Real news doesn’t belong on the internet

Ten years ago, I started my first job delivering papers for the Ann Arbor News. In July, the Ann Arbor News will cease operation after 174 years. Although I understand the factors that led to declining readership and revenue, I am concerned by the trend in newspapers that are cutting back or eliminating printing.

A portion of my distaste of the move to an online format is indeed rooted in personal laziness. Learning a new interface, such as Microsoft Office 2007, takes effort, and unless there are significant gains in functionality, I will try to avoid a new interface as long as possible. I still use a CRT monitor with a 4:3 aspect ratio on a regular basis.

I am willing to accept a change, once it becomes worthwhile. I still use Facebook, because sometimes I lose phone numbers. My laptop runs Vista and has a widescreen display. I set up T-Square sites for organizations I work with. Once I am reasonably assured that a product has all of its intended functionality, I am willing to give its new interface a try.

Many of the interface changes noted above accompanied significant improvements in functionality, making the change an upgrade to most users. Changes that make a product better for me, the user, are welcome—even if, as was the case with T-Square, additional features initially included additional downtime. Unfortunately, I have yet to come across an online news website that I view as an upgrade.

On a print newspaper, significant time is spent on layout. In addition to fitting a fixed number of words onto a limited amount of space, the layout of a newspaper provides organization. Headlines, for example, are set in different type sizes to imply different levels of overall importance. If I only have 10 minutes to read one or two stories, these cues let me know what the editors think is important, helping me prioritize my reading. Online, because stories can be released instantly, layouts feature competition between what’s important and what’s recent.

In general, the Internet presents a context where proper grammar and full sentences are viewed as optional and unnecessary. Many who use the Internet for communication choose not to exercise full sentences, capitalization or punctuation in their interactions. Newspapers are entering a venue with lower quality standards, but must compete using similar amounts of resources.

A key feature for printed news sources is a fairly high level of oversight before going to press. Online sources compete for speed, so fewer eyes look at a story before it becomes available to the public. While I expect a blog to come from a single source with relatively few information resources and a limited ability to verify facts, I expect stories from a newspaper—even online—to have high quality standards. Spelling errors caused by a rush to release a story cause me to wonder whether I’m reading facts or thoughts.

In addition to proofreading, editorial oversight helps to ensure that an article is worth reading. The New York Times features the motto, “All the news that’s fit to print.” Online publication, through fewer limitations, wider distribution and lower standards, renders such a motto obsolete. While a print story uses space that could otherwise go to another story, a photo, or an advertisement, an online article does not compete for this space—rather, the additional traffic would lead to additional ad revenue. Although more information is typically beneficial, online sites may be cluttered with articles that are genuinely interesting to some, but irrelevant to most.

The loss of a page layout means not only the absence of a distinct hierarchy, but also compromises general visual appeal. Because of differences between computers, the technology does not exist to deliver the same level of visual impact on a web page as on paper. This can eliminate interesting spreads to commemorate important events.

Even in papers with fixed formats, a lot of thought goes into where and how images are printed, including such extreme details as where subjects are facing. With web content, a limited number of small pictures are typically printed in a margin. The limited flexibility of online formats diminishes the value of online content and makes it less desirable.

I enjoy many features of web 2.0 venues, and like how quickly I can share articles I find online. However, I use newspapers to obtain information with high-quality writing and reasonably checked facts. Currently, online news sites do not meet this need.