Magazines v. Web v. Newspapers v. Television

    Yesterday I sat down and read through the latest issue of Time Magazine. I am an information junky, but I don’t read magazines as much as I used too, not since the web. Reading the web is an exciting way to take in data – I can start with Slashdot and follow a link to MSN to an article entitled “Sci-Fi from Page to Screen,” read it, and from there start googling the concept for more information. It could lead to an hour of diversion and maybe even a couple hours of blog writing. The casual way to read a magazine is to start with the cover, flip and read until you reach the back cover. With magazines and newspapers you read by picking and choosing what you like, but they are self contained because they don’t have hyperlinks. Television is a horse of a different color altogether. If you discount channel surfing, picking a show and watching it from start to finish, means being a captive audience. If you count channel surfing, then television is more like web surfing, but not quite the same because a couple hundred channels is nothing to the billions of web pages.

    What surprised me yesterday while reading Time was the quality of the experience. I seldom sit and read a whole magazine anymore. I read the letters to the editor, the small and large pieces. Towards the end I started skimming more, but I tried to take in the magazine as a whole. It felt like I got a small snapshot of what was going on in the world this week. If the web didn’t exist magazines would be my web. The world through a magazine eye felt distinctly different than the world I see from surfing the web or watching the television news or reading The New York Times.

    The cover story intrigued me, “Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School” by David Van Biema. So did another story that was the cover story in the Europe, Asia and South Pacific editions, “The Truth About Talibanistan” by Aryn Baker. I’m an atheist but I find the study of the Bible fascinating. I’ve often wondered why it isn’t taught in school. Of course the way I would teach it by linking it to anthropology, history, language, psychology, sociology, grammar, etc., is very different from the way it is being taught. While reading the article I was itchy to click and research. Then reading the article about the Taliban I was reminded of seeing a documentary on Frontline about the same topic, “The Return of the Taliban.” They didn’t tell the same story, but that’s not the issue I want to get into.

    Seeing the Frontline story on HDTV had far greater impact than reading the article in Time, but the magazine article had more to think about. This brings back the old issue of television journalism versus print journalism. Right after reading that issue of Time, I went and watched “Arctic Passage” on NOVA on HDTV about the mysterious and tragic Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. While watching that show I was struct by how much richer the experience of learning was through the 56-inch HDTV than reading and seeing photos in a magazine or book.

    The magazine was about ideas in my head. I read many exciting bits of information that made me think and want to write and research. The show about Franklin was rich and educational in the best way and I was satisfied with the subject when it finished. I have read about the Franklin expedition before, and the NOVA site has more reading material, but the show left a sense of completeness. Given its fifty plus minutes, the documentary makers summed up the issue in a very satisfying way. I then selected from my PVR, “Monster of the Milky Way,” another NOVA documentary.

    The impact was fantastic. I read a lot of astronomy magazines and websites, but the 56″ astronomical photos and videos they showed were stunning. The animations were gorgeous and awe inspiring and totally filled me with a sense of wonder. The trouble is NOVA only comes on once a week with maybe 20-25 new shows a year. What if every topic I wanted to study had a 55 minute NOVA quality documentary to present the information – would that be the best way I should take in information? I don’t know. Maybe? It certainly feels more real than reading.

    Newspapers, magazines and the web are great for taking in mass quantities of informational tidbits. The web excels at ready access to information, but I’ve got to wonder if NOVA made a documentary about “Sci-Fi from Page to Screen” it would blow away the reading experience of the MSN.com piece. What if the web was surfing a vast library of high definition videos and our computers had 24-inch 1980×1200 high definition screens? What value does the written word have over the spoken word with visuals?

    I buy courses from The Teaching Company and I always agonize over whether to get the DVD option, the audio edition and whether or not I need the print supplement. Their DVDs aren’t hi-def, and just contain photos to supplement the lectures, but often those photos have great impact.

    Do I prefer the NOVA shows because hi-definition television is as close to reality as any media can get? When I attend lectures I hate PowerPoint presentations and videos. I want the speaker to say something interesting and be engaging. I just finished a very rewarding book, Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers. I have to admit that if that book were presented as a long mini-series on PBS it would probably be my favorite way to study Twain. Photos and videos just have too much impact to ignore. Maybe that’s why YouTube is so successful on the web. But would I learn as much about Mark Twain, or remember as much?

    Where does that leave me as a writer? Should I add photos to my blog? Should I go into video blogging? Should we all become documentary makers? Blogs tend to be of lower quality writing than professional magazine writing, and video blogging is a far cry from PBS documentaries. However, what if communication between people becomes more visual in nature? Cell phones with cameras are getting popular. People email me digital photos all the time. How soon will it be before I start getting personal videos? I already get joke videos. What if the video we got were high definition?

    The question I started to write about today is: What’s the best media or method for getting a feel for what’s going on in the world each day? Television is like having extra eyes that rove the planet. Blogs are like getting to read people’s diaries. Newspapers and magazines are like getting letters from well traveled friends who are great writers. Communication speeds are so fast now that news delays range from hours to weeks. In the nineteenth century it took weeks or months and sometimes years to hear about things going on around the world. Of course reading non-fiction books is like getting the news centuries late, and with cosmology the news is a billion years old.

    Slowly high definition televsion is coming to news programs. Watching The Today Show or The Tonight Show in high-def on a large screen has a very real immediate feel. The disadvantage of television over magazines is details. For me, seeing details in print are more memorable than hearing them. I can study them and reread easily. It’s much easier to quote a magazine than to quote a television show. And I tend to think print is more philosophical than the visual media. But most of my book reading is through audio books, mainly because I have more time for them that way, and the fact that I think I experience novels better though audio than though my eyes. That’s because I listen to books at a conversational speed, but speed read them with my eyes, often skimming words. But to study them for a test I’d need to see the printed page.

    What I’d really like is to combine high-definition television with computers and the Internet. The PBS sites are doing something like what I’m thinking about. You can get a transcript of their shows for study and quoting, you can link to videos to show friends, it stays on the web for reference and it has hyperlinks for more surfing, but I need to see the videos in high definition on my computer screen. When will that happen?

    Imagine a Wikipedia entry for every topic no matter how tiny, and each entry had links to all the media related to that topic. So for the Franklin expedition there would be links to all the documentaries, the primary research, secondary research, articles, essays, photos, diaries, etc. Also imagine this Wikipedia’s front page with news streaming in about what’s going on in the world in current time. I picture a map of the world with a visual interface that helps spot new and interesting events. Other tools could track with keywords and photos. Let’s say the idea of teaching the Bible in school becomes newsworthy in this interface and catches my eye. Wouldn’t it be fun to follow a link that takes you to cameras in the classroom? What if one teacher calls up a documentary about translating the Bible in different times and places, and I could fall out of real time to watch it?

    A lot could happen in our future when it comes to information.

    
 

    

    

3 thoughts on “Magazines v. Web v. Newspapers v. Television”

  1. >

    That’s why I can’t bear the medium of Television — its indisputable educational *potential* is IMO utterly negated by its capacity to causeinsidious, irreperable social damage beyond anything the world has ever known I would ban it outright and absolutely, along with the motorcar which has arguably destroyed the family unit worldwide.

    Her’s the problem: TV (And to a lesser extent radio) are push media. The Web used to be all pull, now it’s increasingly becoming push with RSS etc. Print is still pure pull.

    Where non-fiction is concerened, with a newspaper in your hands, the only push power the medium/publisher has is the size of headlines and position of the articles. But I can ignore the boring crap about Iran, say, on the front page and go straight to the minor yet fascinating article on the UUSR’s late premier Brezhnev’s addiction to sports cars. I’m in control, and the balance of reality is a more level playing field.

    With visual media, there are two issues: first, it’s all push, with the priority and emphasis utterly inflexible; second, we are such visual animals that we are manipulated with terrifying ease. Think about it.

    The act of reading is also an active one, with the information processing in the brain occurring in a way that makes it easier to recall and filter; visual media is passive and (I use the word again) insidiuous.

    As far as fiction is concerned, well, as they used to say at the BBC, “the pictures are so much better on radio.”

    Dario

  2. That’s an interesting observation. So if television was a pull media, you might appreciate it more? I think television may be a pull medium under the right conditions. I’m very selective with my watching, usually recording shows to my DVR before watching them.

    Let’s say while you’re reading that article on Brezhnev’s interest in sports cars there was a button to push that would take you to a TV version of that news. If you saw Brezhnev zooming around on a large high definition screen wouldn’t that add to your awareness?

    The online edition of New York Times is supplementing it’s stories with some video now, and it’s very good. It’s fun to read the story and get a mental image of what’s going on, and then watch the video and be amazed at how your mental pictures of how you think things were are all wrong.

    Jim

  3. Unlike Jim, I am not an information junky. I like to be selective about the information I receive and don’t want it pushed on me. I find the problem with magazines, radio and television is that (with the exception of some publicly funded channels), there are more advertisements than information.

    Jim mentions that pictures and/or video often enhances the story or news item and I agree with that statement to some degree. However, I cannot bear to watch TV or listen to the radio because of the commercials — both the frequency and the content are annoying and are an unwanted distraction from the story or news item in which I am interested. Magazines are a little better in that you can flip through the pages and skip the advertisements when reading an article. However, I refuse to pay todays prices for a magazine that provides me with about 5% information and 95% advertisements. Why should I pay to receive advertisements? I can see them on billboards, neon signs, newspapers, buses, in skywriting, painted on people’s bodies and in almost every other place I turn. You get my drift?

    People think they are getting so much more for their money by paying for more TV channels when in reality most of them are just getting more choices for watching commercials. Companies brainwashing the public into buying their products while the public willing pays them to do so — what’s wrong with this picture?

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