OP-ED | Popular Science Dumps Comments, Illustrates Major Problem In Digital News
Newspapers — at least the kind that appear on actual paper and are thrown on driveways and doorsteps every morning — are dying.
This isn’t groundbreaking news. Newspapers continue to focus more on their digital products, often at the cost of the print edition.
I’ve accepted this reality. I know that one day I’ll no longer thumb, page-by-page, through a physical copy of The Hartford Courant. In fact, the appearance of this very column on CTNewsJunkie is evidence that I’m a willing participant in the new media landscape.
Even so, that doesn’t mean I necessarily like this change. In fact, I have identified three specific reasons I dislike this shift to online newspapers, beginning with:
*Anonymous, online commenters. Nothing sullies my experience of reading an online newspaper more than the “trolls” who comment on stories, especially political ones. How often must I read the diatribes of conservative cranks and liberal grumblers who are more interested in insulting each other than discussing the issues?
I should temper my reaction because it’s all part of the “90-9-1 rule,” according to the Knight Digital Media Center: “90 percent of people won’t post any comments, 9 percent will post infrequently, and 1 percent will account for the vast majority of the postings.”
In other words, “Only a very small percentage of readers usually will comment on any given news story or blog posting, and most comments will be made by a relative handful of frequent posters who may not be representative of general readership.”
Many online sites have limited the unrestrained, insulting, and self-important drivel by requiring readers to register or to comment through Facebook accounts. Nevertheless, the comments that remain can change the focus of a story and skew readers’ understanding of news, leading to the second reason I prefer physical newspapers:
*Online news is often misinterpreted. CTNewsJunkie recently featured a story about how editors for Popular Science decided to eliminate online comments. They did so after two University of Wisconsin researchers found that readers of science-related news articles “may be influenced as much by the comments at the end of the story as they are by the report itself.”
The study included 2,000 people who read a “balanced news report about nanotechnology followed by a group of invented comments. All saw the same report but some read a group of comments that were uncivil, including name-calling. Others saw more civil comments.”
“Disturbingly, readers’ interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story,” according to the study’s authors, Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele. “In other words, just the tone of the comments . . . can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself.”
Multiply that finding by the total number of online articles and by the accompanying comments; you’re left with a lot of warped views, which brings up my final reason for disliking online newspapers:
*My preference for traditional newspapers makes me feel old. I like reading a newspaper and developing my own interpretation of the news without the interference of quick links, videos, and seething reactions of a vocal minority.
Clearly, I am not as hip as the “info snackers” who scan news-aggregating websites — Reddit, Fark, Google News — reading just enough news to satisfy their personal appetites. I prefer the broader approach that the meaty, traditional newspapers provided. More importantly, I prefer original news stories written by an endangered species: actual reporters who work for the entity that publishes their stories.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in the information industry peaked in 2001 and have declined ever since. Specifically, newspaper publishers employed approximately 400,000 people in 2001 and about 245,000 in 2011.
What’s more, the total number of reporters and correspondents in the entire information industry is predicted to shrink 6 percent by 2020.
Not exactly halcyon days for American journalism — at least not in the eyes of an old-school newspaper reader like me.
Perhaps I’m overreacting. The publishing world has survived transitions before — from stone tablets to printing presses and from television to the Internet. I just hope that journalism — the responsible, informative, and authentic kind required of our democracy — can survive, too.