Monday, March 12, 2007

I never read newspapers in school, and I turned out fine

The Newspapers in Education Program provides free or low cost newspapers for classrooms via local newspapers. To get it in your school, you need to contact your local newspaper and see if they participate (here's the link for my local paper, the Houston Chronicle). It sounds like a great idea. However, times have changed.

When I was in school, we did not get any newspaper. However, I did not grow up without newspapers. My parents made it point to make sure we got at least one newspaper in the house. I remember my father reading the newspaper at a glance before heading for work and then reading it more closely when he got home; my father did not have the kind of work where you could sit around reading a newspaper. My mother read most of it at home. This was before the Internet, but even today, my parents still get a local newspaper. I got my habit of reading a newspaper from them, though that habit has given way to reading my news online. We even dropped any newspaper subscriptions we had in print at my home. My wife has been a bit slower in adapting to reading the news online, but saving a few bucks was attractive enough.

In my case, I pretty much don't have much use for a local newspaper. If I want local coverage, I look to any local alternative newspapers, then to any local bloggers, and sometimes the online edition of newspapers like the Houston Chronicle, but I get its headlines in a feed reader. Now, I am sure there is some reader out there cringing at the thought of a librarian who pretty much cares little for the local paper. I can get any local information I need online just fine. At any rate, most local newspapers are pretty much compilations of the Associated Press, and I can simply look at AP headlines online. The local coverage is pretty much seriously lacking in most local newspapers, so I see no reason to bother. What else would one do with a newspaper? Check movie listings or other events like theater? Go online. Classifieds? I don't use them much, but I can probably go online for those. Local news from the communities? You can probably find a couple of good bloggers who pick up on and comment on the small local events. Overall, I think the local papers pretty much dropped the ball when they abdicated their role of being the local voice.

So, why am I bringing this up? Well, I came across this report: "The Internet and the Threat It Poses to Local Media." (warning: PDF file. About 20 pages, but the report itself is about 8 pages). It presents some interesting findings related to classrooms and use of news as part of the lessons. It made me think a bit of my experience with newspapers when I was in school, but it also made me think of my daughter. She is not exactly shaping up to be a newspaper reader. She reads voraciously though, and she is in the G&T program for reading in her school. However, she does not get exposure to newspapers at home, since we don't subscribe, and at the moment, none at school either. She does have access to the Internet (under adult supervision, of course), so once she gets ready to be informed, my bet is she will get her news online too. We do watch some television news, but usually it is a brief look at some local channel in the morning for the traffic and weather (i.e. I need to know how fucked up my commute will be that morning, and if the weather will make it worse); for the rest, it's CNN pretty much. If local papers are counting on getting her generation to read their print product, I am telling you right now, you may as well give up the fight because it is pretty much over. I am not saying I would not read a newspaper. If no online access were available, sure, I would look at one, but I would not go out of my way to buy one.

In a way, the study confirms some of my feelings as I have described them so far. It also shows that most newspaper editors have no idea of what the real situation is. Let me provide some highlights from the study:

  • "Though still in an early stage, Internet-based news is already the dominant news medium in America's classrooms" (5).
  • "One teacher said: 'I would use the newspaper more but that takes more time than watching television news. [But] television news is difficult because it has so much fluff. The Internet makes it easier to pick and choose'" (5).
That is another turn off for me when it comes to local newscasts. All the fluff. I usually tune out as soon as the latest "cutie" story makes an appearance on the local news. With the Internet, like that teacher, I can pick and choose what I want.

  • So, what's stopping more teachers from using the Internet? "A third of teachers said they are not yet making much use of Internet-based news because their classrooms are not equipped for it" (5). Yes, lack of access to the Internet. If they had it, they'd be there.
  • Also, according to the study, teachers do prefer print newspapers, though this seems to be declining between the old guard and the new teachers. "The Internet is their second choice, though it ranks first among teachers with five years or less of experience" (6).
So, what are the teachers using?

  • "As teachers have turned to the Internet, they have switched from hundreds of local news to a small number of national ones" (6).

I know I have switched to some broader sources, including some international sources as well. As I said, why read the recycled AP coverage in the local paper when I can get it directly from AP, as well as Reuters, EFE, and any other news agency as well as coverage from national resources like CNN? And teachers, according to the study, are also using international sites as well like the BBC. According to the study, "in other words, sites such as have a larger classroom audience than do the websites of either local newspapers or local television stations" (8).

In the meantime, it seems most newspaper people are clueless.

  • "However, America's NIE program directors are only vaguely aware of the Internet's inroads on newspaper use in the classroom" (8).
  • "NIE program directors underestimate the erosion in their newspaper's position in the classroom" (9).

Meanwhile. . .

  • "In the classroom and elsewhere, local media are losing the Internet-news revolution to 'brand name' news organizations like CNN, the BBC, and the New York Times."

The report notes that local media should not be entirely to blame for their woes because they have decided to stick with the old technology. Some economics are involved; they make more from a print subscriber than from a guy like me who may read their newspaper online. I can understand that. However, their main problem is that they simply gave up on the local coverage to try and be like the bigger national news organizations. In doing so, they abandoned what is their traditional role as well as an important part of the American citizen democracy: giving a voice to the local events and people of their own community. "What local news organizations bring to the mix is the local angle--the community's story" (10). They don't seem to be very good at that, and if they don't do it, someone else down the road will. Local newspapers and television have the resources and reporters to cover their communities, but they choose not to do so, or they do so in a small fashion. This leaves openings for various citizen reporters, bloggers for instance, to do what the local news should be doing. Maybe a solution lies in the local news nurturing some citizen reporters, some kind of partnership that favors both.

However, here is the possible significance of all this:

  • "As students learn in the classroom to rely on websites such as and, they will become accustomed to using these sites outside the classroom, thereby contributing to a permanent movement of audience away from local news outlets" (10).

Again, all I have to do is look at my own daughter to see this is true. I can add more evidence if I look at the students I work with every day. When I teach library instruction, I often ask how students get their news. A lot of them simply don't get any news, which is another problem, and it could be the topic of another post. However, those that do often say they get them on the Internet. I never get a single one mention they read the local newspaper. True, it is only anecdotal evidence, but it still says something. And then there is the whole issue of excessive reliance on online tools like Google to get information, which is the bane of professors and some librarians (I don't get fits of apoplexy when I hear of students using a search engine. I just try to educate them to better ways). But that is another post. In the meantime, I don't read newspapers, but it does not mean I don't read news. In fact, I keep track of a lot of news from a broad variety of sources. And I am doing fine.

A hat tip to Docuticker for pointing to the study. The study document includes the survey questions used for the teachers and the newspaper people.

Additional notes: After I wrote the post above, I was looking over one of my clippings files for something else, and I came across something that I can add here. Once again, serendipity is a wonderful thing.

Anyhow, Jason Kaneshiro's weblog Webomatica had a post discussing "I Don't Read Newspapers, But I'd Read Your Blog." The post is a response to a Wall Street Journal article written by Steven Rattner entitled "Red All Over" that looks at the decline in newspaper readership and blames it more on readers being interested in fluff rather than news. The blogger at Webomatica argues that is not the point, but rather that the problem is with the "container" of the information, namely the print newspaper. Mr. Kaneshiro wrote something that stuck with me (emphasis in the original):

Yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. When I pick up a print newspaper, I feel like I’m reading yesterday’s news today".

That is exactly how I feel at times when it comes to reading a print newspaper. By the time I get it, it's old news. In fact, very often I feel that way about television news as well. The local newscasts are bad in this regard. Very often, when I am glancing at that morning newscast waiting for the traffic report, I will tell my wife, "oh honey, that story, I saw it a week ago online someplace or other." I am not trying to sound smug; it's just a fact that local news not only fail at keeping up with the local news, when one looks at it closely, they don't even keep up with the national or international stuff they claim they are informing you about. Do more people want fluffy news? That's another post. The fact is the format of many local news is just not nimble enough these days. Both the WSJ article and Mr. Kaneshiro's post are worth a look as well.

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