Do People Remember News Better If They Read It in Print?

A recent study says yes, but other research is less certain.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Consider two different morning routines.

In the first, you’re already washed and dressed as you sit down to your morning newspaper. While sipping coffee at the breakfast bar, you leisurely peruse the events of the day.

In the second, you’re in bed, trying—and failing—to open your eyes. You roll over and reach for the smartphone whose alarm feature just woke you up. Turning off the loud ringing, you squint at the screen and paw open the New York Times app.

I would love to live the first routine, but I’m stuck in the second.

And a study from April 2013 suggests I’m worse for it. Researchers had two groups of people read The New York Times for 20 minutes: one, in the print edition; the other, on the website. Afterward, the online readers could recount details from about 3.4 stories. The print readers could recall 4.2 stories.

The study’s authors hypothesized why readers might recall information better on print. Perhaps, they write, because knowledge online “is immediately electronically archived and thus imminently retrievable […], readers [are] less apt to feel they need to store it in their memory.”

Or perhaps, they propose, it’s because the newspaper has one purpose:

The nature of the Web as a medium that has subsumed virtually all others makes it a site for a variety of uses, including commerce, communication, gaming, and of course, news. The print newspaper, however, is generally dedicated mostly to news, thus in choosing a particular medium, users bring preformed attitudes about what to expect.

But I think this is the incorrect comparison to draw. The analogue for a print newspaper is a news website. The analogue for “the web as a medium” is paper. And paper has many uses—including commerce and communication.

And I have some procedural questions about the reader-recall study, as well. It had a relatively small sample size: Both groups only had 25 people in them.

It’s been getting a lot of attention recently—from Vox, from journalism blogs, from local Houston media. And it’s not alone in finding that paper awards definite benefits. In May, Princeton and UCLA researchers found that students remembered more of a lecture when they took notes on paper instead of typing them up on their laptops.

There, the researchers hypothesized that handwriting’s slowness led to people having to think more about what to write down, and therefore having to think more about the lecture itself. People with laptops, meanwhile, can often basically transcribe.

“We don’t write longhand as fast as we type these days, but people who were typing just tended to transcribe large parts of lecture content verbatim,” one of the researchers told me. “The people who were taking notes on the laptops don’t have to be judicious in what they write down.”

But not every study awards such benefits to paper lovers. In June 2013, researchers at SUNY Brockport compared the results of a reading comprehension test given to users on paper and the same test administered on-screen. It found no difference in the results.