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Many BlackBerry users accessing news in their palms

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Mike LaValle demonstrating how he uses his BlackBerry in the bathroom. (Photo by Elaine Santana for CNS)

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Many BlackBerry users also access their devices in the subway, according to experts. (Photograph by Elaine Santana)

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Most BlackBerry users access their devices in the bathroom, according to experts. (Photograph by Elaine Santana)

Reading the newspaper is a luxury for Mike LaValle. He used to enjoy the feel of the soft, thin pages, the gentle crinkle of the newsprint as he folded it. He loved leafing through the different sections every Sunday evening—the twilight of the week, when things were calm before Monday morning’s grind.

“I had a seven-day subscription to The New York Times,” said the 27-year-old musician from New York City. “Then I downgraded to the weekend edition, but I never had time to read that either, so I canceled it entirely.”

These days LaValle gets his news from his BlackBerry, often skimming headlines in a place where it's most convenient, in the bathroom.

It may not be news that most Americans are getting their news from non-traditional sources like the Internet (over 50 percent, according to a We Media/Zogby Interactive Poll). But with the growing popularity of PDAs, BlackBerry and iPhones, many Americans are accessing the news in their palms and changing the way they process the information around them.

“We are in touch with the big picture more than ever,” said Robin Raskin, who is a daily columnist on Yahoo! Tech and a former editor for PC Magazine. “We’re almost terrified of missing something, so we have become headline scanners and we’re not able to digest the bigger story.”

And accessing snippets of stories has become much more common in the bathroom. Over 53 percent of the 14 million BlackBerry users use their devices in the bathroom, according to a 2007 survey by AOL.

It is one of the few times when people have some downtime (35 minutes a day, on average, according to American Standard, the plumbing fixtures maker) and they tend to bring reading material (between 42 and 71 percent, according to bathroomsurvey.com).

Reading the news in the stall on the BlackBerry has become so common that CrackBerry.com, a Web site for "BlackBerry users (and abusers)" released a program called the "Viigo-CrackBerry," which gives users immediate access to news and other content.

“The bathroom was one of our primary considerations when we designed the program,” said Kevin Michaluk, the founder of CrackBerry.com. “You can pull 10 newspapers into the bathroom, instead of being stuck with one.”

Michaluk, who is also writing a book about BlackBerry use, is skeptical that only 53 percent of the 14 million BlackBerry users take their devices to the bathroom. His Web site conducted a survey and found that 92 percent of the 550 respondents said they took their BlackBerrys to the bathroom.

“There is a stigma associated with excessive BlackBerry use,” he said. “But the bathroom is total CrackBerry bliss. Nobody else’s eyes are on you, it’s completely private, you can do whatever you want,” he said.

It is that privacy coupled with efficiency that appeals to Michael David, a 27-year-old finance professional from Boston.

"The reality is that you're not doing a whole lot," he said. "I used to take a newspaper or magazine with me, but what can you do when you're done with it? With my BlackBerry, I get real-time news, real-time research."

And while the notion of bringing BlackBerrys to the bathroom suggests breaches of hygiene and etiquette, Michaluk and others said that using PDAs is cleaner than bringing a newspaper or magazine because the device can fit into a pocket and does not need to touch the floor.

Using a BlackBerry in the bathroom is hygienic, of course, if you don’t drop it in the toilet.

David Van Tongerloo, vice president of “The BlackBerry Repair Shop” in Houston, said that about 100 of the 500 damaged devices he receives a week have been dropped in the toilet.

“We wear rubber gloves and masks when handling these devices,” he said. “We only do that for Blackberrys that were dropped in the toilet.”

Reading the news on the BlackBerry in the bathroom has benefits, according to Stephen Sodoris, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland.

“The BlackBerry is a distraction technique for the millions of people who have a ‘shy-bladder’ or fear of going to the bathroom in public,” he said.

But it also has its drawbacks.

Screens are generally too small and can strain the eyes, said experts, and using the device in the bathroom is one of the signs of BlackBerry addiction, according to Mara Blumenthal, who writes the "Dear Berry'' column for Crackberry.com.

“People will read the news, but they will also play games, send e-mails, text messages, etc.” she said. “It is becoming more of an excuse to get out of things.”

Last October, a woman from Texas wrote to Blumenthal complaining about her husband "disappearing" into the bathroom with his BlackBerry:

"How do I throw this thing out the window before I kick him out on the porch?” she wrote.

Blumenthal wrote back with five suggestions, one of them being to ask him to “limit his time in the bathroom.”

LaValle and David both said they are not addicted, adding that they preferred accessing their BlackBerrys in the bathroom because it was a private space, without distractions.

“It really is changing the way people access the news and information,” said Michaluk about BlackBerry use in the bathroom. “It used to be that you had the world at your fingertips. Now people are actually bringing the world into their stall.”

E-mail: zm37@columbia.edu