Thursday, November 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The problem of pro-computer bias

The problem of pro-computer bias

 

If you're at work and reading this blog post on the computer, it may not be for you.

As you know, I've been avidly following the swelling discussion about the future of news and information in America. While generally my lot is cast with the radical reformers -- who say the newspaper model is broken and the world is waiting for what comes next -- over the curmudgeons, there is one area where I think the reformers tend to fall short.

They...we, whatever...forget that not everyone in American society is like them (or us). That is to say, walking around 14 hours a day with a computer screen practicially bolted to front of their forehead. Millions of people live and work that way -- sure,  pointy-headed elitists (cue "smiley face") like journalists or college professors but also business people, engineers, executive assistants, customer service reps, etc., etc. 

On the other hand, millions of workers either aren't on a computer at all -- construction workers, landscapers -- or only part-time (like cops, who now have computers in their patrol cars but may not have Internet access) and not in the same time-wasting fashion as the stereotypical cubicle inmate. Yet their interest in -- and need for -- news and information is every bit intense, which is why they still gravitate toward the print medium.

This comes up a lot when we talk about the future of the Philadelphia Daily News -- and it should. I stumbled recently across something I wrote a couple of years ago (no link) that said: 

The Daily News, in particular, had survived rough times by appealing largely to a niche that was otherwise largely ignored—the bulk of our readers were urban, older, and working class, and we had a higher percentage of African American readers than any other big-city paper in the nation. For example, a 2007 survey found that 28.5 percent of our readers are “blue collar” – higher than the overall city (21.5 percent) and much higher than the rival Inquirer (18.5 percent). What’s more, Daily News readers lived in a city that—despite some award-winning investigative reporting—was still run by a Democratic political machine that was just as “corrupt and contented” as in 1904, when muckraker Lincoln Steffens famously described Philadelphia with those words. How much more amok would Philly’s sleazy politicians run if one of the two papers was shut down, or if more investigative reporting slots were slashed?

My point isn't that blue-collar or urban Philadelphians aren't computer users or even computer-savvy -- many of them are, although there is still much work ahead to close the digitial divide in this city and across America. But the nature of their work and their commuting routine may be such that they're still better served by a print product than a screaming 24/7 Web site. 

That's why I was interested to see the editor of the Spanish-language publication El Diario made this exact same point over the weekend (h/t Romenesko):

 

 ALBERTO VOURVOULIAS: ....El Diario knows its readership, and we have a readership that on the one hand involves Latinos in the New York/New Jersey area, recent immigrants as well as people who have been here for several generations, and also our audience is very much a working-class/lower-middle-class audience. We feel that the information we provide to them is essential information that really is most effectively given through a newspaper form rather than through other media.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why is that?

ALBERTO VOURVOULIAS: Many of our readers don't have desk jobs, which means they don't spend all day in front of a monitor checking up on websites to see what the latest news is. And, therefore, they take the paper into the office, share it with the people they work with, take it home at night and share it with their families.

I'm trying to point out the unique challenge of preserving journalism and the vital exchange of public information in a Rust Belt city like Philadelphia. A Web-only newspaper might work in the home city of Microsoft, Amazon.com, and Starbucks. In the home city of....lots of civil servants? Not as much. I agree that printed news is a little like dirty bathwater these days, but you can't throw the baby -- a unique, non-transferable readership -- out with bathwater.

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Will Bunch
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