As print newspapers die, so will our news reading

Opinion: News stories will continue digitally, but will we read them?

This month The Valley News enters a new era of sorts, moving its printing services from West Lebanon to Concord. While the change should only be noticeable in the newspaper's design, not content, the move represents another dagger in our region's print industry, and another reminder that newspapers are slowly going extinct.

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While many people see no concern in losing newspapers, they probably should. Despite their reasoning that digital technology makes paper irrelevant, such perception fails to recognize how human behavior actually works.

The Digital Effect

Ten years ago I used to read The Valley News and The Eagle Times each morning while waiting for my first students to arrive. I had an hour of open schedule to kill, and fortunately the smart phone had not been invented yet, so taking the local papers to work was still my logical instinct. Being still relatively new to the region, I found the local papers a great way to learn. In two years, I probably knew more about the affairs in my town and surrounding communities than most lifelong residents.

Unlike digital sources, with newspapers I wind up reading almost every story in the paper. Even when visiting an online news website, I doubt I read even a fraction of the daily articles. And due to the impact of smartphone technology on my habits, I rarely make those visits anyway.

Creatures of Habit

The hard and humbling truth about our human species is that, socially speaking, we don't adapt but conform. We did not adapt to smart phones. We conformed to them.

The flaw in thinking that “digital newspapers are no different from online newspapers” is that, while technically true, such argument fails to factor the change those technologies make upon us. While the content may still be there, I certainly don't find myself accessing it like I used to.

Newspapers require some degree of time and attention. We often give the excuse that we don't have “time” anymore to sit down and read a newspaper, and perhaps there's some truth within that. But we also need to acknowledge that we are giving a considerable amount of time to that pocket-sized screen we take everywhere. When we enter that world, we forget about newspapers. Perhaps more concerning is when that smart phone becomes our means to news.

Passive News Consumption

The trap of relying on social media for one's news is that we often stop seeking the news actively. Instead of finding news, we become like trout in a pool, feeding upon whatever stories happen to drift to us. Many people don't even read those articles, because unlike newspapers, articles via social media often leads us to react solely to a headline or image (oddly, “click on headline and get more information” doesn't seem to be our natural default).

The other problem with passive news is we stop thinking about all the stories we do not see. Conversely, when reading a newspaper, I typically look at other headlines on whatever page I am reading. This is mostly because I'm a visual person. When I see other engaging headlines, I'm more likely to read those stores as well, which means reading one story in a newspaper usually results in my reading two or three more, at minimum.

But I find a different visual experience when visiting an online news site, even one I have a subscription to. Perhaps its because once I select a particular article, the other headlines disappear from my attention and I forget all about them. Possibly it's also because the jarring difference between reading online versus holding an actual document in my hands shortens my want to read newspapers online.  I often have to print documents off the computer in order to focus. Maybe other people don't have this same experience, but it makes me unlikely to ever adjust to digital books and newspapers. 

I can only speak for myself., but I'm willing to wager that my experiences with reading are more common with majority of people than the exception. If that is the case, I cannot help but mourn the loss of stories as newspapers die out. I think about so many interesting stories I have written for newspapers that probably sunk online without reaching the feeding pool.  

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