Ditching Newspapers Exacerbates the Digital Divide

I started teaching a summer course focusing on international journalism this week. One of the issues that will permeate many of our discussions will be the lack of Internet access for hundreds of thousands — millions, really — of people across the world.

My students got hip to the consequences of this pretty quickly: doesn’t that make it more difficult to learn about events in their community or country? They don’t have access, so they’re likely poor, have less formal education and are politically powerless, right? If we’re living in the information era, then these groups are being marginalized, correct?

Yes. And this isn’t just a problem for “those people over there.” It’s happening in American communities right now.

In a previous post, I lamented the recent decision by Advance Publications to fire most of the editorial staffs at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and The Huntsville Times, The Birmingham News and Mobile’s Press-Register in Alabama. Handing approximately 400 journalists and other employees their walking papers is bad enough. But switching to a three-day-a-week publication schedule in favor of focusing on the newspapers’ digital components doesn’t enhance news consumption, it actually hurts it.

From The Times-Picayune‘s website:

“NOLA Media Group will be a digitally-focused news organization encompassing all content, marketing and sales operations for: nola.com and The Times-Picayune. By bringing together the quality journalism and in-depth coverage of The Times-Picayune with the up-to-the-minute information of nola.com, we are ensuring the communities we serve have 24/7 access to what’s happening locally and around the world.”

From The Huntsville Timeswebsite:

“The Huntsville community is increasingly becoming more digital, and this is true for the media business, too. Many of you, our readers, are now becoming users of our digital products, and you’ve told us you’re going online and on your phones every day for local news and information. This new digitally-focused organization will bring together the quality journalism of The Huntsville Times and the power of al.com, ensuring communities across Alabama have 24/7 access to what’s happening locally and in their world.”

I’m sure you noticed that both statements focus on “24/7 access” to news about local and global events. The problem is, of course, is that not all of their readers will have 24/7 access to these websites. They won’t even have 24/7 access to the Internet.

Pew Internet released a report in April titled “Digital differences.” Some of its findings confirm what those of us who pay attention to this issue already know. The poor, the less educated and the elderly use the Internet in far fewer numbers than do those people who are not part of these demographics. For example:

  • 90% of adults with an annual household income of $50,000 – $74,999 use the Internet, but only 62% of adults with a household income of less than $30,000 per year use the Internet
  • 94% of adults aged 18-29 and 87% aged 30-49 use the Internet, but only 41% aged 65+ use the Internet
  • 94% of adults who graduated college use the Internet, but just 71% of adults who only have a high school diploma use the Internet

The survey found that 40% of American adults don’t have a high speed broadband connection at home. Furthermore, only 54% of American adults living with a disability reported using the Internet. Think about that; essentially half of America’s disabled adults are not on the Internet.

These newspapers might be enhancing their services for those who use their online components, but they are denying many people access to their print editions — editions that, based on the Internet access survey, would be the only way these people would be able to read about events affecting their communities.

There’s a tradition of journalism in this country that has at its core the protection of the poor, the elderly and the powerless against the forces of wealth, class and political authority. What’s happening to these newspapers in New Orleans and Alabama is an utter failure in this regard.

These newspapers are not “ensuring the communities we serve have 24/7 access to what’s happening locally and around the world.” Instead, they are ensuring that those who have little to no access to the Internet will also have little to no access to this information.

That’s not the kind of tradition American journalism should establish.

One Response to “Ditching Newspapers Exacerbates the Digital Divide”
  1. Ricky Treon says:

    Even here in Amarillo, we have a lot of rural communities with far below 50 percent Internet access at home. I grew up in Stinnett, population less than 2,000. With no print edition, a lot of people would be a lot less informed.

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