Screen, paper create reading overload

The Baltimore Sun

Print is having some issues at the moment, which may be like saying New Orleans took on some water. Insults fly, playground-style, about how long one published entity or another will be alive. Microsoft's CEO says no ink-on-paper newspapers or magazines by 2018; someone else says there'll be no Microsoft by then either. Newsweek will be gone in five years, predicts a columnist willing to bet dinner on it; I prefer steak, the magazine's editor shoots back.

A study released last week by the Internet research firm Nielsen Online revealed a part of the problem: People in the computer age are probably reading more than they ever have, so it's difficult to convince them to do more of it. It's the same 24-hour day that's always existed, recalling Mark Twain's quote about the wisdom of investing in land because they're not making any more of it.

People on average spend two hours a day, or more in many cases, reading online at work or home, according to the latest Nielsen study involving about 30,000 users.

Little wonder that they have less inclination, or time, to read apart from that. If my job required me to go to the gym for two hours a day, I'd probably have less need, and even less desire, to go before or after work.

There aren't many things in American life that people can say they spent virtually no time doing 15 years ago and now spend 66-plus hours a month doing. Like the auto and air conditioning, the computer is one of those rare innovations that is changing not just the task it involves, but other facets about the way we live. Two-thirds of people interviewed for a study last year said they spent more time with their computer than their spouse, according to, a tech service company.

(People are in a time crunch from other changes, too: Time spent commuting has increased in many metro areas, for instance, but unless someone has moved much farther from their job, it probably hasn't grown by two hours a day.)

The people most affected in their reading habits by the computer revolution, or at least by their quality time spent on a PC, are older people, often regarded as the most loyal, core customers of print.

People ages 35 to 49 reported spending the most time on a computer - more than 88 1/2 hours a month, or nearly three hours a day. It may be even higher than that most days, if you figure that usage is probably lower on weekends than on weekdays.

People 55 and older reported spending more than 82 hours a month on the computer. Senior citizens 65 and older are spending large amounts of time with the computer as well, presumably at home. They reported nearly 74 hours a month, according to the Nielsen survey.

Ironically, the young people often seen as ignoring print reported the least time spent on a computer: about 25 hours a week between ages 12 and 25. That may be because many of them are in school, so they're not spending as much time on computers at work as many adults. (Besides, they're spending a lot of time using cell phones and mp3 players and "Guitar Hero.")

Or perhaps they're online not at a PC but on their iPhone. Recent news about a new model caused several tech sites to overload from the crush of visitors who sought out live blogging from Apple's news conference, Internet monitor Keynote Systems reported last week.

Just five years ago, people said they spent 48 hours per month on a personal computer, so it's up more than 40 percent since.

TV and radio didn't keep people from reading, as once predicted. It may be that more reading is what's impinging on their reading.

Andrew Ratner, a former technology writer, is Today editor of The Sun.

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