Jonathan Zimmerman: In paperless world, seniors may be left behind

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is author of Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century.]

My grandmother is 101 years old. She has slowed down lately, as you might guess, but she still reads the newspaper every morning.

And she has never been on the World Wide Web.

I thought of Grandma recently when I learned that one of America's most venerable newspapers — The Christian Science Monitor — had decided to abandon its print edition. Starting in April, the paper will appear online only. Other smaller papers around the country have done likewise.

For its own part, the Monitor plans to introduce a new in-print weekend magazine. But the rest of the paper will appear only online, and many observers expect other newspapers to follow.

That's very bad news for elderly readers such as Grandma, who use the Internet much less than the rest of us. According to a 2006 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, only 28% of Americans 70 and older go online. And the rest of us are forgetting about them. Consider the surprise and mockery that greeted John McCain earlier this year when the 72-year-old GOP presidential candidate admitted that he didn't surf the Internet. A senior citizen who doesn't go online? That's news?

One day, it will be. After all, 72% of 51- to 59-year-olds and 54% of 60- to 69-year-olds already use the Net. As these Americans age, more and more of them will go online. In the future, then, even the very elderly will be heavily wired.

But we're not there yet. Nobody knows how frequently our oldest citizens go online, but it's probably not often. In a 2007 survey, for example, just 6% of American centenarians said they have been on the Web. For people like my grandmother, then, the demise of print newspapers would mean the end of newspapers, period.

And for the rest of us, it might mean something else: the decline of sustained concentration, deliberation and analysis. When we read on the Web, recent studies suggest, we're much more likely to skim a piece — or to stop reading it altogether — than when we encounter it in print formats.

If you're reading this essay online, you can click on any number of nearby links and windows right now. Maybe you already have. But if you're reading it on paper, there's a better chance that you'll stay focused on the piece until you have finished it.

You're also more likely to form the mental connections that make for real learning. The Internet is an astonishing source of information, allowing us to access vast pools of data instantaneously. Even so, it will never provide the tools to interpret this material: to put it in context, to compare it with what came before, and so on.

That's precisely the type of knowledge that senior citizens can impart, of course, because they've seen the broadest swath of history.

So I have a modest proposal: As newspapers move to online-only formats, they should also spearhead a nationwide volunteer effort to supply readers for senior citizens. To be sure, thousands of Americans already read the paper to elderly neighbors and family members. But this service will become ever more critical in the coming years, as more and more news outlets shrink or cancel their print editions.

The next time you visit an elderly friend or relative, bring your laptop. You'll expose her to news events and trends. In exchange, if you pause to listen, she'll give you the deep wisdom that too often eludes our digitized world.

That's what Grandma does for me.

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