What do we do instead of reading the paper?

For news organisations, especially ones rooted in print, stories have totally changed since the advent of the internet. I don’t just mean our stories, I mean the ones our readers put together internally without noticing it, about what they do and see, constructing the assorted stuff and fluff of the day into a nice neat narrative which contains a sensible answer to the question: What did you do today?

It used to be that “reading the paper” was a single activity, physically and mentally, bounded by the single physical experience of picking up a newspaper and then, well, reading it. Not all of it, probably. Not even necessarily very much of it. Not everyone starts in the same place or cares about the same articles. But even if you read completely different bits of completely different newspapers to everyone else in your office, or even if you just looked at page 3 and the punny headlines and then called it a day, you still called it “reading the paper”. And that’s how it turns up in the story of your day. (What have you done at work so far? Not much, just read the paper and answered some calls.)

It also used to be bounded by the covers of the paper, not by the subjects you pick within it. Which paper do you read? Your identity is to some extent bound up in that brand choice, in the UK at least – people have made good satire about this, and there’s a wider point. Your newspaper said something about you. It featured in the story you told yourself about yourself, as well as the one you told other people. Reading the paper isn’t just learning about the news or the sport or the arts coverage; it’s also an element of your identity, a piece of your personal puzzle. A Guardian reader is not the same thing as a Daily Mail reader. Most people only get one.

Except that’s all gone out the window, now. The Mail Online has god-knows-how-many million readers; the Guardian has a smaller but still reasonably mind-bending number. Both numbers are too big to imagine and you have to resort to comparisons like the population of London. And of course those audiences overlap. They’re both much bigger online than in print, and they both require much smaller commitments in terms of reading – a single article, not a whole paper (whatever a whole paper used to mean, anyway). But also, and this is important, because reading one or two or twenty articles from a single news source doesn’t make me a “reader” in the way that it would if I “read” the paper. Not in the story I tell myself about myself, and not in the story I tell other people.

Which wouldn’t be so hard to manage, if it wasn’t for the first problem. Because actually it’s really easy to miss that you read an article from a newspaper, if what you’re doing is browsing the net or chatting on Facebook or catching up on Twitter. You click a link from the thing you’re doing, you read the link, you click “back”, you carry on. You can do that dozens of times, clicking all over the place, and still it doesn’t turn up in your story of the day as “reading the news”. What are you doing? Just checking Facebook. Or wherever.

Apps take you back to that activity of reading the paper, reading the news, within the nice neat cozy boundaries of a virtual cover even if not a real one. They require certain physical activity, too. It took a while for that to click with me, but I think I get now why print people are comfortable in app space.

But people that actually go to the front pages of news sites online are pretty few and far between, compared to the numbers that just turn up on article pages when they’re in the middle of doing other stuff. So obviously that raises huge issues about making sure that every article page is a good front page, a good gateway into your site, good enough to maybe persuade a couple of those people not to click “back” but to stick around and change what they’re doing. But also it raises issues about the visibility of what news organisations are doing. Because if your readers don’t consciously realise they’re your readers, that has to change the way your brand works.