The Newspaper Isn’t Dead Yet

Why newsprint still beats the Kindle.

A few years ago, after receiving one too many shocking credit card bills, I canceled my daily subscription to the New York Times. It wasn’t an easy decision; though I write for the Web and read almost all of my news online, I’ve always loved newsprint. My infatuation wasn’t a product of mere nostalgia or habit: As I’ve written before, there’s no better way to get a full picture of what’s happened around the world than by reading a newspaper. The paper is portable, easy to find, easy to use, and, best of all, skimmable—it lets you glance at several stories at once and read as much or as little as you’d like without getting lost in the weeds.

But newspapers are expensive (it costs $770 a year for daily delivery of the Times) and slow. My phone offers newer news than what’s in this morning’s paper, and for free, too! Nowadays I regard newspapers as a luxury; I read them in airplanes and hotels, when I’ve got time and spotty Internet access and I’m feeling flush enough to spend a buck or two for yesterday’s news. Still, there’s much I miss about the paper—which is why I had high hopes for the Kindle DX, Amazon’s new large-screen electronic reader.

Amazon says the device is ideal for reading newspapers. When the company unveiled the DX last month, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the Times, called it “an important milestone in the convergence between print and digital.” Sulzberger is right, I guess: After using it for a week, I can say the new Kindle is a good first attempt at melding what’s great about papers with what’s great about digital devices. The trouble is, it’s not nearly good enough.

You can think of the DX as the Hummer of Kindles. The standard Kindle has a 6-inch screen, weighs less than a pound, holds 1,500 books, and sells for $359. The DX has a 9.7-inch screen, weighs a bit more than a pound, holds 3,500 books, and sells for $489. The DX, unlike the standard version, also has a built-in PDF reader, and it can be used either in portrait or landscape mode—the text shifts when you rotate it, just like on an iPhone. In every other respect, the big Kindle is the same as the small one: It has the same great E Ink display and the same instant wireless access to Amazon’s huge online store. And it’s just as addictive—you find yourself unable to put it down, buying and reading more books than you ever have before.

The DX also has a few obvious advantages over print newspapers. It’s cheaper than the national dailies—subscriptions go for between $6 and $15 a month, depending on the paper. You can buy a new DX and get a year’s subscription to the NYT’s Kindle editionfor about $650, less than you’d pay for delivery of the paper. (The NYT, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post have all said they plan to offer subsidies for new Kindles to customers who live in areas where the papers don’t deliver, but details, so far, are sketchy.) The DX is also more portable than the newspaper, giving you the ability to carry several dailies at a time and to read on a train without elbowing your fellow commuters in the face. Plus, you can take the Kindle along with you on vacation, it never gets drenched in the rain, and your neighbors can’t steal it in the morning.

But both versions of the Kindle are missing what makes print newspapers such a perfect delivery vehicle for news: graphic design. The Kindle presents news as a list—you’re given a list of sections (international, national, etc.) and, in each section, a list of headlines and a one-sentence capsule of each story. It’s your job to guess, from the list, which pieces to read. This turns out to be a terrible way to navigate the news.

Every newspaper you’ve ever read was put together by someone with an opinion about which of the day’s stories was most important. Newspapers convey these opinions through universal, easy-to-understand design conventions—they put important stories on front pages, with the most important ones going higher on the page and getting more space and bigger headlines. You can pick up any page of the paper and—just by reading headlines, subheads, and photo captions—quickly get the gist of several news items. Even when you do choose to read a story, you don’t have to read the whole thing. Since it takes no time to switch from one story to another, you can read just a few paragraphs and then go on to something else.

For instance, look at page A25 of the national edition of Thursday’s Times, which contains four stories: a big piece on the Obama administration’s decision to fire a federal inspector general; a smaller story on the administration’s plan to replace members of the White House bioethics panel; a piece about asbestos contamination in Libby, Mont.; and a small wire-service story about Sen. Roland Burris’ inconsequential meeting with an Illinois state prosecutor. A newspaper skimmer can get through this page in less than two minutes. The IG and bioethics stories are obviously the most important, so you dip into those for about 45 seconds each. Then you spend about 15 seconds on the asbestos story, followed by five seconds on the Burris item, which is just five paragraphs long. Going like this, you can easily get through the whole A section in less than a half hour.

Getting through these same stories on the Kindle is much harder and more tedious. First, they’re out of order. When I scrolled through Thursday’s national section on my Kindle, the shortest and least newsworthy of these pieces—the Burris story—came first. Worse, because the Kindle gives every story the same headline font, the list item doesn’t clue you in to the story’s slightness. The only way to know if a story merits your attention is to click on it. But clicking is time-consuming—the Kindle takes a half-second or so to switch between a section list and a story, and another half-second to switch back. This sounds nearly instant, but it’s not; the delay is just long enough to change the way you read the news. Now, instead of skimming, you find yourself reading the newspaper as you would a book—when you find a story, you stick with it until the end. You trade breadth for depth: In 30 minutes of reading the Kindle, you get further into a lot fewer stories.

The Kindle’s newspaper-as-list design made sense on the original version of the device, which didn’t have enough screen space to show you a graphical version of the paper. But the DX’s screen is massive—and that’s precisely what’s so disappointing about it. According to an Amazon rep, nothing in the Kindle store has been formatted specifically for the DX—all content displays the same way on both devices. This means that much of the DX’s extra screen space is wasted.

It’s easy to imagine a solution for this. Newspapers could feed Kindle a version of their content that carries information about each story’s relative importance; the Kindle could then read this data and display stories in a semi-graphical way rather than as a staid list. Many papers already have this information on hand, because they already rank stories on their Web sites.

Until then, though, the Kindle is an imperfect match for the paper. Indeed, it’s not even as good as a smartphone. At about 10:30 last night, I loaded up my Kindle expecting to find today’s newspaper—which, after all, had already been posted online. But all I found was old news; the Kindle updates once a day, in the middle of the night. My iPhone gets news all the time, and, through each paper’s Web site, it shows me the news in a way that suggests what’s important. It makes calls, too.

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