Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Paper or Pixel? Part Two

By I.J. Hudson.


Paper advantages: Newspapers, like books, are physical things that have weight and, until laptops, Wi-Fi and the Kindle, were easier to take with you and to share with a small group of people. “I’ll take the Metro section; you take sports – then we’ll trade.” The paper was “the record” of that date in history. On a slightly sentimental side, the local paper was something used to create a scrapbook of a kid’s life. Dad gave me a scrapbook on my 40th birthday, complete with pictures and articles I had written or that had mentioned my name - awards in grade school and high school - successes of my baseball and basketball teams, decorations in the Navy, my wedding announcement, etc. The paper was a source for community news and a personal archive for those of us who lived in small towns. And “the paper” had a place for everything. You knew where the funnies were, where to find sports, the classifieds, the obituaries, the editorials and letters to the editor. The news you were looking for was a physical location – you could feel it, pull out the appropriate section.

Digital advantages: It just requires a device with Internet access. Any hometown newspaper is yours if it’s online. An online version of the Southeast Missourian is available online in Helena, Montana, or in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s also an evolving record of yesterday, today, and the moment – much as the digital papers that changed headlines and pictures in the “Minority Report.” Is the online version the identical to the real paper? Not usually. Some stories are hyped as available only for print subscribers and vice versa.

Another benefit: Online provides an instantly searchable archive for additional background if you need/want it. Often links to recent stories about the same subject eliminate the need for searching, unless you to cast a broader net for the subject. And sometimes online stories (old news) and pictures linger on the front page for several days, indicating a dwindling staff covering fewer new stories; but, like the print side, space must be filled.

Those latent links are a good thing to help people understand a story and its evolution; it’s a bad thing if your bad news made the front page and you want it to disappear. Bad news has a tendency to linger online and stay on the front page (as a link) for several days or until a crush of “new” news pushes it to the next page, or makes it disappear entirely. In the paper world, the bad news disappears from the newsstand until there is a follow up story.

A big digital advantage: You can share digital articles with anyone, anywhere, anytime. No clipping or copying required, and certainly no stamps – just an email address, or post a link to the story in Twitter or Facebook. The digital paper is super interactive with more information available for the mining. You find video, links to previous stories, to similar topics in other online publications, and, of course, big pop-up ads that cover the screen until you figure out how to close them.

The buzzword in media is interactive – let the readers participate. That can be a good thing or a bad thing – really bad, in my opinion, in the “comments” accompanying an article. No need for a lot of thought and a stamp, and most publications don’t require a real name. Comments often start out with, “last time I checked,” or “let me get this straight.” Occasionally, the comments contain useful information, but frequently become name-calling skirmishes pushing agendas that have little or nothing to do with the story. You see the same people (screen names) adding their vitriol and exchanging insults on a regular basis. Well-considered comments are not as frequent. Exercise: click on a screen name and check to see how much commenting they do. You may be surprised to find it’s almost a full-time job for some folks.

Finding what you’re looking for in an online paper is not as intuitive as in a paper. Online structure is different, and several clicks may be required to find those editorials. Search engines, both on the page itself and in your browser, help you find names and topics of interest. But the ability to move between stories or sections with a click permits you to skip a lot of content. Some of it could be of interest, but you won’t have the opportunity to decide. It’s like taking a trip directly from New York City to Los Angeles without having the opportunity to sample Columbus, OH, Manhattan, KS, Phoenix, or Las Vegas. It’s not a matter of time, it’s a matter of having an interest in exploring.

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