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What's Lost When You Skip Traditional Media?


And it's time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. If you're one of those people who wakes up, brushes your teeth, has a cup of coffee while fighting the newspaper with ink-smeared fingers, well put that paper down. We've got your op-ed right here. Journalist Amy Webb recently conducted her own great experiment. No mainstream media, no newspapers, magazine - gasp - no radio or TV for 30 days. He op-ed with the results appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday, and she's here to tell us what she missed, if anything.

You can find a link to her op-ed at our Web site. Just go to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. And if you peruse your RSS headlines over your morning cup of Joe, give us a call. On the other hand, if you think you could never part with your newspaper, let us know why. The number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Amy Webb is the founder and editor-in-chief of Dragonfire, a non-profit, independent digital magazine about culture and news. And she joins us from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia. And it's nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. AMY WEBB (Editor, Dragonfire): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: So what was the purpose of this experiment again?

Ms. WEBB: Well, since I moved back to the United States, I've been listening to a lot of friends who are editors and writers, you know, lament the fact that circulation is down, that a lot of journalists in the U.S. are being laid off. And a lot of people are pointing fingers at the Internet. And at the same time, the Internet isn't brand new. I mean, it's been in widespread use really since 1995, 1996. And journalists were the first ones to report about all this new technology, and par for the course, we're the last ones to implement it.

CONAN: Of course.

Ms. WEBB: So what I wanted to really find out was whether or not what I perceived to be arrogance on the part of my colleagues was founded. A lot of people have called this hype, and as soon as the hype dies down as it did once before in the mid-90s, things will return to normal, and everybody will pick up their newspapers and magazines again. And that'll be the end of blogs and podcasting.

I wanted to find out if that was true or if it was the flip-side of that coin, which was that in fact it's the information that's important, and that's what people seek - not necessarily the medium. And that meant going clean - no newspapers, no magazines. I even got technical and wouldn't look at billboards or newspaper boxes as walked or would ride my bike on the street.

CONAN: And I notice that on the very first day of your experiment, you noticed as you were driving to work that you'd been listening to the radio for about a couple of hours.

Ms. WEBB: Yes. In the interest of full disclosure, I have NPR on all the time. And I'm based in Philadelphia, at least during the week, and I typically listen to WHYY. And I was in traffic and sort of passively listening to the news and thinking about what was going on in my day when I realized that I had already blown the experiment less than a couple of hours into it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's not easy to break your old habits.

Ms. WEBB: No, it's definitely not.

CONAN: But is it easy - as somebody who's in the profession, you're a journalist - is it easy to find out what you need to know?

Ms. WEBB: Well, it is. It is on a national level. And what I was setting out to do was really to find out how much I would be lacking if I never looked at a newspaper or a magazine or looked at the television or listened to radio again. And the result was that I was forced to look at a variety of sources. And there's a lot of talk - at least in my professional circles - about this thing called citizen journalism, which is average people reporting and producing content online that mirrors what professional journalists do.

But what I found is that the local coverage in Philadelphia wasn't - didn't have a lot of depth online. And so I was forced to start looking at blogs and start listening to other podcasts, and as I returned to editorial meetings I found out that not only was I not lacking information, but in fact I was better informed because I wasn't just relying on newspapers and magazines but a variety of sources - and in fact not just local ones, but I started really concentrating a lot on the BBC.

CONAN: Hey, that's radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEBB: Radio and television, but their Web site truly is outstanding. You don't have to go offsite. A lot of the reporting is done - they don't link to other Web sites. And there are timelines, there's interactive information. You know, within five minutes I can find out everything I need to know about Tehran, whereas it may take me a little bit of time to do that if I were just using newspapers and magazines.

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Webb on our Opinion Page this week. She's the founder and editor-in-chief of Dragonfire, and her op-ed appeared in this week's Philadelphia Inquirer. And if you'd like to take a look at it, there's a link to it on our Web page. Just go to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. Michelle. Michelle's calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.

MICHELLE (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MICHELLE: My question is, is it a generational thing? I'm 41. I check my e-mail every morning. I look at the news from different sources, but there's just nothing like having a newspaper under your arm with a cup of coffee. And I understand you can get more information on the Internet, but just to get a general overview, I prefer the newspaper.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Amy?

Ms. WEBB: Well, I think a lot of people feel that way, and part of it is we as a culture resist change. I think it's just in human nature to resist change, and you know, most of us are used to growing up with a print publication or relying on the evening news for the sole source of our information. I drink a lot of coffee, and nothing pleases me more than waking up on a Sunday morning and laying in bed with a huge stack of magazines and newspapers and drinking my coffee and starting out my day.

But I don't think it's a generational thing. I'm 31, and I have friends in their 50s who do the same thing that I do. We really rely on technology. And I have friends who are much younger who do the same thing. I think it really is more about an openness to technology. If you're somebody who's in an office all day long with a computer, I think you're going to gravitate towards that form of information. You know, if you're somebody who's - I used to live in New York, and you know, it's a lot easier on a crowded day to listen to a podcast of the New York Times headlines than it is to fiddle with the paper. And there's a whole origami setup if you live in the city and you ride the subway a lot to make sure that you're not bumping into other people when you read.

If all I have to do is click on a play button to get the same information, that's a lot easier for me. So I think it has less to do with maybe age and more to do with willingness to change, curiosity to try new technologies, and then also accessibility. It depends on where in the country you live.

CONAN: Michelle, whether it's age or just inability to deal with new technology, I love the newspapers, too. So…

MICHELLE: Well, thank you. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with - this is, excuse me, button two -Corey(ph). Corey's with us from Nashville.

COREY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'd like to talk to your guest a little bit more about how she got her local news, because I'm always on line. I use my RSS feeds and I'm browsing the BBC and foreign news sites, but when it comes to finding my local news I usually have to turn to my local TV stations to really get that information. So how did your guest get local information off the Web?

CONAN: Yeah, it's sometimes easier to find out about Somalia than South Philly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COREY: That's right.

Ms. WEBB: Corey, you raise a very good point, and this is sort of emblematic of what's happening in the country right now - and it has to do with resources. Large media outlets - and I'll point to the Washington Post as a great example of this - have a lot of resources to throw at the online sites.

Jim Brady, who is the executive editor there, has a staff I think of about 75 people, fewer - and I probably will be wrong about this in exact terms - but fewer than 10 I think of them are actually journalists. The rest are programmers. But that's serving a national audience. They have a huge revenue base. And for smaller towns it's, you know, it's a lot more difficult.

Now I was RSS feeds, and for those of you who don't know what RSS is - without going into too many technical specifications - it's sort of like a service that e-mails you headlines and stories to a particular inbox.

CONAN: And even an idiot like me can figure it out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEBB: It's pretty simple. And I use a reader called Bloglines. And so I had subscribed to all of the local newspapers, to WHYY, and to the television stations to get my local news. What I found - and Corey, you may have found the same thing - is that the majority of what I was getting delivered were sort of murder stories. You know, eight people have been murdered here, there's a robbery there. Corey, do you find that when you…

COREY: Yes. I can't find anything on the city council, on big votes coming up, but it's usually - yeah, sensational news.

Ms. WEBB: Right. And that's disappointing. It's not difficult to create an RSS feed. And unfortunately local newspapers - especially ones without a lot of backing from larger companies or from their parent companies - don't have the resources - I should strike that. They absolutely have the resources, they just aren't dedicating…

CONAN: They choice not to use them in that sense.

Ms. WEBB: Correct.

CONAN: Corey, thanks very much for the phone call.

COREY: Thank you.

CONAN: We just a few seconds with you left, Amy. If they were gone, would you miss them?

Ms. WEBB: Yeah, I guess that's the big ironic point. I would. I noticed after a while that I was getting agitated being online all the time, and it's nice to slow down and look at newspapers or magazines every now and then.

CONAN: Amy Webb is founder and editor-in-chief of Dragonfire, a non-profit, independent, digital magazine about culture and news. She joined us from the studios at member station WHYY in Philadelphia. You can read her op-ed and all of our previous opinion pages at our Web site, the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. I'm Neal Conan, this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.