Why do I try to teach students about newspapers?

So the exam marking is over for another year, and that’s a relief.

English: Reading staff for the Daily Mail news...
English: Reading staff for the Daily Mail newspaper, Brisbane, ca. 1905 Reading staff pictured from left: Messrs. J. M. Jeffries, C. E. Marchant, R. Gannon, F. Makin and T. A. Byrnes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not discussing anything specific here, but it struck me as I worked through the pile how obvious it is that almost none of the students have ever read a newspaper.

And furthermore, they never will.

I’ve been droning on for five years about how reading newspapers will help them do better in exams (and it would, given that the exam asks them questions about the newspaper industry), but I’m increasingly thinking that the problem here is not with the students’ lack of interest but with the continued focus on the “importance” of newspapers in their society.

Many of us now rely on Twitter for breaking news, and increasingly I’m following links on Twitter to read news analysis from various sources. Some of them even have a printed version, but why am I expecting my students to know about printed news when I haven’t partaken of it myself (except for a casual glance in the school library) for more than a decade? Give or take the navel gazing of the Leveson enquiry, the print industry has the cultural relevance of a lost cat poster stuck to a lamppost.

As I was marking papers, I kept hearing the voices of teachers, saying things like, “We have the internet now,” and “the internet is having an impact on the press industry.” The students who just sat the exam in question were born in 1995/6. So sentence constructions like that make no sense from their perspective. The internet has been around all their lives, and certainly since they reached the age of reason, very few homes have been without it, and all their schools have had it. It’s a basic utility like water, gas, or electricity.

Teaching them that the internet “is having” an impact on printed news is like teaching them that the telephone “is having” an impact on the afternoon postal delivery. I no longer have to send a mash note to my loved one in the middle of the afternoon telling her I can’t wait to see her in the evening. I can phone her up on Mr Bell’s contraption.

Some of the students thought that newspapers were printed in black and white. Some of them thought the price went up when there were free gifts on the cover. All of them thought newspapers were targeted at older people and had literally nothing inside them that would interest a15-24 year-old. And on that last point, they’re not wrong.

What matters to their generation is the reliability and accuracy of the online news sources they use (via Facebook, Twitter, or various mobile apps). The habit that teachers like me should be instilling them with is the habit of questioning scepticism. There’s an urgent need for them to understand that a press conference announcement or a 140-character headline is not giving them the full picture. But I don’t think they should be turning to the right wing press for the background, nor even the increasingly pathetic Guardian, which panders now to the trivial interests of its readers just as much as the Daily Mail and other tabloids do. Don’t believe the i is offering proper news, either. There’s just as much irrelevant celebrity twaddle in the i as there is in The Sun.

I was talking to a small group of older students the other day about magazines and the not-so-obvious transition to the iPad. So I got them to look at a couple of the mags I’ve got on my iPad, and compared them to the printed versions. One of them immediately said she didn’t like the iPad version. Within 30 seconds, she admitted that she “might warm to it.” When asked, she claimed to prefer a printed magazine. When pressed, she admitted that she never actually bought printed magazines.

I love magazines, always have, but the closure of The Word is the writing on the wall, and the iPad is not going to fill that void. Flipboard is, or Zite. Young people are going to grow up with entirely different habits. They won’t buy albums, they won’t make appointments to watch TV, and they will not fill their house with dead trees, glossy or not.

The exam of the future needs to be asking them, “When you learn about breaking news on Twitter, how do you check whether it is true? Where do you turn for further information? If there is something you don’t understand, what do you do?” And so on.

Ask them to discuss the implications for the future of the print industry? They’ll just shrug their shoulders. Not their concern.

2 responses to “Why do I try to teach students about newspapers?”

  1. I always appreciate insightful blog posts like this. I no longer purchase national newspapers, for I see I can get all my news from the internet. I purchase a local newspaper, for the internet has yet to compete well on local issues in Colchester against the local newspaper.

    The input of teachers has not been lost; I value reading the Guardian news thanks to what a teacher drilled into me, though I read its FREE internet version.

    Newspapers play to their readership, thus they target their news to older readers. Young people have limited interest in newspapers, as well as politics, since it fails to play to their needs.


  2. @Alex, I never developed the local news habit, probably scarred for life after delivering 500 local papers every week from the age of 10. My Friday nights were never my own, and the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was actually read one of them.


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