Who’s Better Informed, Newspaper Readers or Web Surfers?

What if there were no newspapers anymore? Some people, mainly newspaper reporters and publishers, are warning that this is where we’re heading. And they declare, as with a single loud voice, “You’ll be sorry!” To save ourselves 50 cents or a buck, they say, we will be denying ourselves crucial knowledge that we need to be well-informed citizens of a democracy.

Even in the good old days when newspapers were hugely profitable, readers weren’t paying for what they read in newspapers. That 50 cents or a buck barely paid for the paper and ink, let alone the delivery—and never mind the cost of the content. More customers than ever are eager to read newspapers, and they demonstrate that every day by going to newspaper Web sites. By foregoing paper and ink, the readers are saving newspaper publishers more money than it would cost to produce and deliver the paper the old-fashioned way. Newspapers’ financial troubles cannot be blamed on the readers. Nevertheless, publishers—almost as disenchanted with advertisers as the advertisers are disenchanted with newspapers—look to readers for their salvation.

Newspaper enthusiasts point out, correctly, that much of the news on the Web comes from newspapers, especially the major national newspapers such as the Washington Post (owner of Slate) and the New York Times. Only after these newspapers disappear will we appreciate how much we needed them, and by then it will be too late. In fact, they don’t even need to disappear completely: The formerly great Los Angeles Times shows how a newspaper can get squeezed into irrelevance.

What, exactly, will disappear with newspapers varies from jeremiad to jeremiad. The war over the physical medium is just about over. The economics of Web publishing are just too advantageous. Newspapers of the future, whatever their content or ownership, will be read on a screen of some sort, be it a computer monitor, a Kindle, an iPhone, or other “platforms” yet to be developed.

But how else will they be different from the newspapers of today (or a couple of years ago)? What of value will be missing? The lists tend to reflect the subjective tastes of the listmakers. But typically these lists include 1) local and community news; 2) international news (in particular that iconic Baghdad bureau); 3) investigative and “enterprise” journalism at all levels; and 4) serendipity—stories you stumble across as you turn the pages of a newspaper. (No one seems overly alarmed about national news or about commentary and analysis of any sort. As a paid-up member of the commentariat, I note this bitterly but without comment. It would be hard to argue that there is a shortage of opinions on the Internet.)

Item No. 4—serendipity—was a major concern in the early days of the Web. People argued that by letting your eye be drawn to a news story outside of your normal range of interests, the newspaper prevented you from becoming a blindered drone who knew everything about sports and business and nothing about everything else. I think it’s clear by now that hyperlinks provide serendipity of a deeper sort. Who can read a Web site straight through without getting waylaid by some link and plunged into a world you knew nothing about until this moment? As for the other three areas of concern: Local news is bubbling with startups, while proposals for international and enterprise journalism are among the most promising topics for foundation grant proposals.

So, Daddy, are we there yet? Have we reached the point where newspapers are no longer necessary? Starting Tuesday, Slate will be conducting a highly unscientific experiment. For three days, two (mostly) newspaper journalists will return to the time (now 15 years ago) when if you wanted to read the news (as opposed to watching it on television), you had to buy a physical object called a newspaper. They will each spend no more than an hour every day reading whatever English-language papers are available where they live. The two are Timothy Egan, columnist (and blogger!) for the New York Times, and Sam Howe Verhovek, formerly a reporter for both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Since both men live in Seattle, they will be more or less limited to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Seattle Times, and whatever other current newspaper(s) they can get their hands on. (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently stopped publishing on paper; the Washington Post has virtually no national paper distribution.) Tim and Sam are on scout’s honor not to try anything too cute—such as getting the Post faxed to them. And, of course, they won’t be allowed to read any news, even if gathered by a bona-fide newspaper, online.

For the same three days, another team of two (mostly) Web journalists—Emily Yoffe (aka Prudence) and Seth Stevenson, both of Slate, will get all their news from the Web. The trick, of course, will be to exclude Web sites that are primarily shovelware (newspaper material dumped unchanged onto a Web site) or aggregation (sites or site features that strain the limits of fair use in order to summarize what’s in newspapers).

Aggregation is hard to define. In a way, virtually all journalism is aggregation, and this has been true since long before the arrival of the World Wide Web. What percentage of my own column is rehashed (or let’s say “rethought”) material from the New York Times? Please don’t answer that. The Times itself could hardly be published without the Washington Post, and vice versa. Perhaps the best definition of aggregation is Justice Potter Stewart’s about pornography: I know it when I see it. Our Web team will be on scout’s honor to avoid what is clearly newspaper material. (Politico would be OK. The Huffington Post, or most of it, would not. In Slate, John Dickerson on politics and Fred Kaplan on military affairs are clearly original material. “Today’s Papers” clearly is not. In any event, Emily and Seth will post a list of the sites they consulted, and you may decide for yourself if they cheated in any way.)

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons this week, we will post a discussion of the day’s news in which our guinea pigs’ knowledge and understanding—or ignorance and misunderstanding—of the news will be informally tested. You can play along, if you want. Just choose a side and follow the simple rules. Or you can continue reading newspapers and surfing the Web as usual. That would make you part of the control group.