Apr 14, 2009

The news we could use

The vast majority of time we spend reading the news newspapers produce is done with an actual newspaper in our hands. Martin Langeveld at Nieman did the math:
All generally accepted truths notwithstanding, more than 96 percent of newspaper reading is still done in the print editions, and the online share of the newspaper audience attention is only a bit more than 3 percent.
This comports with an earlier study of online reading habits done by Web researcher Jakob Nielson that shows how little reading we actually do while we surf:
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.
None of this is necessarily good news for the printed newspaper - fewer words and more shiny graphics is a recipe for cost savings and layoffs. However, we shouldn't ignore the rough parallel here between the time people spend reading content and the amount of money advertisers are willing to pay for ads.

I've argued before that the best thing that can happen to newspapers, as content migrates online, is for society to educate itself on how to use the Internet to read. Rather than passively accepting fads, fetishes and distractions, we should take an active role in the design of online news so that it encourages people to delve deeper - to concentrate and contemplate. News organizations can help themselves in the long run by experimenting with layouts that draw people into stories, rather give in to the temptation to cover Web pages with cheap, flashy graphics and stories designed to up the hit counts (or the temptation export these wrongheaded techniques to the print edition).

After all, you are what you publish.

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