Thursday, October 15, 2009

Paper or Pixel? Part Three

By I.J. Hudson.

Is there a difference in how much and what type of information we glean from paper vs. pixel? The physical newspaper exposes us to a wide range of topics as we scan the pages, even though we have developed a routine of what we plan to read. It’s like a route marked on a map, with an occasional stop to see something interesting just off the path. The digital version hits us one page at a time and we make quick choices, often reading just the first few sentences or paragraphs of a story. We skim the surface or choose to dive in, follow links to learn more about fewer topics.

But the two big takeaways about the digital world are broad access and no deadlines. The Internet opens the door for us to sample thousands of sources of news. The equivalent paper versions would block our driveways and lawns. The recycling bins would really be full on pick-up day. The lack of deadlines means information is posted or tweeted constantly, from anywhere, about anything - from tens of thousands of sources.
Those sources range from longtime trusted sources, not-as-trusted-as they-were sources, and sources with credentials confirming only they can use a keyboard, and aren’t picky about spelling or research. Unfortunately, instant posting matches our need to know what we want to know “right now,” even if the information is not accurate. The speed of blogs can be much faster than the truth, and often is lacking context to make information more useful.

Online news updates obviously are faster than standard print deadlines, but how we use online media may not provide the breadth or depth of information that makes us more informed - unless we take the initiative to seek out sources that challenge our usual thinking. “Digital” opens the doors to countless sources of information if we have the time and the interest. Bloggers, tweeters may well have information, pictures and video we won’t find in our local or national paper’s pages or website, or may provide widely divergent perspectives if we choose to seek them. A tourist with a cameraphone can be an instant on-scene source of a major news story. It makes for fascinating reading as speculation is replaced by facts in developing stories.

Ultimately, the difference and value between paper and pixel is measured by the needs of the readers. What do they want to know about? How much detail do they want? How often do they need their news, and from which sources they choose to get it: the papers in the driveway or the thousands of sources on what we once called the information superhighway?

I suspect, like cable and satellite TV, where there are sometimes 500 channels but nothing to watch, people will settle on a limited number of news sources, then add specific sources when topics of interest pop up. For example, political news junkies may consider Maryland Politics Watch a “must read” and share links to MPW when the Maryland General Assembly is in session or there is a particularly hot issue in Montgomery County.

There is little question that a growing number of us have a fulltime thirst for news, sports and weather information. While the fact that anyone can be a news source online provides endless potential for coverage we can’t find in the paper world, it demands that we be vigilant editors – to separate fact from fabrication so the information we use to form our opinions is credible.

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