Each time my newspaper delivery runs late, as it did last Saturday morning, and I’m forced to the Web for my early dose of news, I’m reminded how reading the news online pales compared to reading it in newsprint.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not some aging dead-ender who wishes it was 1995 and not 2016 and this Web thing would go away. I’ve been an online journalist for 20 years. I get most of my news from the Web as it flows to my desktop, my tablet, my phone, and now my watch. Is the cabbie playing news radio? I listen. Walking through the POLITICO newsroom I inhale the news from the TV screens that cover the walls. 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. 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.
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. To make the audiophile analogy again, the news presented in newsprint regained its full fidelity. The stories made sense in relation to one another. I felt like I was reading something whole, not something slivered.
I tested my online-newsprint thesis earlier this year by switching my Financial Times subscription from the newsprint edition to the Web product. The Financial Times is one of the world’s most beautiful newspapers. The Web edition has recently been redesigned. The experiment exonerated my prejudice for newsprint, as you may suspect. I can’t find what I want to read on FT.com, I can’t keep track of my favorite columnists the way I could in the newsprint edition, and the paper’s weekend edition, a bouquet of news, reviews, opinions, lifestyle and arts coverage and essays, seems like a scattered mess online. At renewal time, I will return to the Financial Times‘ newsprint version.
Raju Narisetti, a longtime newsman now working as an executive at News Corp., expresses my prejudices when he speaks of the mentally decadent pleasures of enjoying newsprint. “There still is nothing like the laid-back, Saturday morning on the couch, with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal newspapers on hand, coffee nearby, WNYC playing NPR on Amazon Alexa, and iPhone6 ready to tweet out interesting print stories, for me.” But Narisetti isn’t doctrinaire about it. When the weekday comes, he turns digital only, reading from his phone during his commute.
Communications scholar Pablo J. Boczkowski doesn’t dispute most of my overview, but he suspects that my newsprint preference may be generational. “Young audiences have the opposite experience that you conveyed in your message: even when they have a newsprint newspaper available, they privilege digital news because of their superior ‘usability’—this is a very consistent finding across interviews,” he says, all but predicting that when I die I’ll take newspapers to hell with me. C.W. Anderson, a CUNY media professor, thinks “the routines you create for yourself around the technology” determine how consumption is internalized, and that may help explain my newsprint fixation. Pablo and C.W. might be right, but I would argue the newsprint routines I can create for myself are consistently superior any I can create for my online routines.
I will concede that online exceeds newsprint in several major arenas. Print is expensive. Online is cheap or free. Online is easy to search, its archives are quickly obtainable, and its stories can be shared and copied with ease. Online stories contain valuable links. Print? Uh-uh. Online is constantly updated while newsprint rests there in a pile, slowly decomposing and begging to be recycled.
I may be romantic about newspapers, but I’m not a sap. Typically, I keep my laptop or phone nearby when I read the newsprint editions so I can share or copy an interesting piece. The irony that my pro-print, anti-Web manifesto is appearing online and not on paper is not lost on me. As I’ve already said, I love the immediacy of the Web, the way it generates immediate feedback in email and on Twitter, and its general superiority as a distribution technology. But when it comes to really taking something in, the difference between reading online and newsprint is like the difference between driving to the neighborhood grocery store and walking. 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.
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 Florastirred 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. (Disclosure: I worked at Slate for its first 15 years on the Web before I was laid off. They treated me like a prince while I was there. 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.)
What is to be done? 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. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which don’t depend on raw click numbers, both mirror the print version’s layout (NYT publishes 150 in print on weekdays and 300 on Sunday; the WSJ about 240) with online apps. Here you can glean what the editors thought to be important and what they thought was optional or supplemental. While the apps aren’t beautiful like Slate classic, they both preserve the context found in the original. Software like Microsoft’s Photosynth allows images (print, too) to be placed in mouse-drive spatial context with other images and text, and if used smartly could give shape to the news. (Spend a few minutes fooling around with Photosynth and you’ll see what I’m talking about.)
I’m not lost stumbling in the past, mind you. I understand that today’s home page is nowhere near as important as the home page of 1996. For some time, readers have entered sites sideways, depending on referrals from social media, aggregation, or RSS feeds to guide them to articles. 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.
You know what I really miss? Those double-truck J&R Music and Computer World ads that ran frequently in the New York Times until 2014, when the retailer went under. Such reading fun! Send your bent ideas on print vs. online to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts, Twitter feed, and RSS feed have no analog world analogies!
Thank you Politico for this wonderful perspective.