I spent this morning searching Google for about half an hour, without success, trying to “discover” a book from my childhood. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find no trace of what I was looking for, since my childhood dates from the Eisenhower Administration.
Pity, since this particular “Voyage of Discovery” was all about Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery, sent out west by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the hinterlands of the new America in 1804. This long-ago book about their two-year adventure was a marvelous read, as I recall, with wonderful illustrations, the memory of which has stuck with me ever since.
Indeed, a young reader coming across their story for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that these two intrepid explorers were the inventors of the phrase, “You never know what’s around the next corner.” And actually, I think of that phrase many mornings, when I pick up the copy of The New York Times lying in my driveway.
Let me explain. A couple of years ago, I had minor surgery that required me to stay home from work for a few weeks. Long a subscriber to the digital NYT (in my business life, I’m online 12-14 hours a day), I decided to take advantage of a special Times offer which allowed me to get a near-free trial print subscription to the paper for a few months. It was a transformational decision, leaving me convinced that nothing in the digital world quite compares with reading at least some print publications on a regular basis.
How do we now get our news? Besides cable news, many of us go straight to our favorite media website home pages, from which spot we decide where to go next. Home pages are like restaurant menus; you pick what interests you, and link to it. Reading the NYT online, for example, is all about choices. Studies indicate that reading the entire daily paper digitally is a formidable task, one that can take more than five hours of clicking.
Then again, many among us tend to avoid media home pages altogether, counting upon Facebook or Google, among others, to keep track of our interests and keep us informed about the things that interest us. That’s great if you’re a devout Cubs fan, but not so great, maybe, when it comes to election campaigns, when algorithmic self-selection leads to opinion reinforcement and all kinds of political problems. (You’ll hear lots about “silos” between now and November.)
Reading The New York Times in print, however, is an entirely different experience. Think about it this way: When you go online for knowledge, you have some idea of what you’re looking for; when you’re turning the pages of a newspaper or a magazine, you generally don’t. Instead, you’re embarking, yes, on a voyage of discovery.
Today happens to be July 25th; let’s take a walk through the print NYT. The front page is a wonderful smorgasbord of “things happening now:” the start of the Democratic Convention, drug concerns at the Rio Olympics, the background of the Nice terrorist, the sale of Yahoo, the future of Tesla and Elon Musk. Interestingly, all of these stories “jump” inside. And that’s when the real “discovery” begins.
Skimming through the A section, though, I don’t just jump; I browse. And en route to finishing those front-page stories, I stumble across all kinds of stories I wasn’t looking for at all. An article about transgender goddesses in India, a Panama Papers story about corrupt African despots, the whys behind the resignation of Nepal’s prime minister, the possible consequences of the merger of four of the five top health insurance companies. And much more.
I’ll stop there (and not even go into the B, C, and D sections); I hope you all get the idea. The digital revolution has been transformational — every bit as much as the industrial one of the nineteenth century — but in the media world, at least, the jury’s still out on whether we’ve expanded our horizons or contracted them. Reporters no longer have to trek off to libraries to do research for the stories they write, but are readers paying as much attention as they should to those stories, once they are written?
I don’t pretend to have an answer. And yes, this may come across as self-serving. But I would suggest that everybody keep an open mind about the necessity of print publications in our increasingly digital world. After all, what good is a day without a voyage of discovery?