Why can’t the media understand the digital divide—especially the Associated Press?

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Digital divide - APJust why can’t the news media understand the digital divide? And how about the related literacy issues that technology could help cope with, if top policymakers were better informed?

Consider the masterful con job that Amazon performed on reporters by equating Amazon sales figures with how “well-read” people were in various cities. The media bit—hook, line and sinker. Forget about libraries and non-Amazon bookstores. It’s the Big A that counts. Never mind that my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, was Amazon’s reading city #1 for at least two years even though most of the students in the public schools qualify for “free and reduced-price” school lunches.

Is it any wonder that U.S. public libraries can spend only about $4 per capita a year on library books and other items, digital or paper? Politicians rely heavily on the media for facts and analysis. But journalists themselves can be among the worst-informed.

Told about the miserly content spending, a New York Times reporter replied via e-mail: “How much of a library crisis is there? I’ve never seen a convincing argument either way.”

Now here’s a recent journalistic misstep, from the Associated Press, by way of a story run under such headlines as No digital divide among black, white millennials, poll finds. Anti-library, anti-government trogs will love this one. Why spend money on digital divide matters? Isn’t the crisis over with? Working from research supplied by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, the AP’s Glynn A. Hill writes: “A new poll finds African-American millennials say they are just as engaged in getting news online as their white counterparts, further debunking a long-held belief that people of color are at risk of being left behind technologically.

“In general, 64 percent of millennials say they read and watch news online regularly, including 66 percent of African-Americans, according to the poll, conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute. Sixty-five percent of white millennials say they keep up with the news online, while 53 percent of Hispanics do the same. The findings suggest that, despite fears that millennials—those 18-34 years old—may not be going to traditional sources for news, they are clearly getting news from social media.”

Whew! Here I’d been relying on such ill-informed people as Harvard academic Robert Putnam. Writing in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, he says that the sociologist Eszter Hargittai “and her collaborators, experts on how the Internet is actually used, point out that ‘growth in basic user statistics does not necessarily mean that everybody is taking advantage of the medium in similar ways.’

“Compared to their poorer counterparts,” Putnam says, “young people from upper-class backgrounds (and their parents) are more likely to use the Internet for jobs, education, political and social engagement, health, and news gathering, and less for entertainment or recreation. Affluent Americans use the Internet in ways that are mobility-enhancing, whereas poorer, less educated Americans typically use it in ways that are not. (The same was true of books and the postal system; the point is that the Internet is not immune from that inequality in usage.)”

Exactly! The AP-inspired headline in certain respects, not all, is at odds with years of valid research on the digital divide issue.

Before I continue, however, let me cut AP a little slack. As a poverty beat reporter eons ago in the pre-Web era, I myself could written more smartly on poverty, race and education if I’d only caught up with the right people. Now I’m hoping that the AP and Hill will keep an open mind on digital divide matters even if the news agency last year ignored my plea for it to undertake a major piece on the divide in a library context and maybe even mention possible solutions. Hill himself would be a natural to write it if his editors successfully pointed him in the right direction and gave him enough time and enough of a travel budget, or at least cooperation from AP bureaus. A young African-American and the former editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Howard University, he is from the heavily A-A community of West Philadelphia. Hill has a smart Twitter stream going—showing an awareness of social issues. I hope he’ll revisit this one and talk to the genuine experts: academics, the more clueful librarians such as my collaborator Jim Duncan, and plenty of others.

In the AP article, Hill instead quotes Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, who may excel as a journalist but hardly as a digital divide authority. API paid for the AP-NORC Center poll. “People of color are very wired and just as adept in using technology,” Hill’s AP story quotes Rosenstiel. “If you want a subject that hasn’t been covered in the mainstream, millennials have found ways to get at that information through community sharing more than traditional ways. The way they get news is heavily influenced by topic.”

As if lobbying for the Tea Party, Hill goes on to write: “In the 1990s, policy makers and advocacy groups expressed concern that minorities would be adversely affected by a ‘digital divide’ in terms of access to technology. Over time, however, minorities emerged among the biggest users of certain forms of technology, such as smartphones.” Doubling down, Hill continues: “The AP-NORC study found no evidence to suggest that African-Americans and Hispanics lag behind in terms of technology use with nearly all millennials across racial and ethnic groups using a smartphone, and half using a tablet. There was little differentiation between racial groups in terms of getting news from Facebook, the poll found. But about half of African-American millennials said they comment on news stories posted to Facebook, compared to about 3 in 10 whites and Hispanics.”

Now—here is my rebuttal, as someone who has written more than 20 years on the digital divide and related issues (mostly for TeleRead and LibraryCity but also on occasion for such publications as an MIT Press information science collection, the Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Education Week and Library Journal).

1. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, PC and e-readers are all computers, but as creation tools, they are not all the same. Will a child composing an essay on a smart phone with a four-inch screen have the same advantages as a CEO’s son with Macintosh with a 32-inch monitor? If a rich girl uses a small screen as her own choice for schoolwork, that’s one thing. It’s another if a laborer’s son is stuck with a third-hand Android phone and enjoys only limited time on a desktop at his local library. Furthermore, consider an opportunity or lack of one to toy around with a gadget to learn programming. Can you become a Google-level programmer just by mastering applications from the Play Store or Apple’s App Store?

Mind you, I’m not anti-cell phone. I even originated the cell phone book club concept. But cell phones and even tablets are not the be-all and end-all. Desktops and large monitors still serve a  purpose. I dictate e-email on smart phones and tablets, but for long essays like this, I use a desktop and a large-screen monitor, which more easily lets me write and simultaneously see documents I’m working from.

2. Not all Net connections are the same, either. Laudably, Comcast recently increased access speeds for subscribers to its program for low-income people, but just a fraction of potential beneficiaries in the U.S. are participating, and beyond that, a 10 Mbps connection isn’t the same as what it used to be, in this era of ever-expanding Web pages. My own connection is 150 Mbps. Think of all the rural areas and inner city neighborhoods where truly high speed connections are still exotic. With them, well-off students in the right locations can breeze through school assignments in far less time than it would take students from low-income families.

What’s more, even basic access issues have hardly vanished. As if 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 62.4 percent of households with incomes less than $25,000 owned computer and only 48 percent used the Internet, compared to the figures of 92.6 percent and 84.9 percent for families in the $50,000-$99,999 bracket. Granted, the statistics for Millennials are higher than those of the general population. But income-related gaps are still alive and well.

3. The issue isn’t just access but, as Hargittai and others have pointed out, also how the access is used. There’s news and there’s news, for example. Watching a YouTube about the Kardashians or buying an online subscription to an entertainment magazine isn’t the same reading Foreign Affairs online or using the Net to keep up with the doings and misdoings of the local city council. In saying 66 percent of African-Americans use the Net for “keeping up with news,” compared to 65 percent of whites, the poll is a long way from telling the whole story. Context, please! At least the API-sponsored researchers noted that “whites, African Americans, and Hispanics share similar motivations for getting news and information, with one exception: white Millennials are more likely than African American and Hispanic Millennials to say they use news and information to help them decide where they stand on different issues (54 percent vs. 38 percent vs. 36 percent).” Ideally Hill would have picked up on the nuances here.

Furthermore, isn’t there a difference between reading in-depth journalism—or interacting intelligently via e-mail—and just kicking back and watching Hollywood movies? The researchers themselves found that 78 percent of whites check and send e-mail compared to only 67 percent of African Americans and 61 percent of Hispanics.

4. Plenty of questions exist about the online research skills of even college students, and the poll does not explore the level of competence of minorities and low-income people, as opposed to the the skills of the population as a whole. Tellingly, however, the center found that 71 percent of whites use the Net for “researching topics of interest,” compared to a mere 59 percent of African Americans and 50 percent of Hispanics. Granted, many members of minorities have mastered the online sharing of information missing from the mainstream media. But are tweets and Facebook posts enough to give you the in-depth information you need for school or work, especially on topics about which teachers and employers want you to be familiar?

5. Let’s also consider the relevance of information—shared or not—in terms of its usefulness for school and work and social mobility.

6. Researchers such as Hargittai say the Net in some ways can actually reinforce existing inequalities (go here for a pointer to Hargittai’s article on “The Digital Reproduction of Inequality”). You can bet that Larry Page isn’t prowling Facebook looking for new contacts from urban ghettoes. Even at the local level, the Net can do only so much to connect students with influential people who’ll mentor and advocate for them. I can envision librarians and others not only forming and encouraging the formation of cell phone book clubs but also helping to build bridges to the business community to expand the range of young people’s contacts through the clubs.

I hope it is clear by now: The gadgets themselves and and knowledge of which buttons to press are just a start. It isn’t enough to know Windows 10 and common kinds of software. Students and parents need more specifics. Perhaps even how to create a WordPress blog and write well for it? Or how to research for school? Or how to look for a job through online databases? Or how to embrace reading for pleasure (one way to improve academic skills)? Mastery and love of technology and reading can be intertwined. With the right approach, one can reinforce the other.

Along the way, keep in mind the desirability of family literacy, reinvented for the digital era—a concept you can’t grasp just by fixating on cell phone or tablet ownership. The best way to stimulate children may be to stimulate their parents and encourage them to value books. How many words a child hears at home can influence how well he or she does at school later on. And reading to your child may actually change her brain for the better. Some parents may want to read from paper books, some from tablets or even cell phones. The best solution in many cases might be a mix. Use paper books to hook children, and in some cases parents, on the electronic variety. Paper books are great for tactile creatures like children, who enjoy flipping page. Large-screen tablets are one way to show pictures and discuss them, but even cell phones could enable some parents read to their children in the park or on the subway. Cell phones are like wallets, purses, and keys: they’re always around. That’s why I chose the name “cell phone book club”—not to say, “This is the only way to read,” but to link literacy with an ominipresent object. I want posters for cell phone book clubs, libraries and individual books to be everywhere, from Social Security offices (yes, young people do go there) to department of motor vehicles offices and jury rooms. And if actual e-readers stocked with books can also be around at those locations, then so much the better—a strategy used by the all-digital Bibliotech Library in San Antonio, Texas.

Cell phone book clubs and related activities—both age-focused and multigenerational—could encourage reading on all kinds of different platforms as well as the development or programming skills. They could modernize the concepts explained on an old Web site I developed pro bono for an organization called LINCT: Learning and Information Networking. LINCT’s main founder was P. Kenneth Komoski, a veteran educator who earlier helped the legendary Harvard  psychology B. F. Skinner refine the teaching machine concept decades ago. Check out the reading and math test scores that LINCT achieved through a mix of tech training and mentoring. Also see another project from Komoski, eLearningSpace, a “not-for-profit, quality learning space on the web where 3rd – 12th graders learn and earn things of value by using a computer outside of school to do better in school—and in life!” Alas, the domestic-frugality crowd in D.C. decimated Ken Komoski’s budgets some years ago, but he is still alive in his ‘80s and available for the Associated Press to interview him about what could have been.

Likewise in line with the thinking that the gadgets are just the start, we need to spend more on the hiring of more librarians and literacy specialists of various kinds and especially focus on the needs of minorities.

In a Baltimore Sun op-ed published on April 21 last year, I told of the disgraceful record of libraries and publishers in minority hiring matters: “Last year U.S. publishers released an estimated 5,000 books for children and teens. Now, here’s a quick quiz. How many were written or illustrated by African-Americans or were about black people or other non-whites? 400? 500? Guess again. A mere 63 books were by black authors, and just 93 were about African-Americans — those are the documented statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the Department of Education at the University of Wisconsin. For Latinos, the numbers were even lower: 48 by and 57 about. Furthermore, the library world is hardly a paragon of diversity, not when only 563 African-American males and 522 Latino men were credentialed librarians in 2009-2010 out of 118,666 total.” Through scholarships and otherwise, a national digital library endowment could increase the number of minority librarians who serve as a role models.

On the positive side, the White House has undertaken a K-12 e-book initiative. The problem is that access to commercial titles is limited to low-income children. And even then, questions exist. Access to 10,000 books should be considered just a start. And how about the children’s role models, their parents? What about books of interest to them? And training in technology? And access to the right devices for children and parents who would rather not read off cell phones?

But how could we pay not just for technology and content but also for those literary specialists and librarians and others to encourage the discovery, absorption and enjoyment of books and other library items? One possibility worth exploring is a national digital library endowment—discussed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Baltimore Sun, Education Week and Library Journal. Just 400 Americans are together worth more than $2 trillion. An endowment reaching $15-$20 billion could make a real difference in the library world, and contributions from just a tiny fraction of the 400 could do the trick and be in line with the spirit of the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge.

Alas, however, without in the least intending to, Glynn Hill and the Associated Press have hurt the endowment cause by playing down the severity of the digital divide and glossing over its nuances.  The good news is that it’s not too late to undo the damage, in terms of the library context. I am not expecting AP to endorse the endowment concept. But it can at least revisit the digital divide issue with more thorough reporting and perhaps even turn a lemon into lemonade by winning a Pulitzer Prize along the way. What’s more, after educating prominent philanthropists and the rest of the country about the problems, the AP could at least ask the super wealthy how they felt about the endowment idea. After all, the leading publications in the most relevant fields—philanthropy, education and libraries—have at least seen fit to bring up the issue for readers’ consideration.

Glynn Hill himself, as noted, could be a natural to write a major series on the digital divide and various solutions such as a national digital library endowment. Along the way, he should take it for granted that many, including African-Americans, will be in denial about the problems. How much easier it can be to talk up the high number of African-Americans and other minorities who own cell phones and tablets! Yes, there is room for pride. But let it not result in denialism or in a refusal to consider solutions such as the proposed endowment.

Note: This is a “first edition,” and I may do some tweaks.

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