Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Sudden Appearance of Newspapers for Students

Two papers to read in my house this weekend--I subscribe to The Gazette and receive The Corridor Business Journal because I do a  monthly column for them. Students, did you read a story in The Gazette today?

I’m requiring a group of university students in a media class to read at least one story from the front page of the local newspaper each day for three consecutive days.
The internet doesn’t count, so don’t try to smart-phone it in, students. Hold the dead tree in your hands.
The class has a mix of different kinds of students, but most are majoring in some communication field. And yet few, if any, are in the “newspaper habit.”
We are studying newspapers this week, one week after discussing books. At the end of the book week, we talked a bit about what literacy means, and whether it’s even possible to think “big” thoughts if you don’t experience such thoughts or stories about them in book-length form.
I posed the question to the class: Why do so many college students, who are aspiring to become educated adults, eschew reading, doing the minimum for classes and possibly less if they can get away with it? Of course, being busy is part of the answer, but while that's true, it reflects what you value in your life. I'm not less busy than most students, but I skim a newspaper and read a part of at least one book every day--it's not that hard.
One student’s answer was “peer pressure.” And, sadly, I think she has a point. Reading, while promoted in a vague sense as a “good” in our culture, is also not something that is widely seen as worthwhile in terms of what many adults do. And it’s not something, in too many cases, that the cool kids do. It’s a sign of a socially awkward nerdness, or perhaps a juvenile activity, something you did when you were 10 that is passé by the time you’re 19.

And yet, reading is so data rich, so cognitively engrossing, that I don’t think any narrative medium can truly recreate the “book experience.”

In a similar way, I’ll try to argue next week that the “newspaper experience,” even if economics and big media forces make it rarer in the future, represents something important.

What are the advantages of newspapers over google news on your smart phones?
  • The newspaper is not always “on.” You skim it in the morning over breakfast, and have been “briefed” for the day. You don’t feel the need to be instantly informed. While I favor being in the “know,” and repeatedly make the point to students that the world will consider them much more employable in any field if they become more world aware--on both the local and global levels--yet, I also think it’s healthy to get away from 24/7 “bulletin” news, which is too often pointless.
  • The newspaper contains longer narrative forms of writing. That’s a bit dicey to state in an era when page size and story length are both much, much shorter than in the past, but compared to the quick paragraph of text on the radio or TV, a newspaper story still has more time and space for reflection and context.
  • The newspaper fits into a habit of literacy. We’re talking all semester long about media literacy, and such literacy means more meaningful understanding of all media when consuming them--but, I think, the deepest media literacy, indeed the deepest experience of human life, is only possible with a dose of literal literacy. The ability to read and reflect on reading is foundational to all knowledge.

College educated adults, in every field, are to some extent professional writers. But you can’t write well if you don’t read. Sadly, too many college-age young adults are getting into post-literate habits, convinced that their electronic tribe on Facebook will post the information that they need.

Hey, that's me! My column on inside page of CBJ.
But, as class discussion starkly illustrates, if you ask many college groups basic news questions, such as: What country is Vladimir Putin president of? or Who is John Roberts? most will not know. My wife reports that recently, in a senior-level nursing capstone class, virtually none of the students could talk intelligently about ISIS--they didn’t know what it was or what it had to do with them, even in the same week when President Obama asked Congress for authority to use the U.S. military against ISIS.

The ISIS crisis illustrates a larger problem. Neil Postman worried we were amusing ourselves to death. We seem to be almost there. As the phones in our pockets have grown smarter, I don’t think it’s good that we have grown less smart.

So, students--am I full of it? Do newspapers really matter? If not--how do you accomplish your daily news briefing without a newspaper? If they do matter, why? And if so, when should you start your own personal newspaper habit?


  1. You're so right when you call reading a newspaper a habit. Just like following game scores on ESPN or checking a twitter feed, reading a newspaper is in the same habitual category. I've personally succumbed to the convenience of having my news world on my smartphone, but maybe it's time to change things up a bit.

  2. I'd have to agree with you. Newspapers really do matter. Although I don't mind having the exact same version of the paper on my computer, I understand that all of the instant news isn't always good. It is a habit and is a needed skill to hone. So at the very least with smartphones excelling at such a high speed, I wouldn't mind if an exact electronic version of the paper was sent to my phone daily. Then I wouldn't have to wade through all the different stories trying to mash together my own paper. But then I'd have to go through the trouble of setting up an account and choosing the service I want. Who has time for that? Seems like no one does nowadays even though newspapers are making it easier and easier to get their paper wherever you are.

  3. I agree, reading the newspaper is a habit. However, I think it is a habit for the generation who was not born and raised in the smart phone age. This is something that needs to change, yes... but I don't think it will. Unfortunately, the internet and smart phones is now a way of life. The new habits are to constantly have the news at your finger tips and is not something youth and this generation feel as an essential need, although it should be.