finite ending. Once immersed into the web, it's up to the reader to say, "Enough". The final words on the last page of the newspaper is a hard, finite ending. Then it's time to do something else. Sure, like wasting time on the web.

My Slow News Movement idea eschews the breaking news mindset of thinking that its imperative to know everything that is happening at the moment that it happens. Nope. Wait until the next morning or whenever it's time to engage in SNM reading. Sometimes, a lot of the breaking news is wrong in the early stages.

More from the Politico story:

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.

Maybe that's because media websites are poorly designed because of the obnoxious ads that consume screen real estate because the media org's business model needs that digital ad revenue. Data shows that people do read long articles on phones.

Why is the Kindle ebook reader so popular? It focuses on the text. It's portable. It consumes little space. It allows users to customize the reading experience settings, including the font type, font size, text color, and background color.

I don't think print design is a reason that a print newspaper is better than its web counterpart. The latter probably needs a simpler design to improve the reader experience. When media orgs create reader-hostile websites, that's not the web's fault.

More from the Politico story:

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.

Newsprint's superiority became obvious to me this summer when circumstances prevented early morning delivery of three dailies—the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. I did my best to keep informed by spending about a half hour on each newspaper's website, scrolling and clicking. Later in the morning when the newsprint versions were delivered I was astonished to find how many worthy stories I had skipped or bailed on when reading online.

Something that I might agree with, when thinking about the Slow News Movement:

Reading online speeds things, usually to the point that they begin to blur. But reading newsprint slows you down, giving your news absorption a "human scale" feel, and lends clarity to the experience. News is best sipped like whiskey, not chugged like beer.

This is interesting, and obviously, I agree with the ad parts:

As bad as they are, news Websites are getting worse and have been getting worse since the commercial Web took off in late 1995 and mid-1996, and sites like Salon, Slate, Feed, and others started experimenting with the form. At first these sites pulled the reader in with designs that encourage an immersive experience.

Gander awhile at these Slate classic pages, which the brilliant Bill Flora stirred up out of pixel dust. In the beginning, Slate published about seven or eight stories a week, and like the print magazine we were trying to ape, published just once a week.

The layouts didn’t scream at you to visit other pages. There were no interstitials. White space filled the pages like summer clouds. The ad-load didn’t overwhelm. The illustrations were as good as the copy. The site used page numbers to give you a sense of how big the "issue" is, so you didn't get lost in a sea of copy.

It whispered, it didn't scream. It said, here's the best we've got with the stories it published.

Today, it seems like Slate and most of its competition use every available square inch of screen real estate to place ads and those annoying (paid) Outbrain refers to stories on the Web. (Instead of destroying Gawker, Peter Thiel should have gone after Outbrain.)

A sense of "Where You Are in Slate" doesn't exist, just a never-ending cascade of stories, much like every other site on the Web. I count more than 100 stories screaming for my attention on the cover today (8/24), with only about a dozen pieces emphasized with art or a type treatment.

Slate isn't the worst offender on this score; I merely pick on it because I love it—and because it provides a great contrast to how far all of the Web has fallen in the past two decades.

As long as news sites measure their success on clicks and feed their metrics by publishing a swelter of copy and hoping that something will catch fire, I can't imagine anything changing.

Content mills (media orgs) that focus on quantity instead of quality will probably struggle to stay in business.

I believe that at some point, enough people will prefer less but better, and they won't mind paying for it. Whether that will be enough to sustain a media org's business model is the question. But print is expensive. Maybe more digital orgs will publish less often, focus on longer, more investigative pieces, and ignore breaking news stories because it seems that everyone wants to be in the breaking news business.

When the breaking news goes through several versions before it's finally correct, then a Slow News Movement can swoop in at the end and provide a detailed analysis.


So I’m not saying, “Let’s go back,” but to say that maybe picking your news site by leaping haphazardly from one poorly designed article to another because somebody shared it with you might not be the best way to soak up the news. Hierarchy can be a good thing.

I know print is doomed to be erased by the Web, so let me offer a few a modest requests for site designers, editors, and publishers. Don't completely forsake the design language that made newspapers great and informed readers for generations. Bring back design hierarchy! Abandon the “throw it on the Web and see what happens” ethos! Don't try to trap me on your site like a rat in a maze, forever clicking. Do what newspaper design has long done—direct the reader to that which is vital, tease him with that which is entertaining and frivolous, and give him a sense of a journey completed by the time he hits the last pages.

“Putting journalism first” is another way of saying it. I fear that unless somebody speaks up for good design we'll lose this precious inheritance, making the digestion of news a cruel, click-crazy experience for newshounds like me. If only publishers can be persuaded to care more about who reads their content and less on how much they read.

The newspaper end is near. I hope something approximating its glory will replace it. Until then, I will wake at 5 a.m. waiting for the sweet sound of my dailies making their triple-thump on my doorstep.

#media #business #design #history #web #mobile #socialmedia




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