Just to be clear, the analysis in this post is based on a sample size of 1: me! But I believe the salient points will hold true for many others.
How we read Pre-internet
Back in the days when there was no internet, we had two newspapers delivered to our home in the morning: a newspaper in English (we alternated between The Times of India or the Indian Express) and one in Marathi (Maharashtra Times or Loksatta). On Mondays we also took in the Economic Times and on weekends, my father would usually buy some more from the news-stand (The Sunday Observer, The Asian Age).
My father would usually read every newspaper from the first page to the last. My mother would usually only read the Marathi newspaper. My sister and I would usually at least skim through the English newspaper but concentrate on a few sections (usually comics, editorials, and sports).
Even in India, where newspapers are generally smaller, (i.e. less number of pages compared to, say, the tome that is the daily New York Times), a newspaper would try to cover everything it thought needed to be covered. So while the bulk of it would be devoted to national politics, there would be a smattering of world news, book reviews, entertainment and sports news, etc. No issue would be covered in too much depth (because of lack of space, which in turn corresponded to the high cost of newsprint) and the issues covered would be chosen keeping in mind the broad preference of a newspaper's readers.
So if you were interested European Union politics, you would be lucky to get an article every two weeks. But at the same time, the very fact that newspapers felt that they were the only way we got content, they did feel obligated to at least sample the whole spectrum of topics. E.g. even if the sports pages were dominated by cricket, soccer and tennis, at least once in a while, volleyball and football would be covered.
In the figure above (click to see full figure), I have chosen to represent how we read back then in terms of two orthogonal axes: the breadth of reading (X-axis) and the depth of reading (Y-axis). The breadth of reading corresponds to the topics that we could cover, the depth of reading corresponds to how much we could cover on a certain topic. Each line represents a topic; how long the line is corresponds to how deeply a topic is covered.
The characteristics of pre-internet reading were:
- The newspaper/magazine decided what topics it would cover (and it tried to take the interests of the majority of its readers into account). This meant, to some extent, that the "long tail" of topics was not covered.
- The limited space available for a newspaper meant that:
- The depth that it could go into for any topic that it covered was limited.
- However topics were sampled uniformly across the spectrum of topics. Which meant that even if you didn't care for national politics at all, the very act of glancing through the newspaper everyday forced you to have some idea of what was going on. Ditto for sports, or for entertainment.
How we read now
Reading on the internet is different.
There's far far more material to read, and it's easy to get to, requiring nothing more than a click of the mouse.
There's also more control over the material meaning you can decide what you want to read and ignore the stuff that you don't care for. E.g. if you are interested in economic policy you can subscribe to the Business feed of the NYT and nothing else. If you're interested only in foreign policy and particularly in the U.S.-China relationship, you can use Yahoo Pipes and set up filters that will bring to you only those articles that mention the U.S. and China.
Finally, there's more depth. A newspaper, even an online newspaper, can only devote so much time and space to U.S.-China relations. But on the internet, this material can be augmented with the many blogs and wikis out there. There are blogs by anthropologists and economists, by foreign policy and international relations experts, and by political scientists, -- you name it! -- all of whom are interested in conveying their point of view to both lay and specialized audiences. In other words, you can choose to specialize in whatever you want and your specialization will be world-class.
In the figure above (click to see full figure), I've tried to represent the characteristics of online reading in terms of its breadth and depth. The characteristics of internet reading are
- We get to decide what topics we want to read about.
- There is unlimited "space;" it is possible to access any conceivable magazine or newspaper; in addition there are blogs, wikis and Twitter feeds that we can use as our filters to get to the interesting stuff that we care for.
- One can go as deep into a topic as one wants.
- But since our time is ultimately limited, emphasizing depth has the effect of sacrificing breadth. One could go as deep as one wants and read about international relations but the cost could well be no time to read any sports news. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I am not sure.