These crazy kids today: They prefer to read dead trees

I spoke to the newsroom staff of The Daily Gamecock on Friday, and learned a surprising thing: While older folks (alumni and parents) tend to read the online version, most actual students don’t. They prefer to read it on paper.

In a couple of ways that makes sense — the students can pick up the paper for free as they go into and come out of classes, so it’s just convenient to pick one up and peruse it. Meanwhile, alumni and parents don’t have such easy access to the print version.

But it still surprised me. I mean, I have easy access to The State and The Wall Street Journal, as I get both at home. But I almost never read them on paper. I prefer the iPad apps. It’s just easier to flip through the paper on a tablet while sitting at the breakfast table than to unfold the paper, turn the pages, try to fold it back into a convenient size and shape for continued reading, and so forth. And it always seems like the section you want has walked away somewhere. That doesn’t happen with a tablet.

And I never see the print version of The Washington Post, to which I also subscribe, at all.

So what’s with these wacky kids today?

I learned of this seeming anomaly from Sarah Scarborough, the advertising manager for Student Media. She told me about it before I met the news staff. Then it came up again while I was talking with the students, as they asked whether I had any ideas for making the online version more appealing to their fellow students.

But this is not just a USC phenomenon. One of the things I read on my Washington Post app this morning was this:

Why digital natives prefer reading in print. Yes, you read that right.

February 22 at 7:27 PM

Frank Schembari loves books — printed books. He loves how they smell. He loves scribbling in the margins, underlining interesting sentences, folding a page corner to mark his place.

Schembari is not a retiree who sips tea at Politics and Prose or some other bookstore. He is 20, a junior at American University, and paging through a thick history of Israel between classes, he is evidence of a peculiar irony of the Internet age: Digital natives prefer reading in print.

“I like the feeling of it,” Schembari said, reading under natural light in a campus atrium, his smartphone next to him. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”

Textbook makers, bookstore owners and college student surveys all say millennials still strongly prefer print for pleasure and learning, a bias that surprises reading experts given the same group’s proclivity to consume most other content digitally. A University of Washington pilot study of digital textbooks found that a quarter of students still bought print versions of e-textbooks that they were given for free.

“These are people who aren’t supposed to remember what it’s like to even smell books,” said Naomi S. Baron, an American University linguist who studies digital communication. “It’s quite astounding.”…

Anyone else find this surprising?

11 thoughts on “These crazy kids today: They prefer to read dead trees

  1. Doug Ross

    My guess? They aren’t actually READING the entire paper, they are skimming the headlines and looking at the pictures to see if there is anything worth reading. Easier to do in the printed copy than online. It’s more organized and flows better than a typical online news website. The State’s webpage is a jumbled mess of popular headlines, top stories, features in the first screen. You have to scroll through five screen’s worth of pages to see it all. I’d like to see a design that had all the headlines arranged by category and then hover over the headline for a popup short blurb then click to dive deeper.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I read the e-edition–just like the actual paper, except nothing to load up the recycling bin, and I can click on a story and read the whole thing, rather than paging through to the continuation.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Both the WashPost and WSJ apps are arranged nicely — you get a page that includes several headlines within a category, then you swipe sideways to get a different category. So with the WashPost, I scroll though “Top Stories,” swipe, read “Politics,” swipe, read “Opinion,” and I’m done. WAY easier than a paper version.

      The WSJ does it in a way that is more organized like the paper itself, but it works similarly. All I look at most days are the front page and the opinion page. On Fridays I also look at “Arena,” and on Saturdays, “Review.” I find it very handy.

      With The State, I don’t use the app designed specifically for tablets. I’ve tried it, but don’t like it as much. I use a different app that offers me reproductions of the actual newspaper pages, except that the stories are interactive — so that I can go to the jump page with a touch, rather than having to fold and unfold…

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m with Doug in not liking the browser-based version of The State. It’s kind of a jumbled mess, with no organizing principle — or at least the most important organizing principle is missing: the one that holds that the most important stories should be the easiest to find.

      But then, The State has never followed strict rules for its front page, either.

      With a newspaper with a strong guiding philosophy of play, such as The New York Times, you can immediately see what’s important. In the print NYT, the lede story is the vertical element that runs down the right-hand side of the page above the fold.

      The NYT, the WSJ, and the Post have all transferred that concept to online with a twist: the lede is always the larger headline to the LEFT of the dominant piece of art.

      And that, as much as anything, makes those websites more of a pleasure than The State’s…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        To illustrate my point about how those papers’ websites follow a logical language of design that lets you know where to look for the top news:

        • On this one, the lede story is clearly “Obama Asks Court to Let Immigration Plan Proceed.”
        • On this one, the lede story is clearly “Homeland Security Faces Shutdown Amid Policy Impasse.”
        • On this one, the lede story is clearly “CIA plans to elevate espionage efforts on Web.”

        It’s interesting that those three sites have such different ledes. It shows that the news today is something of a muddle, with nothing obviously dominating. So you have a decided lack of unanimity among editors at the three big papers..

    4. Barry

      College students today do what college students did when I was at USC – they pick up a copy to see what coupons are in the paper, or what bar/store is running a special, etc because of several of the more popular places will run ads constantly.

      Once or twice a month there will be a “burning issue” in the Gamecock that they want to know about.

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