Online News and the Rat in the Maze

reading-newspaperBring back design hierarchy for online news, one digital journalist begs as he explains the importance of print as a delivery device.

“I’ve been an online journalist for 20 years—and still, you’ll have to pry my newspaper from my cold dying hands.”

That’s strong language coming from someone who makes his living in the digital space, but Jack Shafer, senior media writer for Politico, sees a huge flaw in the way we consume our news online.

“Don’t get me wrong: I’m not some aging dead-ender who wishes it was 1995 and not 2016 and this Web thing would go away. I’ve been an online journalist for 20 years. I get most of my news from the Web as it flows to my desktop, my tablet, my phone, and now my watch,” Shafer writers in “Why Print News Still Rules.”

“But when it comes to immersion—when I really want the four winds of news to blow me deeper comprehension—my devotion to newsprint is almost cultistic,” he continues, adding, “Reading online, I comprehend less and I finish fewer articles than I do when I have a newspaper in hand. Online, I often forget why I clicked a page in the first place and start clicking on outside links until I’m tumbling through cyberspace like a marooned astronaut.”

He may make his living in the digital space, but clearly, he’s one of us…the ones who understand that the deep engagement that comes from reading in print is nearly impossible on a smartphone or computer. And he offers an interesting take on why this is.

Print, Shafer believes, is the technically superior medium to present information that is organized, curated and properly prioritized. Its physical properties enhance the experience, and its layout creates a mindful path through the broad swath of content. Beyond that, its physicality serves as an indication to the reader when they’ve had “enough.”

“Picking up a daily newspaper, you can gauge by the feel how much news there is today, something a Website can’t do. Just as the dimensions of a dinner plate communicates how much one should eat, the dry weight of a daily newspaper gives the reader signals about how much they need to read to reach news satiation. Not so on the Web, where no matter how much you read, you feel like you missed something important,” Shafer explains.

And rather than limiting your exposure to what’s important, it focuses your attention, unlike digital news which all screams at about the same incessant pace and volume.

“Newsprint’s superiority became obvious to me this summer when circumstances prevented early morning delivery of three dailies—the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. I did my best to keep informed by spending about a half hour on each newspaper’s website, scrolling and clicking. Later in the morning when the newsprint versions were delivered I was astonished to find how many worthy stories I had skipped or bailed on when reading online. To make the audiophile analogy again, the news presented in newsprint regained its full fidelity. The stories made sense in relation to one another. I felt like I was reading something whole, not something slivered.”

In this age of digital content shock, we need some hard edges around our awareness. It is this boundary that is the realm of true editorial expertise, this idea that someone has our back and is sifting through the dross to pull out the gems.

The wisdom of this is evident in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of which offer online versions of their print publications that use the same design layout and new hierarchy.

Shafter’s advice to online news publishers is clear and urgent:

“Bring back design hierarchy! Abandon the ‘throw it on the Web and see what happens’ ethos! Don’t try to trap me on your site like a rat in a maze, forever clicking,” Shafter pleads.

“Do what newspaper design has long done—direct the reader to that which is vital, tease him with that which is entertaining and frivolous, and give him a sense of a journey completed by the time he hits the last pages.”