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Reading, the New Media, and the New Skepticism: What’s Going On?

Kendrick Frazier

January 6, 2010

A slightly different version of this article was presented in a talk on the Center for Inquiry “seminar at sea” cruise of the Western Caribbean, Nov. 12-18, 2009.

If you are anything like me, reading is an essential part of life itself. For my generation, newspapers, books, and magazines are so intertwined with who we are and what we do that we almost can’t imagine a world without them.

In junior high and high school I hid paperback science-fiction novels behind my textbooks; in boring parts of class, I’d fly off in imaginative excursions through the universe. My parents belonged to the Book of the Month Club, and every four weeks some new enticing brochure describing novels and nonfiction books arrived with literate little essays to let us know what the club’s editors thought every intelligent family should be reading. My mother ordered lots of those books. And at least some of them we read. They were hardback—this was well before the era of trade paperbacks.

Our northern Colorado farm town’s little public library was a place of magic. Go up one flight of stairs above the town hall, and you entered a place so wondrous that I still remember the smells and sounds today. That wonderful new-book smell, there’s nothing like it, and the sounds of our shoes crackling on those varnished hardwood floors. All the new young person’s adventure novels awaited me, in their stylish, plastic-covered covers. There wasn’t a book I wanted that I couldn’t find. (I’m sure by all modern standards that was a very small library, and its quantity of books couldn’t have been very great. But at the time it seemed all I needed.)

I was also a newspaper junkie from early on. By ninth grade, we had a journalism class with another in high school taught by a fine teacher. I wrote the editorials for our high school newspaper, which was typeset, laid out, and published every Thursday as a well-read page in our town’s weekly newspaper. It was quite a heady experience to see your words in print every week, for every person in town to read. Every single person you knew.

So it is no wonder that after a brief flirtation with physics as a major, I ended up in journalism school (with a science emphasis but still a hard-news disposition). I worked three summers on newspapers, then a full year as a working newsman in the Denver bureau of UPI, and then went on to graduate school in journalism in New York at Columbia.

When I started at Columbia (fall of 1965), New York City had six daily newspapers. Then there was a major newspaper strike. It went on for a long time, as I recall, a sobering circumstance when you are studying to become a newspaperman. By the time I graduated, or at least shortly thereafter, New York had only four daily newspapers. The Journal-American and the Herald-Tribune, the latter a very fine newspaper, had fallen victim to harsh economics.

Newspapers have been under economic pressures from television since the ’50s, but their rapid decline now—in this new Internet age—is unprecedented. And sad. I am still a newspaper junkie. We get the Sunday New York Times delivered before sunrise on Sunday mornings to our house in Albuquerque—nearly two thousand miles from New York. We read it throughout the week. All other mornings I spend at least forty-five minutes with our local morning newspaper. I like the feel of the newspaper in my hand or on the table. Up until this past year, my wife Ruth and I had similar rituals in the early evening, often over dinner or a TV program, reading our local afternoon Scripps-Howard newspaper. It died last summer. We are no longer a two-newspaper city.

Kids these days don’t read newspapers. They barely know what they are. I know that. I’ve seen it. I worry about it. It is terrible for newspapers and those who love them. It may be terrible for education and for democracy. But I have to realize that I—and maybe all of us of our age group—are looking at the matter through our own generations’ prism. We may need to look through a newer, more high-tech prism to find signs of hope there. I think we might.

Recently we had some of our family over for dinner. Thinking about this article, I asked our grandson, Tenzin (who in December turned eighteen): “I know you don’t read newspapers or watch the evening television network news like we do, but do you nevertheless consider yourself well-informed? And exactly where do you get your information?” I think I kind of knew the answer, because he’s very computer-literate, but I wanted to hear it from him. He’s a smart young man, bright, studious, well-read (he reads books, lots of books; that’s another story), aware, already in college. Perhaps not altogether typical of most young people but still a youngster of his generation (in most ways).

“I think I am fairly well-informed,” he began thoughtfully. He explained that he gets his news off a variety of Internet sites. And then he said something about himself and his peers that to those of us in publishing is chilling but no longer unexpected: “We don’t think we should have to pay for information.”

There. He said it. That’s what the current debate is all about. Information should be free, on the Internet. Free is good, as the editor of Wired maintains. But Tenzin quickly added, in constructive fashion: “Newspapers and magazines just have to get a new business model. We may not think we should pay for information, but we don’t mind wading through ads to get to it.”

There, in a one young family member’s microcosm, was the core essence of the debate. I’ve seen this debate played out endlessly in heart-felt discussions about the future of newspapers and magazines in blogs, the Columbia Journalism Review, other magazines, and newspapers themselves.

We in publishing know we have to embrace the modern electronic information age, and most all of us are doing so in various ways; but how do we make it pay? Not pay in order to make a profit—because most of us aren’t really in this work for profit—just in order to stay in business at all. In order to research, report, write, edit, making a whole bunch of professional judgments along the way, and then get that encapsulated information out to the world that needs it. What in the world is the business model based on “free is good”? The debates are ongoing, and they are endless. No one, I think it is fair to say, really yet knows the answer. We don’t yet know how this is going to play out, which is very unsettling.

The tools of delivery are rapidly changing, and that’s where all the stress and worry comes in. But we must remember that most other industries in the corporate world have also undergone stresses and changes in recent years and decades; how well they responded to and adapted to those changing circumstances helps determine whether they’ll survive or not. (Plus an occasional ten-billion or so government subsidy—something those of us in the media can’t quite expect.)

In publishing we cling emotionally to the physical printed books, newspapers, and magazines we love so much—a history going back more than 500 years now. It’s no wonder. We do love them, and we should. But it is what goes into them that counts, not the exact physical output. It is their product of the human brain, heart, and imagination that we seek, and what form it happens to get to us in is less important. Isn’t it? I think that may be true anyway. Intellectually, I say so.

It is hard for me, though, living as I do in a large house with at least five of its rooms (two of them Skeptical Inquirer offices) lined with books. Bookcases everywhere. Many thousands of books over all. They are everywhere. I love their look, their feel. Their variety, their design, their content, the way they represent our wide-ranging interests and values. They are a part of my identity. (Ruth’s too, I think. She reads books far more than even I do.) With newspapers on the counter. With magazines of every type and description on display. I keep some in magazine file boxes to refer to in the event that becomes necessary. (Yet even I now am more likely to go immediately to the Web to do my research.)

I mentioned that newspaper and other publishers are struggling with these matters as we speak. On November 1, the New York Times’s public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote (again) about some of these painful problems. Although the Times has the largest newsroom of any American newspaper, Clark reported that the Times was about to cut 100 newsroom people (of their 1,250 reporters, editors, photographers, columnists, graphic artists, videographers, and more) through voluntary buyouts and, if needed, make layoffs in the weeks before Christmas. It is hardly alone. The Baltimore Sun is down from 400 journalists to 150; the Los Angeles Times news staff has been cut by more than half. Most large newspapers have closed or drastically curtailed their foreign bureaus. The Wall Street Journal is closing its Boston bureau. The Associated Press may have to enact layoffs to get payroll down 10 percent.

Since the Times and all other publications have enlarged their online presence dramatically, the new question is: Can you charge for that online access? Hoyt says many readers are suggesting the Times do so, and they are willing to get out their credit cards. Times executives are still studying that issue. But Bill Keller, the Times executive editor expresses caution: “It’s a much tougher, more complicated decision than it seems to all the armchair experts. There is no clear consensus on the right way to go.”

The paradox is that newspaper circulations are declining, rapidly, while in many cases newspaper readership is up. Many readers prefer reading their newspaper reports on the Web. But making that pay—again, that is the key dilemma. No one has yet found a reliable way.

Magazines are in similar situations, under tremendous cost/circulation pressures. Sixteen thousand titles are published in the U.S., but every month notable ones drop by the wayside. Many others are struggling. You would think that magazines with unique niches, the Skeptical Inquirer among them, would have some advantage over general-interest ones. Perhaps they do, but the flight to the Internet is debilitating for all.

My view is that for most periodicals the subscriptions should include both the printed and electronic version (or an option of one or the other). Thus subscribers (but not nonsubscribers) would have full access to the entire publication online. Most scientific journals have already gone that way. But I realize implementing that kind of action for more public periodicals is difficult and fraught with uncertainties.

But let’s get beyond economics and questions of the survival of media outlets and whole media industries. There are even larger issues: reading and literacy. They are essential to modern democratic civilization. Is the Internet age decreasing or reducing reading and literacy? I don’t know for sure. It is easy for us oldsters to condemn the newer generation for their addictions to texting, twittering, chat-rooming, social networking, blogging—and the incredible handheld devices that make all this possible anywhere, anytime, twenty-four hours a day. But I think we have to be careful. Our own prism may be obscured.

I am tentatively encouraged by the view of Stanford University professor of writing and rhetoric Andrea Lunsford. She has organized a huge project collecting more than 14,000 student writing samples—in-class assignments, formal essays to be sure, but also e-mails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions, reported in a recent column in Wired by Clive Thompson called “The New Literacy” (September 2009) are worth thinking about seriously:

“I think we are in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she says. For Lunsford [Thompson reports], technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions. The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. . . .It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment.

The question arises: is this explosion of writing good on a technical level? Thompson argues that the answer is yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to get their point across. Says Thompson: “The modern world of online writing. . .is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago. The fact that students today almost always write for an audience….gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing.”

I am not totally convinced, and I am sure you are not either. But perhaps it is a glimmer of hope.

Here’s what my computer-literate oldest grandson e-mailed me when I shared a draft of this essay:

I’ve read the Wired article you mentioned (online, for free :p), and I believe that in many ways the author is absolutely correct. Knowing your audience and conveying tone is especially important in online communications, not only because vocal cues cannot be relied upon, but also because the quality of writing is often used to judge the merit of a claim where other tools are not available. Writing like a middle schooler gives the message the weight of a middle-schooler’s opinion. It’s also, as the article mentioned, a fundamentally different form of communication than an essay.

As far as sheer volume goes, I have written far, far more for the Internet’s consumption than I have for school. Over the last three weeks, I’ve almost six thousand lines worth of irc communication (a form of instant messaging/chatroom), and have read many times that amount. That’s in addition to many dozen of forum posts, ranging in length from a single sentence to a mini essay. I may be atypical, but our generation certainly does communicate in large part via text.

So, if his experience is at all typical, perhaps there is way more than a glimmer of hope. We must embrace the new technology, use it ourselves to the degree we’re comfortable, and encourage the newer, younger generation to use it in every way possible for all constructive purposes.

My title mentions the New Skepticism. Here’s one thing I mean. All these new tools allow us to go out there and assess and investigate claims and assertions like never before. Those who use them now have tools to access information that we could only have hoped for in our student and early adult years. Inquirers can now quickly call up ten sources on the Web and cross-compare them for inconsistencies and discrepancies, and therefore begin to sift likely correct statements from possibly incorrect ones.

Earlier this year, at the Center for Inquiry conference in Bethesda, Maryland, we had a late-afternoon special section on the New Skepticism. It was filled with a lot of the newer generation of eager young people with great new ideas and energy to devote to the skeptical movement.

They didn’t need me, but here’s a little of what I told them anyway, at the beginning:

What a revolution that has been over the past two decades!

There is no point lamenting what has been lost—instead we must capitalize on what has been gained and become adept at using all the new tools that the Internet and other modern electronic communications have made possible.

All this to better communicate among ourselves and present to the millions worldwide the differences between bad science and good science, sense and nonsense, reason and unreason—in general and in specific case after case—and the rewards and unfettered joy of science and skeptical inquiry.

Use these new tools. . . . The next generation, and the one after that, find these new tools natural and should not be held back by our old allegiances to the print media and central broadcast media.

The November/December 2009 special issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, guest edited by our managing editor Ben Radford, was devoted to just these issues. It’s titled “Skepticism 2.0: What’s Next?” A dozen invited representatives of the new generation of skeptics write provocatively and passionately about their view of the new skepticism. Because they work in a decentralized way and use so many different electronic media, their viewpoint may differ from the classic skeptical movement founded by Paul Kurtz, Martin Gardner, James Randi, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Philip Klass, Ray Human, and the others a third of a century ago. Many are well aware of CSI and SI and the pioneering efforts of these early heroes of skepticism, and the history of the movement. But others aren’t; they’re just out there doing their skeptical thing. On their own. And in many cases, remarkably well. And that’s mostly a good thing.

I highly commend that entire issue of SI for a refreshingly different view of the skeptical movement as it draws in younger people and embraces all the modern technologies now available.

Conventional books and magazines will continue to struggle, with electronic distribution of books coming rapidly to the fore and more newspapers and magazines succumbing or going online only. The losses are dreadful. The reflective judgments their editors bring to the editorial content may be sorely missed. Future readers may never know the tactile delight, that almost visceral feel, of a book or a newspaper in the hand. But they will read, in some form, in some way, the thoughts and ideas and collected wisdom authors convey and the important information people (and search engines) compile. The communications tools have changed and multiplied, and, as realists and rationalists, we must recognize and apply their enormous new power and promise.

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.