On a recent trip to Washington, D.C. for “Public Media Camp,” it happened again. I was tempted by print.
My fingers have remained relatively ink-free each day because I get my news fix electronically. But what about when I get out of my hermetically sealed home office chamber and head out into the wild? I sat down innocently at the airport gate for my hour of repose, and next to my chair was an abandoned San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.
Before I knew it, the newspaper was in my hands and I was leafing through the pages. I noticed that the actual size of the newspaper had shrunk since I last read it in print, and I saw that many articles in the print paper are not included in my Kindle edition (not to mention box scores, listings and many graphics). While I’ve sworn off getting a print subscription to the newspaper, that doesn’t mean I can’t read it out around town or while traveling, right?
On this trip, I fond myself reading print newspapers and a print book much more than my Kindle 2 or iPhone, even though these electronic devices were loaded up with books, newspapers, my email and Twitter feed. How do I explain the allure, the pleasures of print? Here are a few things that come to mind.
One Man’s Trash…
Perhaps one of the strongest reasons that print newspapers could survive the twin holocausts of the Internet and economic meltdown is that people still like holding them during mass transit commutes, on airplanes (“turn off your electronic devices”), and on the toilet. When newspaper boosters talk about the “pass-around” rate for newspaper readers, they mean that one print edition easily makes the rounds from person to person to person.
And that includes strangers. I remember being in London a couple years ago and seeing Metro newspapers sitting everywhere inside the subway cars. When you got on the train, you reached for a paper, read it, and put it back when you were done. These free commuter papers are so convenient, so easy to find, so trashable, that you don’t even mind the holy waste you are likely creating on the back end. Just grab and go.
On my recent trip to D.C., I found the Chronicle and the front section of the New York Times to read on my flight over, and then USA Today appeared under the door of my hotel room, free of charge. One morning I took the paper to breakfast; the next day, I stuck to my home routine of reading the New York Times on my iPhone. I would never have gone out to buy these papers, but their ability to appear magically at the right place and right time made them hard to ignore.
So how did my reading experience differ with print newspapers compared to reading on the iPhone or Kindle? The first thing I noticed was that I could read a lot more in print than I would on those devices. With the print newspaper, I could quickly determine which stories were interesting by their headlines, images and placement. On a Kindle, it’s more limited to one story at a time, or a partial list of headlines and cutlines. On the iPhone, most apps only load about 5 to 10 headlines and cutlines at a time.
For instance, I read all the front page stories from the New York Times front section, as well as many other articles the paper. On the iPhone, I usually read about five or six stories in the “Latest” section, and rarely go beyond that. Part of the reason for that could be that I have less time to read on the iPhone than I do while sitting on a five-hour flight. But the other reason is that it’s quicker and easier for me to jump around to different stories and flip through pages with a print paper.
On an electronic device, there is the stutter-step effect. Click and wait. Scroll down. Page up and page down. A small window on the content. On a computer screen, scannability comes a little closer to the print newspaper. A home page of a news website is bathed in headlines, photos, cutlines, and even video. But, still, the print paper remains the king when it comes to scanning through a lot of content in a short period of time.
I remember when I first got my Kindle 2 and happily read through nearly every story in the Sunday New York Times. But perhaps that was a function of the newness, the excitement of seeing all that content and not having to carry around a huge print publication. Over time, the Kindle 2’s magic has worn off. The more I read on my iPhone, the less I want to read on the Kindle.
The Beauty of Print
Finally, the eye-catching color images in a newspaper rarely transfer well to electronic devices. The Chronicle, in particular, uses almost gaudy amounts of color in its page designs. I quickly picked up that abandoned paper in a “monkey see, monkey read” moment. USA Today obviously operates with a similar modus operandi. The riot of color — and even color-coded sections — make it perfect for travel-weary souls who are more ready to be entertained and dazzled than put to sleep with monotones.
That goes for the ads as well. I haven’t noticed the ads on my iPhone, and the Kindle is still ad-free. The ads in print newspapers are massive and difficult to avoid. Oh yeah, that’s why they still charge an arm and a leg for them. Yes, the colored ink does stain, but the marketing message burns a hole in the retina, too.
As much as I’d like to kick ink completely, I have to face the fact that print still has its charms. I realize the clear-cut forests, the big carbon footprint, the sheer energy used in making print publications is not good for the environment. And I don’t want to pay ungodly sums to get them delivered to my doorstep. But, occasionally, when something colorful and flashy is sitting forlorn and unused, I might just have to dig in.
Image of chicken on USA Today box by ira via Flickr.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.