Comparing Physical NYT to its Online Counterpart

Before I begin, a note: Although the New York Times does publish articles on environmentalism, they haven’t published one in over a week. This made finding an article related to my beat difficult in the case of the physical print copy. I have chosen to compare articles from a different beat with hopes that I can return to environmentalism in future posts.

I read both the print and online versions of an article titled “Horror Drove Her From South. 100 Years Later, She Returned” in the September 20 issue of the New York Times. It tells the story of an 107-year-old Mamie Lang Kirkland, who fled Mississippi in 1915 with her family after people threatened her father with lynching.

Although the text in both versions was the same, the presentation varied greatly. In the print version, the reader begins the article on the page A1, and a small color picture of Ms. Kirkland is featured. The reader has to flip to page 17 to continue the story, interrupting the flow of reading. The print version features a corner-page-sized black and white picture of Ms. Kirkland and her son in Ellisville, Mississippi. There’s also a small graphic of Ellisville’s location in between the columns. Other than that, visual appeal/reference is lacking. The article is told with imagery and other stylistic elements, which are engaging to the reader. However, with the print version, the reader can’t comment on or otherwise engage with the story he or she just read. This is a weakness of the physical NYT. 

As Paul Berry (co-founder of The Huffington Post) states in the NYT Innovation Report, “far too often for writers and editors [of the NYT] the story is done when you hit publish… At Huffington Post, the article begins its life when you hit publish” (24). Neither the physical nor online versions of the NYT allow for comments. Although this could limit disruption on their website and help maintain journalistic integrity, the reader’s desire to give feedback cannot be fulfilled.

I would say that the online version fairs better than the physical in terms of reader accessibility and ease of navigation. There are no “see page 17″‘s or other inconveniences. There are links to the author, icons that let the reader share or save the story, and even a 5-minute video featuring Ms. Kirkland. There are also hyperlinks to references made in the article, such as the Ku Klux Klan and Baltimore Riots, that allow readers to engage with the story on a deeper level and expand their knowledge of current racial tensions in the US. The pictures featured are all in high definition and can be zoomed in on or saved for future reference, unlike in the print version.

A final point: I found myself skimming the online version and thoroughly reading the physical one. I am not alone in this. According to the innovation report, “page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages last year” (24). The online version was scrollable and was interrupted with more photos and other content. The physical version was not. Typically, when I browse the web, I’m doing exactly that: Browsing. Skimming. Saving time, getting my facts and making a swift getaway into my daily routine. When I read a physical newspaper, I sit down and commit to reading. There are no other ‘tabs open’ to distract me. It’s just me and the columns. This seems to be a trend with online newspapers. The struggle to keep reader attention is combatted with an attempt to make articles ‘skimmable.’

Overall, according to the innovation report and my own opinions, I’d give the Physical version of this article a ‘B’ and the online version an ‘A-.’ The story is expertly written and enjoyable to read. The topic is intriguing. But the desire to leave feedback could not be met in either version. Also, personally, I found difficulty being patient and reading the minuscule black-and-white columns of text to absorb the article’s content.

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