Nobody who knows me will be surprised to hear that I am a Guardian reader, and have been for forty years, ever since I have had enough cash to buy my own paper. I have taken in my stride various changes in format, editor, and columnist, but this summer everything changed when I downloaded the app and subscribed to the digital version. As a librarian working with electronic publications all the time I should have been perfectly able to cope, but I have found myself drowning in the digital version. I am curious to understand why, and what my experience tells me about how readers approach digital publications. The app is attractive, functions well on my iPad, and is considerably cheaper than the paper version – so what’s the problem?
Essentially, I need my life back. Reading the paper now seems to take all my spare time. I am probably better informed than I have ever been, but I am also overwhelmed. I have also chosen to buy the paper newspaper at the weekend, despite the fact that I have already paid for the online version, and it is becoming obvious that the experience of reading the digital version is quite different in a number of ways from reading it on paper.
First, the indicators of significance are not there. Every page in the digital version seems to be of equal status. When you scan a newspaper page by eye subtle distinctions in font and placement on the page make some items much more prominent than others. Without that editorial judgement everything in the digital version is potentially interesting and equally prominent- but I don’t have time in my life to be interested in everything. Even the centre spread of photographs, which was a matter of a moment to review in print, is now a dozen separate screens and takes significantly longer. They are often fascinating, but by the end of a busy day I haven’t finished that day’s paper, and tomorrow there will be another.
Then, the experience of reading a digital newspaper is oddly linear. If I don’t read the digital version from beginning to end I have no idea of what I have read and what I haven’t. In print it was easy to leave a section for later, by simply putting it aside on the growing pile of stuff still to be read. Online I don’t know how to do this, so I plough on, worried about missing something. It is also difficult to keep an article for later, and I have found myself going to the web version to find that recipe which I really want to cook, but not this week. Tearing it out is not an option.
Finally, there is a basic problem with the crossword, and there are few things more important to a Guardian reader than a problem with the crossword. It isn’t possible to scribble down the letters in an anagram without getting pen and paper and doing it manually. The print version has a blank area on the printed page where you can do precisely this, in a circle if you want to. Simple technology, but effective.
So, do I regret going digital for my newspaper? Not entirely. It is practical during the working week, and much easier to read on a busy train. The pile of recycling that has to be dealt with each week is significantly smaller. But at weekends when I want to read the magazine in the bath, and save the review for later, I really enjoy the print version much more. A print newspaper has become a luxury item for me, in the same way that print books are becoming luxury items for many people. And, more importantly, I understand instinctively how to relate to the content in the print version, and that still feels a long way away with the digital version.