Friday, August 19, 2011

Troglodytes unite

I have been accused, rather often, of being a media troglodyte.

I protest. The argument has gone that printed media are inferior to the digital form for any number of reasons. It's old-fashioned. It's slow. It requires dead trees. It is favored among the old and decrepit. These are all true. They are also essentially irrelevant.

The greater issue is, what is the best way to learn, to become informed, to be engaged? Smart media managers say they are "agnostic" when it comes to the particular medium they want to use. What they mean is that anyone who still clings to print is a troglodyte.

As a newspaper publisher, I find many things about digital distribution quite enticing. The most compelling is that it's extraordinarily cheap. Many of us in the newspaper business, despite our reputations to the contrary, would love nothing more than to shed our images as ink-stained wretches and go all in when it comes to new media.

For better or worse, the Internet business models stink and, it turns out, printed media are still pretty darned effective -- both as a business and as a way to convey information. We now have some academic support.

Three doctoral candidates at the University of Oregon, people clearly way smarter (and younger) than I, have concluded that people who use new media tend to ignore their multimedia aspects. Moreover, they found that "...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."

In other words, all of the effort we've all made toward utilizing the many bells and whistles of new technology are of less import than we had thought. I am not making this up.

In a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Mass Communication and Journalism, researchers Arthur D. Santana, Randall Livingstone and Yoon Cho. This research does nothing to counter studies that have shown that more people now get their news from the Internet than print, a process that took a mere 15 years.

However, the Oregon smarties cited research concluding that "print newsreaders remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders. Part of why online readers tend to scan stories while print readers tend to be more methodical might be explained by research that found newspapers offer news stories with more depth and breadth than online stories."

Not only are print sources more extensive, but Internet sources are "more opinionated" than print sources, they report.

There is nothing inherently superior to one medium over another, of course, and that's the point. The mere fact that information is distributed using the latest technology doesn't automatically make it inferior or superior to other methods. The current bias seems to be that the last 15 years portend the next 15. That isn't necessarily so.

News consumed in print is "more impressionable" than information found on the Internet. The researchers found that "online newspapers are apt to give fewer cues about the news story’s importance, thus giving readers more control over story selection. In this way, part of the agenda-setting function of the newspaper is lost in the online version. Online readers are apt to acquire less information about national, international and political events than print newsreaders because of the lack of salience cues; they generally are not being told what to read via story placement and prominence — an enduring feature of the print product." In fact, “...  what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation."

Of course, none of this suggests that either newspapers or readers should forsake the Internet. That would be stupid. However, as the Oregon researchers conclude, "The implications of the research should inform the resource priorities of newspapers as they continue to undergo sweeping changes in the readership habits of their print and online audience."

In other words, let's not rush toward embracing technology because it's there. Let's use it where it makes sense, but let's not be so quick to abandon methods that work.

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading this blog right now because my bank's website is down so I can't balance my checkbooks. That is exactly why I don't like the idea of everything being delegated to the internet. The 'net' may be 15 years old, but it is deceptively fragile.