Reading the News Online

Lawyers are big consumers of news: by and large it helps in practice not to be “out of it.” And newspapers have likely been the primary source of lawyers’ general news at least. As everyone knows, in order to cope with the impact that the loss of advertising to the internet has had, newspapers now offer their news online. But there’s a different quality to reading the news online, of course. Most people fix on the difficulty of reading on a screen or on the confusing complexity of the web page, when explaining their preference for paper. Phil Gyford, however, has pointed out what is, for me, a significant difference that explains a lot about my own preference for a newspaper, one I hadn’t articulated before. See if it resonates with you.

He starts by observing that “There was no online news source that I could browse and read as easily as I could a print newspaper.” He finds three causes: 1. the problem of “readability” (navigation, layout, clutter, etc.); 2. that of “friction” (all the fuss and bother that goes into figuring out what to read and actually getting to the full text), and 3. — the aspect I found interesting — “finishability.”

What he means by this less than lovely label is that print newspapers are discrete packages of news: you know how much there is in total to read and you know when you’re done for the day. Because the size of the task is comprehensible, you can gauge how much time you want to devote to this or that piece, where you skip, and where you read closely, etc. With online news, there’s in effect a steady stream; it falls in moment to moment, even as you’re reading; moreover, you’ve no way of judging how much there is today and when you’ve read “enough”. There is, in effect, no end to it.

These are my words but I think I’ve grasped the essence of what he means. And I agree. One can wind up consuming news online in the way that one reads email, nervously checking for updates every so often throughout the day. Indeed, this persistent “rainfall” of news is now expected and often pushed, as with Twitter.

To produce an impact similar to that of a print paper in this respect, Gyford has created his online version of The Guardian, Today’s Guardian [click on it to enlarge the image above]. He has taken the Guardian’s brilliant Open Platform content, adopted the print editor’s choice of articles — in effect, that day’s newspaper — and presented it in the best form he could. At the very top of each page is a “sparkline” — a miniature graph — that shows you which section you’re in, where you are in the section, and how many column inches each article in the section contains. Flipping a page is simply clicking in the right or left margins. And you know when you’re done with the news for the day.


  1. Another option, for those simply missing the classic layout, is to use a service, like pressdisplay, that gives you digital images of the newspapers. It’s not free, but you get a lot of newspapers for a pretty reasonable price.

  2. A physical newspaper, or TV news for that matter, is essentially a filter. The editors have reviewed the firehose of constant information, and selected a once a day summary of that for its readers. We in turn read some, skim some, and ignore some.

    Before the online world, the firehose of information was unavailable to us. What the online world lacks is a filter that works as well as a newspaper editor. It would have to be one that is tailored for our individual interests, and good enough that we would trust it so we don’t feel the need to look around it.

    The other issue is immediacy. For the vast majority of news, it doesn’t really matter if we see it as it happens. But for some reason we have a perception that we need to know now – and we need to know it first – even if it’s not about a tornado coming our way. That perception predates the internet. Decades ago, competing TV news competed on the ability to get news first.

    Your “Todays Guardian” example is perhaps why the death of the newspaper is exaggerated. The current dead tree version is perhaps doomed. But the model of trusted reporters and editors creating a filtered package of news frozen in whatever time we choose to consume it tailored to each individual’s interests and presented using the best web tools available would I believe be a winner.

    (Assuming, of course, that we resisted the urge to continually refresh it.)