Digital Habits of Mind

The Washington Post is embarking on an intriguing experiment in longform journalism. For a recent, very long article on a U.S. Marine trying to clear his name of sexual abuse charges, The Post inserted helpful ways for online readers to progress through the story. If you wanted to put down the article and resume reading it later (very understandable for a piece that ran to 8,000 words) you could enter your email address, and The Post would send you a unique URL that would allow you to access the article again later at the exact spot where you left off.

The Post’s new features also include graphic elements, like pictures of an iMessage in a spot where a text message is cited in the story. The idea is that a reader may need a little help finishing a lengthy article, especially if reading it on a phone. It’s not a new idea, just one that has been retrofitted for the digital age. In traditional print magazines, pull quotes and pictures, not to mention the New Yorker’s famous cartoons, are all placed strategically to help the reader forge through the text.

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I suspect that The Post may be drawing upon the expertise of Jeff Bezos, the president of Amazon and the new owner of The Post. Amazon is, of course, the purveyor of the Kindle, which is the industry leader in managing long-form texts (or as we used to call them, books). Amazon has experimented with different ways of allowing users to interact with e-books, from traditional bookmarks to the ability to see which selections are the most popular with readers. As a frequent Kindle user, I appreciate these tools, but I wonder how they will translate to news articles and other content you read primarily on your phone.

Here is a secret I am loath to reveal: Although I am a news junkie and check my New York Times app multiple times a day, I read headlines and ledes more than I do full stories. And I suspect that I am not alone. The nature of reading on my phone is that I do it in quick hits while waiting for a train or on line for coffee. Even when I do scroll through a full story, I often skip paragraphs and jump to the end.

This may be a bad habit I first picked up reading the actual newspaper. It is not uncommon to page through newsprint before deciding which article to read. The difference with my phone is that I only sometimes (O.K., rarely) commit to reading the whole story, word for word. The chances that I will bookmark a piece, or save it for later, are slim. Twitter may be partially to blame here. The service has given us an amazing ability to personalize our news consumption, but it rewards scrolling rather than reading.

This is one reason I still subscribe to the print edition of the newspaper. I am simply more likely to read a full op-ed essay if I flip to the last page of the A section. This may be a function of my age (I am a digital immigrant, not a native), but I also think it’s a product of the stillness that the print product helps to foster. On my phone, my mind is jumping in a thousand directions: to my work email, my iPhoto stream or my text messages. Print helps me calm down.

And not just print does this. One of the reasons I like my Kindle is that it engenders the same kind of stillness and focused attention. There are no advertisements, and the traditional Kindle display is far closer to a page in a book than a back-lit screen. Building on a suggestion from The New York Times’s Frank Bruni, I am slowly trying to wean myself off checking my phone before I go to sleep. Instead I pick up my Kindle or a magazine. Reading for even just 20 minutes helps quiet my mind and can even help me feel less distracted in the morning.

This may just be a personal discipline that works for me. We are seeing an epochal transition in the way people read and process information, and perhaps I am just slow to adjust. In many, many ways, the computers in our pockets allow us to be more efficient and connected human beings. My younger colleagues are admirably nimble in the digital world, and it is exciting to consider how they will help shape the future of America Media.

But we still need to think about how to instill the habits of mind that have sustained America and other opinion leaders for so long. How do we become more thoughtful and less prone to cant? How can our devices help us become more rigorous and clear-headed thinkers? And if they prove to be a distraction more than an aid, what do we plan to do about it?

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