Why newspapers still matter

Like many of you, I suspect, I spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling the news online. These days, as I wait to have a cataract removed from my right eye, the computer comes in particularly handy: I can bump up the type size. But whether I’m reading in 12 point or 18 point, and whether I’m scrolling a specific news site, Twitter or Facebook, I take relatively little pleasure in the process. It feels more like something I’m compelled to do rather than something I enjoy doing.

Sit me in a hammock, at a coffee table or at the kitchen table with a newspaper, however, and I’m a happy guy. I systematically wander through what’s before me, often starting in the back (at the opinion pages) or with sports and then working my way through the news and special sections. On good days, three or four articles will catch my eye on topics I’d have never explored. Such news reading sessions leave me feeling relaxed and engaged. They energize my day rather than frittering it away.

Much of this, of course, is generational. I’m an old dog struggling to learn new tricks, or technologies at least, and the process is slow and cumbersome. But an intriguing article in Slate last week suggests that we really may retain more information with the printed word.

Author Jack Shafer recalls his own experiment in canceling his print subscription to The New York Times. Within a year, he writes, “What I really found myself missing was the news. Even though I spent ample time clicking through The Times web site … I quickly determined that I wasn’t recalling as much of the newspaper as I should be. Going electronic had challenged my powers of retention.”

Shafer told his story after reviewing an admittedly small study presented by three University of Oregon professors at the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference. The trio divided 45 subjects into two pools. Roughly half (I assume they didn’t split No. 45 down the middle) read The Times and half its web site. All, by the way, were college students in “journalism-related” majors, meaning they presumably had some interest in news to begin with.

The researchers wrote: “The results reflect prior research that shows print subjects remembered more news stories than online subjects and suggest that the development of dynamic online story forms in the past decade have had little effect toward making them more impressionable than print stories.”

The question, of course, is why. The researchers and Shafer explore many logical reasons tied to the layout and design of news and ads — newspapers set clearer priorities of what they perceive to be story prominence and importance than the web. I’m sure these are significant factors. But I have an additional theory backed up by nothing but intuition.

I suspect we remember more of what we read for pleasure than of what we read for task. Surfing online has a frenetic and businesslike quality that leaves little time for reflection. To me, anyway, reading a newspaper, gives the reader a chance to lower the page, relax and reflect — something we rarely do peering into a screen. And I suspect we remember more of what we take a minute to think about then of what we merely absorb. (Though it wouldn’t have been part of this experiment, newspaper reading in my house also is a communal experience. Kathy and I on most days read excerpts of the news to each other, reinforcing story and retention.)

Intuition, of course, carries no weight in the world of academic research, nor should it. But whether I’m right or wrong, I’m glad researchers are still finding a value for print beyond fish wrap.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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