NEW YORK–Bridget Cagney’s mother read to her every night when she was a small child. “Then when I learnt to read books and newspapers, and you had to learn quickly in those days, it was the greatest joy of my childhood,” said the Queens, N.Y., resident about growing up in Ireland’s County Cork. “And reading still is a great joy.”
Cagney buys the New York Times about every second day and all three of the Irish weeklies published in New York City. “And Jim gets the Post,” she said of her husband, who emigrated with her in 1967.
Most Seniors Online—But Fewer to Read News
The Cagneys don’t own or use a computer, which puts them in a minority among those 65 and older in the United States. Last year, the Pew Research Center for the Internet and American Life announced that for the first time a majority of seniors (53 percent) use e-mail or the Internet.
But a previous Pew survey revealed that most of the older set doesn’t get news from any online source. The study found that only four in 10 members of those 65-74 ever go online for news, and merely one in six members of the “Greatest Generation” (75 and over) do so.
Paul Finnegan, executive director of the New York Irish Center in Long Island City, which encourages seniors to acquire computer skills, said his observations coincide with the Pew Center’s findings.
In an informal survey he conducted in early May of those who attend the center’s Wednesday seniors’ lunch, 40 people said they preferred newspapers as a source of news, while five indicated TV or radio was best for them. Only four chose the Internet.
“That TV/radio figure is a surprise,” Finnegan said. He wasn’t surprised, though, that all four of those who voted for online news are enthusiastic stalwarts of the center’s Saturday morning computer class.
Center regular Julia Anastasio, who sometimes goes online, is one of those who favor print media. “I get the Daily News every day and the Irish Echo every week,” said the native of County Offaly, Ireland. “The Irish Independent [Ireland’s largest-circulation daily] opens up on my computer. I sometimes go to the computer class and I’m getting better. I know how to Google.”
Anastasio’s favorite website is that of the Offaly-based Midland Radio 103, where she can read death notices and local sports news, as well as listen to music.
Even more enthusiastic computer users interviewed for this article regard online sources as supplemental, not as a replacement for print media.
“I’m computer fluent,” said Neil Hickey, a journalist for more than 50 years. He subscribes, though, to the print editions of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and several periodicals.
“There are huge advantages to the digital revolution,” said Hickey, an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former editor-at-large for the Columbia Journalism Review. “I couldn’t live without Google and e-mail. The whole world of information is at your fingertips.
“YouTube,” he added, “is a great joy and a phenomenal resource.”
But, Hickey said, “I tell students that, for me, at least, reading news online is unsatisfying and insufficient to my needs.”
Views of Three Former Teachers
Three former teachers interviewed expressed contrasting positions about the Internet. But all, like Hickey, said that for them print news is primary.
Patrick O’Sullivan, who spent his career teaching Spanish, commented, “You could spend hours at the computer.” The New Jersey resident, who has a second career as a realtor and follows the stock market as a hobby, continued, “But I go online for what I can’t read in the New York Timesand Barron’s.”
O’Sullivan is unimpressed with the news he sees online. “Unlike the rich writing he finds in theTimes, he said, “There’s no great beauty to it.”
Joan Monsoury of Manhattan, said she relies on the Times, NPR News and PBS. She said she doesn’t feel “motivated” to acquire a computer: “If anything happens, I hear about it several times a day.”
Former English teacher Pat McGivern is someone who might be expected to take to the online experience more easily than others. Although she is a typist who worked with computers in classrooms before retiring just over a decade ago, she doesn’t own one. Instead, she checks and responds to e-mail at her local library on Long Island.
“Computers are a nuisance,” said McGivern, who still clips out newspaper articles to give to friends and family members.
She explained that reading e-mails causes her eyestrain after a while. That is not a problem when it comes to print, she noted, but lack of time is.
McGivern, who is studying the Irish language at Lehman College, said she hardly has time these days for the Times’ extensive arts articles she likes, plus the Irish Echo’s coverage of music and arts “and to know what’s going on,” McGivern said.
‘Watered Down’ Print
If the Times contains too much, McGivern finds that other print media offer too little. She recently dropped her subscription to Time magazine. “It’s too dull and watered down,” she said. She had similar complaints about Long Island’s Catholic paper, which recently changed to a magazine format.
“We had very intellectual Catholic publications coming into the house in the 1950s. Now, they’re all very watered down. There’s not much in the way of theology,” she said.
Maurice “Mickey” Carroll stated, “There’s a lot of garbage passing around as news.” He should know. Carroll was the reporter for the defunct New York Herald Tribune, who was in the basement of Dallas police headquarters when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot dead live on national television following the Kennedy assassination.
Today, said Carroll, who worked for nine newspapers, the Times among them, “You’re getting blogs, opinion, amateurish stuff. It’s neatly printed. It looks the same.”
Now the director of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, Carroll, stressed that in the past, “You knew how to behave with facts. It was in your blood. Even with new digital media, you hope that they will absorb the same standards.”
Optimistic about the economic viability of professional journalism, though, Carroll said, “Fingers crossed, say a prayer, it will sort itself out.”
Still, Carroll worries that the rise of cable news and the multiplicity of sources online means that people can cherry pick the evidence to suit their argument, a development he feels undermines the national conversation.
“TV is a big trap for seniors, particularly male seniors,” said Pat McGivern. “My friends in the Midwest are more liberal, but my friends in New York– some of them listen to the guys who rant and rave.” She added that a member of her family believes that NPR is under the control of communists.
Newspapers’ ‘Serendipitous Aspect’
Carroll said he “surfs the headlines” online. “Every now and then I look at Politico,” he said. But he believes that looking through a newspaper yields better results. “The serendipitous aspect,” he said. “That’s lost [online].
“I’ve got to have a newspaper in my hands. But that’s because I’m old,” Carroll said, with a laugh. His friend Francis X. Clines, a member of the Times editorial board, told him that he’s typically the only person in the elevator at work with the newspaper under his arm. “None of the kids have it,” he said.
For some seniors, it is more than a case of what they’re used to; it’s what they like.
“I love the feel of the paper,” said Bridget Cagney, who sets aside time to read at the end of the day. “I get a great sense of warmth when I look at headlines in [the Hudson News stand] Grand Central.”
Cagney emphasized, “I can’t imagine giving up the paper. I deplore the day that we have to.”