Where Logic Meets Love

Does It Matter If We Don't Read Newspapers?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

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Does It Matter If We Don't Read Newspapers? | Faith Permeating Life

This past week at work we hosted a two-day workshop with a well-known presenter on assessment. I thought the vast majority of the workshop was fantastic, but there was one small portion that I had an issue with.

It's not unusual, working in higher education, to hear people talk about "this generation," usually called Millennials. I always thought I was part of Generation Y, and that that was different, but lately I've heard my own birth year lumped in with current college students more often than not.

This gives me a unique perspective, since when my colleagues are talking about our students, they're also talking about me.

So back to the workshop.

At one point, there was a discussion about what some of the challenges might be to engaging students in meaningful learning to build their critical thinking skills. This immediately led to a "kids these days"-type grumbling session in which participants made sweeping statements about how students don't care about learning, they want to be rewarded just for showing up, they have no sustained attention span, they want to spend all their time texting and Facebooking, etc.

I've already talked about how I am not a fan of generalizations like this, and I'm sure you can imagine the potential problems if any of these instructors truly believes that every single one of their students fits this description. I certainly don't appreciate being told that I apparently have no intrinsic motivation and have an unhealthy sense of entitlement. And I'm pretty sure my boss would disagree.

But anyway.

The presenter then provided several pieces of evidence that ostensibly indicated that most of today's students and recent graduates are not exactly fitting the model of what a college typically hopes to turn out: Graduates with a lifelong love of learning who are active and engaged members of their community. (Also, who are employable.)

The slide that stuck out to me most was the statistic about newspaper reading. Recent graduates were asked whether they read a newspaper daily, weekly, monthly, or never. The presenter said to the attendees that, ideally, we hope our students are reading a newspaper every day, right? So the fact that only about a third were reading a newspaper daily, and another third weekly, somehow indicated a horrific failure of our colleges to create engaged citizens.

This same statistic has been called "troubling" and "dismal" when cited elsewhere.

I'm going to have to disagree.

If somebody asked me how often I read a newspaper, I might say "monthly." But that's because I'm picturing either flipping through a paper newspaper, which I do occasionally at my parents' house, or logging on to a news site like the New York Times to "see what's in the news" -- which I never do.

On the other hand, if you asked me how often I read a news article or a blog post or listened to a podcast about current events, the answer would be Daily.

It amazes me when older generations talk about how different this generation is, what with our text-messaging and our Facebooking and our tweeting, yet they use benchmarks from their generation to measure this generation's civic engagement.

I'm not saying that every person my age is totally informed with what's going on in the world. Or that, if they are, they're doing anything about it. But I also don't think that the situation is quite as "dismal" as you might imagine from the newspaper question.

I've said before that we have a limited capacity to invest ourselves in a cause or causes. Given this, I would argue that there is more value in the kind of focused information-gathering and sharing that happens today than in the passive, broad information-receiving era before the Internet.

Imagine Person A. Every day, he gets a newspaper and reads it at the breakfast table or on his morning commute on the train. He reads about this war, that murder, this political campaign, and that community organization. Then he folds up the newspaper and goes in to work, and puts all the news out of his mind until he picks up the newspaper again the next morning. On the survey mentioned above, he would indicate that he reads a newspaper Daily.

Now imagine Person B. She sees a video shared by a friend on her Facebook newsfeed about something going on in the world. The video intrigues her, so she starts Googling around and finds a bunch of blog posts that provide some background and give a more complex take on the issue. She goes to Charity Navigator to figure out what organization is doing the most to help, and then sets up a campaign on another website to raise funds to donate to the charity.

When she's asked how often she reads a newspaper, though, she says Never.

Who is more civically engaged? Who is closer to embodying that "ideal graduate"?

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that everyone who reads a newspaper is an apathetic slug and everyone who is on Facebook is a passionate community organizer. Obviously not. Nor am I saying that everyone my age would prefer to get their information from sources other than a newspaper; as I said, the survey cited above found about a third of recent graduates read a newspaper daily.

I just find the conclusions drawn from this survey to be incredibly overblown and out of touch with the exact generation they're attempting to measure. And I want to challenge the notion that broad information intake is the only recipe for an engaged citizen. I think much more could be accomplished if every person had a few issues they cared about and researched deeply and acted upon frequently, even if they were not well-informed about many other things going on in the world.

What do you think? How would you measure whether graduates were engaged with and having an impact on the world's big issues?


  1. I think you've hit the nail right on the head.

    I think that asking college graduates how often they read the newspaper is a pretty poor measure of how civically aware an individual may be in the current day and age.

    The questions these days ought to be "Are you consuming news media on a daily basis?" not "Are you reading the newspaper?"

    1. I think they thought they were "updated" in their question because it asked the respondents to count it if they read the newspaper on paper or online. But that's a classic mistake of taking an old mindset into a new era. For example, in the book Looking Backwards, written in 1887 and guessing what the year 2000 would be like, the author guessed there would be new methods of listening to music, but he still thought everyone would be listening to classical music. It's not just that we're getting our news online instead of in print, it's that we're conceptualizing the entire process of gathering news differently.

  2. To me, as a Generation X curmudgeon, it's your talk of "conceptualizing the entire process of gathering news differently" as a good thing that brands you as one of those irritating millennials. :-)

    The guy in 1887 guessed that in 2000 we'd be using new methods to listen to classical music--that's like a person today reading Mark Twain's books on a Kindle. If instead the person reads the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette online instead of on paper, that is not only a difference in media but something of a difference in genre, since today's top stories include reports on technologies and political situations and social issues that were undreamt of in 1887. The person is still reading a newspaper. But a person who ignores the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and everything else written by professional journalists in favor of getting her "news" from Facebook and a bunch of blogs is doing something that is much more different from reading news than hip-hop music is different from classical.

    Your Person B is an informed citizen who seeks multiple sources and eventually uses one reputable source to check facts. Many people "conceptualizing the entire process of gathering news differently" do not bother with that but assume the first source they read is accurate--and when that source is not a newspaper with a century-old reputation to maintain, a careful fact-checking process, and a staff professionally trained to cite sources and distinguish fact from opinion, but is just some random person with a theory, that's a problem. Even Person B would be wise, in her Googling, to look at what a real newspaper, reputable investigative journalism site, or scientific report has to say about the issue, not just blogs. Blogs are good for bringing issues to our attention that we might otherwise not notice, but they aren't always a reliable source of facts.

    I know that there are newspaper readers like your Person A, but there are many who continue thinking about what we read in the paper, do more research, and maybe set up a fundraising campaign. There is nothing about the newspaper that prevents this, and there is much about the new media that promote taking action without understanding the subtleties of a situation, as you railed against 10 days ago.

    I read a newspaper "weekly" in that I subscribe to the Sunday edition only. But it takes me until at least Wednesday to read it because I read at least the headline and lead paragraph of every article except the sports section. Why do I bother, when I could spend all my time on "focused information-gathering and sharing"? Because I believe that an important part of civic engagement is paying some attention to a wide range of issues, not just the ones that immediately appeal to me. In particular, I believe it's important to get frequent overviews of what's going on in my local area. When I visit someplace else, I read the local paper to learn about where I am and what's going on there. I also read the international news and the business articles and trend pieces--not necessarily in full, but at least the first bit, because I believe it's important to maintain some sense of what people do and care about, not just people like myself, but everyone. (My refusal to read sports stories is a failing--I just cannot muster any interest in sports!--but I do read any sports story important enough to appear in the front section, because this is Pittsburgh so what happens with the Steelers may well affect me via traffic changes, people being distracted from their jobs, tax allocations, needing to define "rape" for my young child, whether it's smart to wear bright green in public, etc.)

    [More in a moment, since this comment is too long for your user interface!]

  3. It amazes me when older generations talk about how different this generation is, what with our text-messaging and our Facebooking and our tweeting, yet they use benchmarks from their generation to measure this generation's civic engagement.
    Benchmarks are fixed. That's what makes them useful points for comparison. Would you argue that voting in local elections is not a relevant benchmark for civic engagement? I've heard that argued by millenials: "Local isn't important now that the whole world is online and we can communicate instantaneously with everybody!"

    You know that Kony thing you mentioned earlier this month? Your blog was the first place I heard about it; because I don't do Facebook or Twitter, I don't catch the latest "viral" stuff. But I've had a very basic understanding of the situation in Uganda for more than two decades because I read the paper and general-interest magazines Harper's, Mother Jones, and Parade (America's largest-circulation magazine, which looks trivial but touches on all sorts of topics, including an annual list of "The World's Worst Dictators"). I haven't had to decide to be interested in Uganda; it's just there sometimes as I am reading. I've never taken any action about Uganda because, as you say, we have a limited ability to invest in causes--but having the general fact "Uganda is a horrifying dictatorship" in my mind is useful if I ever have the option of buying something made in Uganda or investing in something connected to Uganda or taking a cheap vacation to Uganda; I'll know to think twice and do research!

    I remember life before the Internet, and it was hardly a "passive, broad information-receiving era." Engaged citizens used to read the newspaper, write letters on paper and send them by mail to the newspaper to get their views published, write letters on paper and send them by mail to their elected officials, hold fundraisers in public places collecting actual coins and dollar bills, speak to strangers in person in public places asking them to sign petitions on paper, type newsletters on paper using typewriters and get them copied at a print shop and spend hours collating and folding and sticking stamps to mail them to others and organize events, protest by marching and carrying signs, and otherwise get our voices heard and make things change. Was it slower and more difficult? Yes. Was there less VALUE or less FOCUS in our gathering and sharing of information? No.

  4. Uh oh, did I overload your comment box?! Yesterday it looked like my second comment had posted, but today I see only the first one.

    1. Blogger sent it to spam for some reason. I fixed it.

      I wrote a response to your comments, but it was super long, so I'm going to post it on Thursday.


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