Newspaper execs have spent many sleepless nights and confused days trying to nip and tuck traditional newspaper journalism into a shape that fits the Internet. The tendency is to go for shorter, snappier, less wordy, more graphic-y, bullet-points-will-do front pages that entice grazers and excite the ADHD mind.
They may be on to something. A new study by Web researcher Jakob Nielson reinforces the idea that Internet users, on the whole, don't go online to read. Not in the traditional sense, anyway:
In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations. In another experiment on how people read e-newsletters, informational e-mail messages, and news feeds, Nielsen exclaimed, "'Reading' is not even the right word." The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the "nut" and nothing else.This has given rise to what I refer to as distraction journalism, which is designed to provide the click-through reader with bite-size packets of information, with a blog or sports score on the side.
While newspaper publishers seem to be increasingly cognizant of the way people "read" the Internet, and design their Web sites accordingly*, they should be just as cognizant of the downside of our online habits:
Ever since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, money has poured into public-school classrooms. At the same time, colleges have raced to out-technologize one another. But while enthusiasm swells, e-bills are passed, smart classrooms multiply, and students cheer — the results keep coming back negative. When the Texas Education Agency evaluated its Technology Immersion Pilot, a $14-million program to install wireless tools in middle schools, the conclusion was unequivocal: "There were no statistically significant effects of immersion in the first year on either reading or mathematics achievement."If the primary mission of news organizations is to inform readers through well-reported and accurate stories, then we have to face the fact that Web-only publications cannot fulfill this role. At least, not unless we actively participate in shaping the way we use the Web (teaching kids to read on the Internet, making them use it to do more in-depth research, creating software to facilitate a more traditional literacy, etc.), rather than passively accepting it's design as inevitable.
To that end, journalism schools should stop trying to convince students to hop on board with the newest gimmick and instead lobby to make the Internet a place where good reporting can thrive.
*In this online environment, one would think small and medium-size papers would invest in smart copy editors who can quickly digest news stories and produce informative, accurate and interesting headlines and summaries for the Web page. In my own experience, and from what I see on many sites, this ain't happening.