Reading Behind the Headlines
By Ken Walker-
I recently interviewed a University of Illinois law professor about her study of Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings by churches in recent years, a story that will appear online soon at Christianity Today.
The morning we talked, she was preparing to do a guest lecture at the University of Minnesota. Discussing the proclivities of college students for reading via iPads, smart phones and other electronic devices, she remarked, “In another 10 years, there probably won’t be any magazines. Everyone will read material electronically.”
I disagreed, based on what a faculty member at a branch campus of Ohio University (my alma mater) told me recently. He remarked that what surprised him was how many college students still read magazines. He said they carried them around campus, into class and talked about the stories in them.
“Not my students,” the professor replied. “Everyone is reading on some kind of device.”
Huge Online Audience
As someone who grew up reading a newspaper—a habit that is nearly impossible to break—I have to acknowledge this professor is likely right.
Several years ago, I wrote a story for CT that wound up never appearing in print. The editor I was working with at the time remarked that I would still get paid; I mentioned that probably just as many people would read it online as they would in the magazine. He replied that their online audience was 15 times larger than the print publication’s.
It may be even larger now, although I still wonder how one differentiates between a serious print reader and someone who hurtles through cyberspace and may only linger for two seconds.
The Death of Libraries
As if to accentuate that law professor’s prediction, later the same day someone had posted a link in a Linked In forum to a story headlined, “Libraries Will Become Museums Soon.”
In it, the author noted how personal libraries are increasingly located on small tablets in coffee shops and internet cafes.
Henry Buell wrote that university students have discovered the copy machine is a poor substitute for copying and pasting. In addition, he says authors are seeing that numerous readers willing to spend $1 on an e-book won’t risk $5 on a paperback.
Individually these may seem like unrelated occurrences, but collectively they signal the end of an era—being hastened by Facebook and a campaign to connect the world to the internet, Buell wrote.
“While that connectivity may seem to have little to do with print libraries, the two are very much intertwined,” he says. “Print libraries are static repositories of information, while the internet is a dynamic information repository.
“Obviously a dynamic information resource is better than a static one, but there is much more to the issue than that. The internet is free, and libraries are not.”
As one who loves libraries as much as newspapers, I hope Buell is wrong. For one, a library is more than a repository of information. It is also a government center where health departments give flu shots and IRS forms are readily available.
Libraries also serve as a community center, vital resource center (particularly for those of modest incomes) and—now that video stores have been supplanted by inferior, automated machines with limited inventories—free DVD “rental” centers.
The Value of Information
However, there is another issue at play here that many overlook in the shift from traditional print to ever-changing online data: Good writing will never go out of style. Granted, younger folks may turn their iPad on in the morning while I’m turning the pages of a newspaper, but they are still searching for information.
This information doesn’t magically appear on a screen. It’s there because someone took the time to gather it, sift through it, analyze it and transmit it. The end user may receive it in different form, but the value is still there.
In the future, information readers may never pick up a paper copy of The New York Times, but that won’t make the data it transmits any less valuable.