DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Print vs. Digital: Is There a Clear Winner?


What is the difference between reading something on paper and reading something off a computer screen? Well, that is something that is completely subjective based on the personal experiences of the reader. Some may say that they prefer a digital format because they can take it wherever they want; on the train via their phone, or maybe on their laptop while lying in bed. Others may choose the print format because they get to physically hold the paper in their hands or make annotations to the text with just a pen. It really seems simple, there is no better option between the two, just what the reader prefers. But what if that’s false? What if science can prove that one form of media is better than the other? That’s what I am going to try and show: there are not just two sides to the argument, but in fact a scientifically backed third.


When I look at which form of media I prefer, specifically in relation to the New York Times, its not such an easy choice. I see the ups and downs of both print and digital formats, and I would assume that most others feel the same way. I do love the way it feels to hold the newspaper that always has the same texture, week in and week out. I love the smell that the Times has, a kind of musty paper that would be my go to option if someone had asked me to show them how a newspaper smelled. But I also like the digital version too. When I’m on the train or just sitting around waiting for something, its just so much easier to whip out my phone or tablet and read the Times that way rather than lug around the whole large paper. Its also much more convenient when you try and recommend an article to a friend or incorporate it into a school paper. So personally I don’t really favor one option or the other, but I do still tend to lean towards the print version for a few reasons. That is how I feel, but the important part here is going to be which direction does science point?


Ever since the first texts were imported to the digital format, there have been those who opposed it, from laymen to scientists. While the computers from the 1980’s and 90’s are much different from what we use today and many of the problems that occurred before have since disappeared, there are still a large amount of fundamental issues with the format. In the 80’s up until the about 10 years ago, many of the arguments had to do with the resolution of the computer based text. It was jagged and blocky and just seemed unnatural. This all changes with the onset of high definition monitors and screens and things like eInk, which replicate the print format as much as possible into the digital format. Many of the other major problems that were argued from the beginning are still there however. One of the biggest issues with the digital format is the lack of annotation support.


When reading a book or in this instance the New York Times, it helps that people are able to interact with the paper. They can bend the corner on the important pages, highlight a section of the text that they might need later, or even write their thoughts into the margin. All of those options are very rare to come across for a work in the digital format unless you are using some kind of outside program. In the physical version of media, one study suggests that the margins and the desk space around the text being read are an integral part of the note taking process, and that because digital formats usually lack that ability, its actually extremely likely that readers will print out a physical version of the digital format.

Another large factor that is pointed out by studies that gives  print media an edge is that digital texts tend to lack a sense of orientation. Because many digital texts are compromised of long, single wide columns of text, which is  different to what we are used to, especially when it comes to newspapers. Due to this lack of orientation, many readers end up reading as much as 10-30% slower in digital formats compared to print. A separate study also showed that not only the length of the line of text, but also the amount of characters per line, which ends up being much higher in the digital format. Yet another study showed that a large percentage of readers use physical objects to assist their reading, whether it be a pencil, their finger or whatever they have on hand at the moment which is pre tty hard to do in a  digital format unless you are use the mouse cursor. 


There is one more major problem that occurs in the digital that may be the biggest, which is being able to recall what was read. A study by O’Hara & Sellin (1997) which compromised of two groups of students which were told to read the same source article and then create a brief summary of it. The study found out that students were able to easily and quickly navigate though the printed article, where as the students reading the digital format did it slowly and seemed more labored. The study also showed that readers of the print format were easily able to use the physical outline of the article as a memory tool to recall information. The students who used the digital format however were only able to use pictures in the article as anchor points. The final finding of the study was that the spatial layout of the article was a big component in the comprehension of the text. Print media, as stated before, offer the ability to quickly thumb through the pages to cross-reference parts of the document by putting the different pages side by side. The readers of the digital article did not have that ability and were handicapped by having to open a different window every time they wanted to see something different. The only problem wit this study is that its pretty old now. Since it was conducted in 1997, there have been many advances in digital layouts and editing tools.


One issue that I reached while researching is that there are no issues with the print version that would be relative to this discussion according to case studies. There are hundreds of studies pointing out the flaws of digital formats, but none for print media. Does this mean that print media is the better of the two formats? According to scientific studies, yes. But are the problems brought forth really that big of deal breakers? Well, for the most part, not really. So in the end, people are still going to stick with the format that is easier for them, because at this point in time, there is no clear winner.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.