Concerning the New York Times Innovation Report and the print/digital divide

As I purchase a copy of the New York Times from Starbucks on a Sunday afternoon, the barista looks at me at remarks, “Oh, you must have been the one who called before.” I’d called about two hours earlier, frantically searching for a print edition of the paper, which I needed to complete this assignment. I was struck by her instant recognition, as if the coffee chain exclusively sells the paper to Communications Studies students who call ahead of time.

After lugging the heavy edition to a comfy seat, I immediately open to the Sunday Book Review and begin reading “Among the Disrupted“, an essay by Leon Wieseltier. The piece is a lengthy meditation on the impersonal nature of technology and its creation of what he calls a “posthumanist” contemporary American culture. His bleak outlook is tempered by well-crafted prose, evident in his assessment that, “Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements.”

After finishing the article, I locate the essay on the Times website. The online essay is identical to the print version, with no links, no available comments section, and the same minimalist picture. I’m given the option of sharing the piece on social media, but I have doubts that the wall of text will be enticing to any of my followers.

The image by Joon Mo Kang that appeared in both the print and online versions of "Among the Disrupted"
The image by Joon Mo Kang that appeared in both the print and online versions of “Among the Disrupted”

Wieseltier’s essay is the exact opposite of the type of content encouraged by the Times Innovation Report, leaked this past spring. The report emphasized the importance of reader engagement—through interactive graphics, and recirculation—through links that drive readers to archived articles. The essay is instead indicative of the type of “print-centric tradition” that the Times is beginning to move away from (7).

Compare this to an op-ed written by Paul Krugman, “Hating Good Government,” published in print on the following day. The web version of this article contains six hyperlinks and an active comment section—358 comments are filed as “Readers’ Picks”. Despite appearing in the back of a light Monday paper, Krugman’s column is the number one Most Shared on Facebook in the past 24 hours, as of 9:30 PM Monday.

Though the writers of the Innovation Report might cite Wieseltier’s essay as a missed opportunity for shareability, the piece’s sparse web presence seems appropriate for its content. And while the essay presents a gloomy forecast for writers and critical thinkers, its inclusion in the Times—despite seemingly little click value—may be evidence that the doomsday prognosis is overstated. As Wieseltier notes in the final paragraph, “Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance.”

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