an accidental education: old news

Randomly chosen newspaper spread with stories grouped under two page headings. The wide field of vision allows many other connections/reasons-to-read

The Death of Print is a phrase regularly bandied about since the invention of TV (and probably radio before that), appearing with renewed vigour with the arrival of every new communications platform. The actual death of some newspapers and print publications lends urgency to the drama, but the reality is less apocalyptic. Jobs are lost, companies fail, the media landscape changes, but old formats (with the notable exception of the unloved videocassette) assume new roles rather than become extinct. The life and death struggle of old vs. new media is the easy narrative but old media has unique value which should ensure at least a modest survival.

New media platforms have given us massive advances in accessibility and empowerment – but they also come with a predisposition for targeted communication, ‘narrowcasting’ and self-selection.  Old media, print especially, has one underappreciated benefit that is absent from the new stuff. It doesn’t decide quite so forcefully in advance what information will be of value to me, limiting what I might learn about the world.

Such education as I have I put down to 1970s BBC2 as much as anything in my schooling. Growing up in a New Town offered little amusement or stimulation for the eye & brain.  With only 2/3 channels on the box, it was BBC2’s TV documentaries, satire, and most of all foreign-language films that piqued my interest in a wider world that I had little opportunity to see for myself.  Buñuel, Fassbinder, Fellini, Herzog, Godard, Wenders etc. offered mysterious puzzles and visions of possibility. In blissful ignorance, I found figuring out what the hell was really going on was part of the pleasure (my kind of whodunit). From these films I acquired a lot of my interest in imagery, language, communication and ideas. Now, we largely purchase/decide in advance what we want to see – this advance commitment colours our appreciation and encourages a conservative outlook.

With the old-school print news that we still have, access to the unexpected is broad and easy. In a newspaper spread of some 5,000 words of text and imagery, skilful typography allows me to scan, skim-read and make my own personal choices and connections beyond the initial clues offered by page headings. I took a Guardian spread at random (see above) and  plotted interests from business to personal against the dozen stories nominally grouped under ‘International’ and ‘Financial’. Turns out the story about the new Boeing plane held most interest for me, with design, environment, personal and other connections – several other stories also had interest not suggested by the page headings. So whatever I choose to read on any given day: Palestine, a ‘people story’ or the Psychic Octopus – my choices are lead by mood and personal interests rather than the bland page headings – that might be my only points of entry on-screen. Also the headlines, pictures and summaries of stories I don’t read give me a much better general sense of what is going on in print. Every day I come away from the paper knowing something (important or trivial) that I didn’t know before. I may have forgotten the detail by lunchtime but a sense of what is new, different, good, bad in the world remains.

The Guardian on iPad: a great but highly selective media experience

I am no Luddite, honest. I’m a convert to the practical info-sharing value of Twitter, I read online news and I find The Guardian on iPad to be a really pleasant experience – they did a great job of exploiting the format’s potential. But onscreen I am navigating a narrower distillation of options, presented in small pieces that work better on screen (still the poor relation in readability terms).  It saves me time, but online I may miss the personal connection in the superficially dull business story, not see the amazing photograph that finally brings to life an obscure political story, overlook the revolutionary idea in the dry science report.  These things are easier to pick up in ‘slow’ print. Narrowcasting is great when you are looking for the specific – but the odds of valuable chance discovery are diminished.

With shortening attention spans, our patience to absorb media slowly has all but evaporated. There is a clear role for slow communication alongside new media. I want Twitter, iPad, websites and the innovations to come, but I don’t always want someone ‘helping’ me by making my choices for me. I want keep some old media so I can still stumble across great stories, ideas, music, images relatively unmediated. I don’t always want ‘helpful’ suggestions from iTunes, Amazon or Rupert Murdoch (or the BBC, or The Guardian come to that). I have personally learned a lot from print news and old broadcast media. We must value and defend our remaining slow media sources like the beleaguered BBC (almost the sole free-to-air provider of non-mainstream content via BBC4, 6music etc.) – and keep news in print going as long as the trees hold up.

Lets hear it for the unexpected, for temporary bafflement, for knowledge-you-didn’t-know-you wanted and accidental education!

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