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Design, the Kindle, and Reading Newspapers

Farhad Manjoo’s recent piece in Slate offers a unique take on one of the advantages newspapers have over the Kindle—the ability to convey information through design elements:

Every newspaper you’ve ever read was put together by someone with an opinion about which of the day’s stories was most important. Newspapers convey these opinions through universal, easy-to-understand design conventions—they put important stories on front pages, with the most important ones going higher on the page and getting more space and bigger headlines. You can pick up any page of the paper and—just by reading headlines, subheads, and photo captions—quickly get the gist of several news items. Even when you do choose to read a story, you don’t have to read the whole thing. Since it takes no time to switch from one story to another, you can read just a few paragraphs and then go on to something else.

For instance, look at page A25 of the national edition of Thursday’s Times, which contains four stories: a big piece on the Obama administration’s decision to fire a federal inspector general; a smaller story on the administration’s plan to replace members of the White House bioethics panel; a piece about asbestos contamination in Libby, Mont.; and a small wire-service story about Sen. Roland Burris’ inconsequential meeting with an Illinois state prosecutor. A newspaper skimmer can get through this page in less than two minutes. The IG and bioethics stories are obviously the most important, so you dip into those for about 45 seconds each. Then you spend about 15 seconds on the asbestos story, followed by five seconds on the Burris item, which is just five paragraphs long. Going like this, you can easily get through the whole A section in less than a half hour.

Getting through these same stories on the Kindle is much harder and more tedious. First, they’re out of order. When I scrolled through Thursday’s national section on my Kindle, the shortest and least newsworthy of these pieces—the Burris story—came first. Worse, because the Kindle gives every story the same headline font, the list item doesn’t clue you in to the story’s slightness. The only way to know if a story merits your attention is to click on it. But clicking is time-consuming—the Kindle takes a half-second or so to switch between a section list and a story, and another half-second to switch back. This sounds nearly instant, but it’s not; the delay is just long enough to change the way you read the news. Now, instead of skimming, you find yourself reading the newspaper as you would a book—when you find a story, you stick with it until the end. You trade breadth for depth: In 30 minutes of reading the Kindle, you get further into a lot fewer stories.

Of course, the fact that you can actually subscribe to the paper for $9 to $15 per month through the Kindle DX (in contrast to the $770/year it cost to subscribe to the print version of the Times) is a pretty appealing counterargument . . . Still, this is an interesting moment of interplay between technology, design, and the transmission of information.



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