Tuesday, August 19, 2008


"Many teachers predict that in the school of the not-so-distant future, the textbook will be nothing more than an unhappy memory. Students will receive almost 100 percent of their information from computers.

"Dr. Stanton Leggett, educator and consultant, said, 'Computers put the kid in the game. For years our schools have had students practice things, but that's as far as they ever went. But working with a computer is like a game to a student. He learns more, yet enjoys it more. So he wants all he can get.'"

You know the punch line. From an op-ed story in the Burlington County Times on Oct. 15, 1967. The point of the article, by one Roger Doughty, was that many schools were rapidly implementing computer-based learning. (I went to a private high school in the late 1960s, and I never saw a computer until I went to college, except for the ones on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and "The Avengers." But it was Indiana.)

Change never happens in quite the way it is predicted. Many students may indeed be receiving 100 percent of their information through computers ("from" seems the wrong word), but some of that information consists of online -- textbooks. So much for the unhappy memory. And the "not-too-distant" future always turns out to be more distant than journalists think it will be, though this article thankfully did not say "By the 1970s students will be having information beamed into their brains" or such. The not-so-distant future could indeed have been the year 2000 in Dr. Leggett's mind.

But "working with a computer is like a game" hits on a big problem newspapers face. Reading a newspaper can be many things, but it's not fun. (I mean "enjoyable" fun, not "har-har" fun, although it's not that either unless the comics hit the mark or you have a really funny columnist.) We live in a world of Skinner's food pellets -- you do something, you get a response. You post on Facebook, and someone posts back. You click on a link, and something new happens. You book a hotel room, and you get a "Congratulations!" page. It's fun. You take a test online and you get the scores back immediately and you get a food pellet. You post a comment and someone else posts a comment disagreeing with your comment and it's a food pellet. It's certainly more fun than turning the page to find "Jobs, Cont'd from Page B1."

If I were redesigning a print newspaper in 2008 I would first say to myself, "What will make this fun for people to use?" Because otherwise I'll just be talking to the 15 percent of the population that believes that everything in life is a Serious Matter. I wouldn't say, "Let's just run fun stories." I would say, "We can't compete with online food pellets. What can we do? Make sure there is interesting stuff scattered everywhere -- don't just say, well, it's in the A section so I have to run a boring story on Mongolia because it's the A section. Put teasers throughout the paper to draw people on --not just on the fronts, but on inside pages as well. Write them as if they really are teasers instead of objective synopses. Assume that if people have over the last 15 years been willing to spend about 25 minutes reading the paper, I should provide a product that can be satisfactorially used in 20 minutes. I can't control the big news, I can't even control the small news, but can I create a framework to hang the news on that says, 'This is fun to use. You'll enjoy reading your paper. Yes, even you 28-year-olds.'?

We have come to mistrust enjoyment of the newspaper we produce. Enjoyment means we might not be Serious People. But we also are prisoners of technological models that have arisen over the last three decades. If the water in the lake doesn't get inside the milk pail and make lemonade of it, the next post will turn to that.

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