In Defense of Print
It’s no secret that print news media have been in decline for quite a while. According to estimates made by the Pew Research Center, the number of newspapers circulating daily dropped by a devastating 55% between 1990 and 2016. The story is more or less the same for print magazine sales, as revenue from newsstand sales declined by 12.4% in 2016. Even such prestigious magazines as Time and Newsweek have not been exempt from precipitous declines in print readership; Time was even forced to slash its print circulation by a third, or about a million copies a week.
Unsurprisingly, the decline in popularity of print news media has been accompanied by a proportional increase in the popularity of online news media. 67% of American adults get some of their news through social media. Among adults under 50, that number rises to 78%. Among adults under 30, a full seven in ten prefer to consume their news either completely or almost completely through their smartphones. Furthermore, there is evidence to indicate that this is not a “both and” situation: a meager 11% of people who get news through Facebook—the largest purveyor of news among social media sites—also regularly get their news from print media. Again, this phenomenon is more pronounced among young people: a mere 5% of adults under 30 read print news regularly.
There are those among us who lament the death of print for aesthetic reasons. There’s something satisfyingly immersive about feeling the paper in one’s hands and eyeing through those plain, unadorned columns of print. One doesn’t get these sensory pleasures from running one’s thumb across a smudged phone screen as one reads tiny digitized letters which seem a pale imitation of the real thing. We’ve all heard this line of thinking from a parent or a school librarian at one point or another.
Yet, as evidenced by the low rates of print readership among young people, we fail to be convinced by this argument. Aesthetic arguments are extremely difficult to present in a compelling manner because they tend to rely on subjective premises; if I enjoy reading articles on my phone more than in print, it seems utterly bizarre to try to convince me that my subjective preference is wrong. We would find it similarly bizarre, for example, for someone to make unironically the argument that milk chocolate is objectively better than dark chocolate. If I prefer milk chocolate and you prefer dark chocolate, I am in no position to tell you that you are wrong for liking dark chocolate. It is simply a matter of taste.
However, in the case of print vs. online news media, I contend that there is more at stake than just taste. The choice to consume news on or offline has far more important consequences than does the choice to eat milk or dark chocolate. In the former case, the way we process information, and therefore the way we interface with the world, is at stake, and this is not simply an aesthetic matter. In fact, there are good reasons to be deeply worried that the developing transition from print to online media will open the door (in fact, has already opened the door) to the proliferation of misleading ideological narratives that serve only to obscure the truth.
What is the major difference between print and online news, apart from the aesthetic difference in the reading experience? The most important difference is that in online media, there is a middleman, whereas print media goes directly from source to consumer. In the vast majority of cases, when reading news online, the information to which the reader is exposed is selected either by a search engine or some social media platform. In either case, there is some filter standing between the reader and the content; most people do not read content directly from the site to which it was posted. Rather, there is some agent, namely the programmer at Facebook or Google or some other online news distributor who designed the news filtration algorithm that decides what the reader sees and does not see. The gradual shift from print to digital news media, therefore, is necessarily accompanied by a shift of the locus of agency from reader to distributor. In other words, where it has historically been incumbent on the consumer to choose what sources to consult, that task is now shared between the reader and the programmers in Silicon Valley who design the algorithms that determine which sources the reader sees.
This weakening of reader agency is a problematic development. To explain why, indulge me for a moment as I propose a brief thought experiment. Imagine a state of affairs in which there is no online news, but only print news (this shouldn’t be too difficult considering that this was more or less the case up until about 20 years ago, give or take). How does a reader intent on obtaining reliable information go about doing so? She reads a wide variety of sources with different biases, and then sorts out what they agree on, what they disagree on, and attempts to discern what truth underlies all of them. Now imagine a state of affairs in which there is no print news, but only online news. In this case, how does a reader intent on obtaining reliable information go about doing so? We want to say that she would employ more or less the same method with the inconsequential alteration that she read the articles online. But here’s the problem: the obvious avenues by which to acquire access to different sources are themselves biased. As Pew’s research shows, 78% of adults under 50 consume their news through social media. Even if one chooses not to use social media, how often does the average consumer go directly to a news site, rather than employ a search engine? These too filter information in a biased manner; the entire function of search engines is to prioritize certain search results over others. The bias need not be conscious on the part of the programmers, but definitionally, there is no way to filter sources without bias. This bias may be benign, but there is no reason to assume that it would be. It would only take a relatively small number of programmers to adopt a common orthodoxy and instantiate it in their source selection algorithm to create an echo chamber out of which even the most conscientious reader could not escape. In a state of affairs where the news business was monopolized by a small number of filtering sources, it is conceivable that truth could be seriously, even insurmountably obscured, should certain points of view be excluded from selection by the algorithm.
To be clear, this is a hypothetical musing about a possible state of affairs that we would want to avoid; I do not mean to suggest that current trends in news consumption closely resemble this theoretical situation. However, there are some trends that we should regard with suspicion. For one, as recently as May 2016, Facebook was caught filtering conservative sources out of its news feed. The company itself has openly admitted that each user’s news feed is determined based on their online activity (which posts they like, what ads they click on, etc.). Google’s news feed takes a similar approach, personalizing news to the specific preferences of individuals. This is concerning, because it prevents (or at least discourages) readers from consulting sources that contradict their own biases. True, a determined and responsible reader can surmount this obstacle for the moment, but why should she have to? Would it not be better if the onus was on the reader to go out and find sources herself? Of course, biased source selection would still be possible, but at least there would be no systemic forces encouraging readers to give in to their own ideological predilections and ignore all contravening evidence.
Given the severity of the consequences that can follow if we continue to hand over agency to algorithms, what can we do in the interest of preserving reader autonomy? There are two things, in my view. First, we have to take care that as new technologies develop, so does our ethical sophistication in dealing with them. Irina Raicu has made some interesting suggestions in this vein, advocating that workers in Silicon Valley be given an ethical education in addition to their technical education. This is absolutely necessary. Nothing is more dangerous than morally unmoored power, and so we should do all that we can to ensure that we integrate new technologies into our lives with any eye toward their ethical ramifications. Secondly, it wouldn’t kill us to crack a book every now and then. Buy a paper subscription to a newspaper or magazine; you may discover that you were missing more than you thought.
(Overhead photo: A couple reads the newspaper. Source: Getty Images)