The new news

Your columnist no longer reads a newspaper daily, in print. For the most part, it began as a logistical necessity. Given frequent travel abroad, it was very difficult to accurately monitor dues after stopping and re-starting newspaper delivery several times during a billing cycle. The quality of mainstream media and the rising price of newsprint was another issue. One pays increasingly more for mediocre journalism supported by advertisements, leading to journalism that as the adage goes, is unfit to wrap dead fish in. Finally, by virtue of monitoring mainstream media, office subscribes to leading newspapers, negating the need for a personal subscription.

What stopped in print, started online. Your columnist now reads most daily and weekend newspapers on the web. There are some advantages. Long term archival, for example, is easier. The humidity of the tropics makes archiving newsprint in its original form, over the long term, just untenable. The flow of reading online is better. Most newspapers break up stories across several pages and sections. On the web, it’s usually one chunk of text, start to end, top to bottom. Browser technologies have improved. On Apple’s Safari, merely pressing a button renders even the most inelegantly laid out text in a more readable, beautifully laid out format. On other browsers, extensions like Read It Later help with archiving content for more leisurely reading, like long form journalism.

This technology has influenced reading patterns. It’s more easily time shifted – what is read on a particular day, because it is accessible on demand, from anywhere, on any device, is re-read and referenced with ease many moons after the content was first published. Much more content is consumed. Carefully tailored news syndication feeds into Google Reader result in around 300 new(s) stories every morning, that because of the nature of the platform, are dismissed, forwarded, archived, republished, annotated and read in less than an hour with little effort. Email updates based on keyword searches through Google arrive whenever something goes up anywhere on the web related to issues, processes, people and places your columnist is interested in. A daily news digest, timed to arrive in the Inbox in the evening is quickly scanned for any information that requires urgent attention or review, missed out during the day.

Yet something of the old media world is deeply missed. The serendipitous discovery of news and information, for example. We all now live in so-called ‘filter bubbles’, consuming information either curated by us, or for us. Some of this curation is human, which offers agency and choice to the few who wish to really engage with difference and divergent opinion. Some of this curation is technical, based on invisibly cultivated metrics of our online behaviour and web browsing habits. This is potentially more dangerous, because there’s no off switch – we believe we are freely exposed to information, but in fact, the search results, suggestions, featured feeds, syndicated content and web highlights are all crafted carefully to match, inter alia, our socio-economic, political, religious bias and geo-location. Where it was previously the role of the journalist to craft the salient points of a story and the sole prerogative of the Editor to curate the day’s news and its presentation, sophisticated algorithms snaking their way through the low monotone of server farms are the new, pervasive determinant in what we read. Most missed is the feel of newsprint – how decades ago, reading a paper meant to literally get fingers darkened with newsprint, how quick flick of tongue on finger would help turn page in earnest or disgust, how crackle of fresh newsprint would greet the morning, and the smell of paper and ink alongside breakfast tea. The tactile and olfactory pleasure of reading a newspaper is wholly lost in the digital world. And gone too is the singular attention devoted to reading. Reading has gone from the analogue and personal to the digital and social – one now comments on what your friends are reading, and tell them about what one is reading, in tandem with actually reading. The resulting loss in critical comprehension is considerable, yet is the new norm.

Consuming and generating media almost purely in digital form has some advantages. You can’t burn down a website. You can’t kill a pseudonym, or abduct an idea that goes viral online. Our children are already part of one billion people on Facebook alone – nearly the population of India on a single online social network with a news economy beyond any one government to regulate or censor. Christopher Hitchens famously noted that he became a journalist because he did not want to rely on newspapers for information. Digital media platforms make this increasingly possible for lesser mortals.

But for those who grew up with it, the newspaper is missed, and always picked up.


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