Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Paper or Pixel? Part One

By I.J. Hudson.

Quick! On which page will you find the editorials/letters to the Washington Post? Which section of the Post is Metro?

“Below the fold,” “Buried on page 23,” “We need the Bulldog Edition” are phrases tied to physical newspapers where ink dries and deadlines are hours apart.

For decades, newspapers ritually have been tossed in our driveways, stacked in news stands at convenience stores, a row of stands at metro stops and hawked by street vendors at long traffic lights.

The physical newspaper has maintained a time and place in our daily routines – whether it involves a breakfast table, a bathroom, the first cup of coffee at the office or a lazy weekend morning. But the number of people wed to those routines is decreasing, as is the viewership of the 6 o’clock and 11 o’clock news. The newspaper also has been a physical prop to hold up when trying to make a point about a team or about politics – or about almost anything. “It says right here….” “It’s in the paper, so it must be true.”

But as the Internet has filled almost every other open space in our lives, so, too, has online become synonymous with getting the news now. And that raises basic questions about the differences between how people “interact” with their physical papers and the online editions.

The First Encounter

The newspaper, its sections and inserts neatly nestled inside, greets us. It is complete – as is. The New York Times motto: “all the news that’s fit to print.” The big headline, the big picture which we can see from 10 feet away, touts the big story of the day. Then we scan the headlines of the rest of the front page and then either read the rest of the paper sequentially like a book, or skip to sections of interest. As you turn the pages, something may catch your eye, but all-in-all, it’s generally a linear experience.

For Metro riders and other commuters, folding the paper “just so” to keep it out of your seatmate’s face has been a time-honored tradition. Sometimes we leave the paper behind for another rider. But more often we read the paper, and then we’re done with it - unless there is a bird cage to be lined, fish to be wrapped or a floor to be “re-papered” for 75 cats. (makes for a handy archive).

Reading news online should be similar to the physical paper, right? Not always. It’s hard for a picture on a computer screen to match the impact of a front page picture (like the shot of Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il). And often we reach online news by an indirect route. Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet Project told me there is anecdotal evidence that many of us don’t go directly to the online paper – that the editors of online news sites say the majority of their traffic comes from referrals – links from other sources like search engines, blogs, email digests - not from someone starting at the paper’s website. Of course we all have our favorites “bookmarked,” but I’m constantly finding new sources through other sites.

Once there, people can scan a page for interesting links and jump directly from Sports to World News to whatever. That suggests there is less chance of spotting something of interest on web pages that surface only on command. You don’t turn pages, you click to new topics or on links to old topics that still reside on the page (even the front page). It’s primarily a non-linear experience, although you may get accustomed to reading things in order, even online - Front Page (quick look, not full read); Metro – Maryland – Montgomery County – Prince George’s – Technology - Opinions. You get the picture.

I.J. Hudson is the Communications Director for Garson Claxton LLC, a Bethesda, MD law firm, and a former television reporter for NBC4 Washington.