The study proved the obvious but still anxiously held point that the Web is capable of delivering stories of any length and complexity. It also proved that people are still interested in long-form content—even people who choose to read their news online. What the study was incapable of telling, however, is how a newspaper fits into the Web as a whole. Although participants were instructed to read as they would normally, the one trillion Web pages outside of their newspapers’ domain were off limits. No one stopped to check e-mail, cross-reference a favorite blog, or Google an interesting prompt or whim. Their banking had to be taken care of at another time. So, were the participants reading the newspaper on the Internet or simply on a screen?
The extent to which newspapers will be able to retain their most important traditional assets as they move online depends, in large part, on the answer to that question. Put another way: Does the Web drive people to a different type of behavior, or does it simply allow less fettered access to the desires they already had? If the former, the rules for attracting an audience would be completely different and any of the old ways of doing so that overlapped would be a matter of luck. It’s easy these days to get caught up in the fear that everything of import will be lost in the transition from print to online, but it seems extreme to think that a new medium would force everyone to start from scratch. Even Nielsen, who contends that the Web does indeed drive user behaviors, bends his own rules by posting long and sometimes complexly worded arguments on his own Web site. He does this because he knows that his readers have a level of education and interest in his topics that will compel them to stay on the page long enough to hear him out. He senses the Web’s power but doesn’t let it exclude ideas he wants to communicate.
The Web may well have influence on human behavior. But it seems more helpful, for our purposes, to think of the equation as one of human behavior influencing the Internet—in which case, there is no reason that the impulses that compelled people to read the print newspaper couldn’t exist in a similar way on the Internet. And those who fear the way people read (or behave or philosophize) online would do better to look to our education system and parenting, for example, to solve cultural inadequacies that the Internet, rather than encouraging, has simply made more apparent.