News Junkie Smackdown

Newspaper Readers and Web Surfers Try To Stump One Another
Policy made plain.
July 21 2009 6:42 PM

News Junkie Smackdown

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Are people who don't read newspapers better informed than people who read only newspapers? Or is it the other way around? To find out, we are conducting a highly unscientific experiment: Slate's Emily Yoffe and Seth Stevenson are reading only the Web for an hour each day, while ink-stained wretches Timothy Egan (of the New York Times) and Sam Howe Verhovek (formerly of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times) are reading only newspapers. If they all later met at a Washington cocktail party, the kind where people wear sensible shoes and engage in earnest debates about the latest CBO scoring of the health care bills, which side would feel more insecure about not being up on the day's news?

We can't answer that question, exactly, since Egan and Verhovek are in Seattle (as is Michael Kinsley, one of this discussion's moderators) while Stevenson and Yoffe (and Slate Politics Editor Michael Newman, the other moderator) are in Washington. So we did the next-best thing: We all met online for a 20-minute chat. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.

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Michael Newman: So my first question is, How do you feel, informationwise? What are you missing? What do you have too much of? Newspaper people first. Sam?

Sam Howe Verhovek: Well, we've been blog- and Web-free (except for Gmail) for nearly 12 hours now and haven't developed itchy fingers yet. There's a lot of information in that there daily paper, if only people would pay for it.

Timothy Egan: It's like digital crack, that stinkin' Web. No HuffPo. No Drudge. No Daily Beast. No Talking Points Memo. No Politico. And do I miss it? Well, sorta, yeah, in the way you miss anything that's entertaining. But I don't feel out of the info loop. If anything, I feel a bit overloaded, having gone through four papers in an hour.

Verhovek: The only thing (oddly) that seems to be missing from the four newspapers is an explication of the $4 million ham.

Seth Stevenson: There is a ham explanation on the USDA Web site!

Verhovek: Back when I could read Drudge (yesterday), it was all ham, all the time. What happened? That's really the only data point I feel I am missing.

Stevenson: According to a blog on the Washington Monthly Web site, Drudge got the ham thing all wrong.

Egan: Drudge got it wrong? I'm shocked!

Verhovek: No??!! Drudge got something wrong. Please tell me, no. That can't be.

Newman: Emily, what did your tour of the Web tell you this morning? And Mike, feel free to jump in here and liven this up.

Yoffe: The three top stories are: The public is starting to get disenchanted with Obama, health care is probably but not surely going to pass in some form, and a puppy with five legs was saved from a freak show. (This was a top CNN story.)

Kinsley: A small test for the newspaper people. Are you aware of the story of a major academic getting arrested?

Verhovek: Absolutely.

Egan: Duh!

Kinsley: Really? It wasn't in my papers.

Verhovek: Harvard professor jailed, officer accused of bias (a true Bonfire of the Vanitiestale, deftly captured as such by the reporter).

Newman: What's the latest on that, btw?

Stevenson: Did you get the lawyer's statement, published first on The Root?

Egan: No. But we got original reporting, from the cop's side and Gates' side. Did any of the Web sites advance the story?

Verhovek: Yes, any updates on this?

Kinsley: Good grief. I read the papers on a Kindle!

Stevenson: You're saying I shouldn't trust Skip Gates' lawyer's statement and leave it at that?

Newman: Updates are against the rules! I'm sure it will all be in tomorrow's paper. Or tomorrow's Kindle.

Verhovek: You people are theoretically 12 hours ahead of us in the information universe, but I'm not getting a sense you're light years ahead or anything. Except on the ham, which I am curious about.

Stevenson: I feel light years ahead on the breaking Ben Roethlisberger sexual-assault accusation.

Kinsley: OK, here's one for the Webbies. There was, in my opinion, a "game-changing" (to use the reigning cliché) column in one of the papers today. It was about Obama and health care. Wanna guess?

Stevenson: On health care: No idea what the column was, but I felt at zero loss for commentary on the issue. Mickey Kaus had a long blog entry, linking to further analysis from Marc Ambinder.

Yoffe: I can't remember who writes when in the WP and NYT, but I didn't see anything on Bloomberg, Politico, or CNN that was anything other than, "Some are concerned about spiraling health care costs and taxes on the rich."

Stevenson: In general, I had access to more commentary than I could ever hope or want to read on every issue under the sun.

Kinsley: Do either of the print guys know what I'm referring to? Tim, did you read your colleague David Brooks this morning?

Egan: Yes. I thought it was terrific, and spot-on, but I didn't think it was a game-changer, as you called it. Interesting, though, because Brooks has been very supportive of Obama to date, and with this he's warning the guy, like an ally, almost.

Newman: Now that sounds like something I'd hear a Washington cocktail party.

Egan: Not this Washington!

Newman: To Seth: Did you miss the newspapers sorting it all out for you?

Stevenson: That's the one thing I missed: the NYT setting an agenda so we all know what we're supposed to talk about.

Verhovek: Can I offer one overall reaffirmation of newspapers, as a design object? They do deliver an astonishing amount of information in a very efficient way. I'm not talking about newsprint per se, but I am talking size and layout and eye friendliness.

Yoffe: What did Brooks say? Is he saying Obama is wrong on health care?

Kinsley: Well, I think that Brooks' column—drawing parallels between the Republican self-destruction of recent years and the short history of the Obama administration—was absolutely devastating. And judging from the reaction, I'm right. Of course the reaction at this point is all on the Web.

Egan: To Emily: He said we've reached the point of liberal overreach, comparing the situation to when the Republicans went nuts and lost the mainstream. Again, I think it's a bit of a reach, but also a warning to Obama from a friendly conservative.

Newman: So does the Web make the David Brookses of the world more influential or less? Discuss. "Both" is not an acceptable answer.

Yoffe: More! I found without having the papers as a baseline to start with in the morning, and having to click away from any aggregators, that I had a very hard time figuring out what was in the news.

Kinsley: Well, we happen to have one of the David Brookses of the world right here. Tim?

Stevenson: I would say more. More people are reading his column than would have when they had to get a print edition to see it. His column, by virtue of appearing in the NYT, still sets the agenda—and millions of blogs will analyze his comments.

Verhovek: I agree with Seth. For a quality writer with interesting opinions (Brooks is one), this is still a golden era. I would rather discuss the "Mythland vs. Methland" column in today's NYT ... by, um ... Timothy Egan!

Egan: Sorry. No self-serving allowed today, folks.

Kinsley: Actually, since Sam brought up Tim's really good column about meth and small-town America, let me propose something else: This is the kind of quiet but important column that you really don't see much of on the Web.

Egan: Just out of curiosity, you Webbies: Any of you sports fans? How did A-Rod do last night? Phils keep their nine-game win streak? Just wondering if you lost that, or even missed it. And Lance Armstrong, of course.

Stevenson: Wait, I would think the print people would be the ones missing out on late scores ...

Egan: We're on the West Coast, so we get every game in the Seattle Times ink edition.

Stevenson: And, again, I bet the Roethlisberger story (Super Bowl-winning quarterback accused of sexual assault) did not appear in any of this morning's newspapers. But it was all over Deadspin and TMZ. ...

Yoffe: What about the rest of the world? I saw almost nothing on Iraq and Afghanistan—except for our airstrike on 300 tons of poppy seeds in Afghanistan.

Egan: My question is whether the aggregators give you anything for your sports jones.

Verhovek: I have long thought that technology would eventually bring us back to the future. We will have cheap roll-out digital tablets that will wirelessly deliver a package of constantly updated news, photos, graphics, even video and audio. But it will look a lot like the traditional newspaper, minus the newsprint, and it will have a lot of advertising, which the consumer will gladly tolerate (as with old-fashioned papers) because it helps make the product so cheap. I like the ads—I wish the Times Reader (which is great, by the way) had 'em. What has surprised (and, as a newspaper guy, dismayed) me is how long it's taking to get (back) there. The Kindle and the "Jet Book" and the iPhone reader apps are the Wright brothers getting off the ground for 12 seconds. Soon enough, we'll get to the rocket ship era; whether newspapers will live long enough to reassert their inherent strengths is the $64 billion question. That's my final thought for today, except for—Emily, great job on the puppy! Can you send me a link on ... Thursday?

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