When I was a kid we had a Sunday morning family ritual. After breakfast we would all take coffee or tea and adjourn to our favorite spot, 2 adults and 4 kids lounging around the livingroom and kitchen with sections of our Sunday newspaper and a hot beverage. (Yes, we drank coffee and tea from a young age. I’m sure it stunted my growth. I’m only 6 feet tall.) My brother was usually on his belly on the livingroom floor. I was lounged on the couch with my legs draped over the arm. Mom and dad in chairs. Sisters here and there. Sometimes the dogs would have a lick or two of coffee from a cup sitting on the floor. It was a good time. And we learned about the world, as reflected in our local paper, which wasn’t all that good, mind you.
As I reflect on this experience, though, I have to say that the format of the paper wasn’t what made it pleasant or an effective means of gathering information. Nostalgia aside, it was kind of a crappy reading experience. I’m thinking about this after reading a couple of Slate articles by Fahrad Manjoo about how print newspapers are better than electronic [“Why I miss the dead-tree newspaper” and “Why newsprint still beats the Kindle“]. I must say, I disagree pretty strongly. There are certain activities that are enabled by the form and structure of a newspaper, but many characteristics of newspapers serve an economic rather than a reading purpose. I am no historian of newspapers, but their history, it seems, is a confluence of two goals: cheap distribution and quick reading.
- Newsprint is a light, thin, and cheap paper that can be delivered with little cost or effort.
- The large page size of newspapers accommodates lots of information on a single page.
- The text size and column width also allow the inclusion of more information per page, which I argue, came from economic rather than reading considerations.
- Because the economic considerations were already in place, newspapers invented reading mechanisms that were compatible with the physical format at hand.
- Headlines and variations in headline size enable quick scanning of topics and a pick-and-choose reading method.
- The importance of an article is, however, somewhat driven by the editor. They choose placement, headline size, and length of article.
- The journalistic method of “inverted triangle” aids skimming and quick reading. Read a little bit and move on to something else if you are not interested.
- Economic considerations notwithstanding, the text size and column width do enable skimming as well.
So, newspapers are a cheap way of dispensing news that also facilitates a skimming and scanning style of reading. But if we throw out the economic considerations of the physical paper, is this really an effective way of distributing and reading the news? I hold that the physical form of the paper is, in fact, kind of an unpleasant and ineffective reading experience. We may not have yet invented a better method for that distribution, but the attachment some people feel for the form may have more to do with nostalgia.
Problems with the physical form:
- The size of the newspaper page is, in fact, not ideal for reading. Some people manage the spread-eagle form adequately (to the annoyance of their subway mates), but others have to modify the paper to read comfortably. My brother would lay the paper on the floor and then lie down on his belly in front of it. Others fold the paper into smaller and smaller bits. (You might argue that this flexibility is actually a plus.)
- Fahrad Manjoo talks about the scanning properties of the page, yet any single news page only has 5 or six stories on it. If you want to scan other stories, you have to change pages, which, in fact, is rather slower than paging through a Kindle.
- All of the modifications and adjustments noted in my first bullet mean that the scanning abilities are also compromised. Unfold, unfold, adjust, adjust…and THEN scan. It’s not as quick as we seem to remember.
- Stories that span more than one page (another artifact of journalistic practice) require that you find the continuation in order to read the rest of the story. This is often, even in the “best” newspapers, a process that is prone to human error. The “continued” reference on the first part of the story bears no relationship to where the rest of the story actually resides. Then you’re on a wild goose chase to complete the story.
- If you’ve ever used a newspaper after someone else, you realize what a mess the pages can become. The paper can literally become unusable without a bit of remediation.
- The cheap paper and ink make for messy hands.
- What do you do with all that accumulation of newsprint throughout the week?
- Despite Nicholson Baker’s objections, the large format of newspapers is actually quite problematic from a library storage perspective. The large size requires special, inefficient shelving arrangements and the cheap paper is not very durable (sorry Mr. Baker).
I will grant that perhaps we have not yet created a news distribution method that is ideal. Although the number of people getting their news from the web would suggest that we’re pretty close. The layout of the New York Times (and many other papers) on the web actually aids the scanning and skimming process, in my opinion, more than the print counterpart. The navigational links are always visible no matter where I am. Mr. Manjoo finds that he tends to read each story through to the end on the Kindle DX, but I find that on the web I can follow links and scan articles much more quickly. Plus, I can always search. Something my mortal eyes and brain cannot effectively do in the print version.
I do feel that the equipment requirements for web or ereader access are somewhat problematic. But as Mr. Manjoo himself and others have shown, the cost of equipment is pretty quickly recouped with the cancellation of the print subscription.
My views on the benefit (and future) of ereader access to newspapers:
- Electronic delivery to a Kindle, for example, is superior to the rain-soaked paper sitting on your porch (or lost in the shrubbery).
- The Kindle DX may be the ideal size for reading news. It is easier to hold and page through a newspaper on an ereader than with the print model.
- Current readers like the Kindle are not ideal because of the lack of color.
- A multi-touch screen like that of the iPhone would really enable skim and scan reading.
- The benefits of e-ink (non-backlit) screens will one day be combined with color, multi-touch, and massive and efficient storage to create a news reading experience that will make nostalgia for print more ridiculous than it now is.
- Mobile devices should (will) one day have the zoom and pan functions that we see in Microsoft’s Seadragon prototype (see the TED video below). Newspaper reading will be quite an adventure then. Imagine the fun and funny things that could be imbedded in the comics page then!