A future for print?

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Sometimes it seems to me like the march of “progress” is so enamored of the bright, shiny future that it too readily jettisons the best of the past. This particularly feels like the case regarding the way many have dismissed the world of print in the face of today’s ever-changing digital devices.

Now, I’m no troglodyte. I use a computer and an Android smartphone all day long, and appreciate the many things I can do with them. I also have an iPad (which I consider a work of art, and use mostly for Skyping).

But when it comes to reading? Well, that’s another matter. To really get a sense of the day’s news, or to enjoy a well-written feature article, or to absorb the insights of an intriguing author, there’s nothing like a newspaper, magazine or book.

I think I’m probably preaching to the choir, here. We’ve conducted a number of reader surveys and found Beacon readers strongly agree with me. After all, the vast majority of you are reading this paper in its physical, printed version right now, though we are readily available online and through our mobile app.

We’ve learned that 49 percent of you regularly turn to the Internet “for information.” But when we asked what would be your preferred medium for reading an article longer than a few paragraphs, 75 percent preferred printed publications to any type of screen.

What’s more interesting is that recent studies have found that it’s not only us 50+ types who feel this way. Surprisingly, most of today’s college students and other “digital natives” say they strongly prefer reading in print to reading on screens, for both pleasure and learning purposes.

Yes, you read that correctly. In fact, according to a Pew study of reading in America, the age group that was most likely to have a read a book in print (not an ebook) in the past year was 18- to 29-year-olds (73 percent), with 50- to 64-year-olds close behind (71 percent).

With the far higher use of digital devices by young people compared with older adults, how can we explain this?

Naomi Baron, a professor at American University, interviewed hundreds of college students in America, Germany, Japan and Slovakia for her recent book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. Her surveys reveal that they find comprehension far superior with printed books than on screens.

Not only is it easier to take notes and find your place after a break, but it’s easier to focus, to measure your progress, and to read carefully.

The constant distractions offered by Internet-connected devices make it nearly impossible to concentrate on learning, Baron was told time and again. “Over 92 percent...said they concentrate best when reading a hard copy,” she wrote in the Washington Post.

Now as for readership of news, the news is less sanguine. In a recent opinion piece in The Hill, Washington-based political pollster Mark Mellman recently lamented the scant attention younger people pay to national and international news stories.

He noted a Pew study found that only 5 percent of Americans under 30 “claimed to actually follow political/Washington news ‘very closely.’ Those 65 and older were five times more likely to do so.”

Older Americans were also “three times more likely to follow news about local government than those under 30.”

He attributed this to the fact that most young people do not enjoy following the news, and tend to gather knowledge of world affairs only incidentally (and briefly) on Internet sites such as Facebook. 

Furthermore, true “news consumers generally spend very little time on Internet news sites,” Mellman reported. A McKinsey study traced the vast majority of news consumption (92 percent) to TV, radio and newspapers, and only 8 percent to smartphones, tablets and computers.

Will the younger generations’ strong preference for printed books someday translate into readership of newspapers and more interest in current events? Mellman isn’t optimistic.

“As members of each generation aged between 2004 and 2012, Pew reported little change in the amount of time they spent following news. Older people remained substantial news consumers, while the young continued to be far less attentive,” he wrote.

There seems to be a pattern here. What’s of most concern to people, they read in print, whatever their age.