Study: Web News Readers Stick With Stories Longer

Their mode of Cyberspace travel may be called a browser, but what they’re doing at news sites on the Web is more than just browsing, according to findings released last week by the Poynter Institute.

Readers of news on the Web spend more time with stories they choose to eyeball than their counterparts reading printed newspapers, according to the research and education outfit for journalists.

The researchers at Poynter’s EyeTrack07 project found that online readers of news read 77 percent of what they chose to read, while broadsheet newspaper readers read an average of 62 percent and tabloid readers 57 percent.

EyeTrack07’s findings surprised even the project’s director, Sara Quinn. “We assumed that people online were scanning a little more than they were,” she told TechNewsWorld.

Eat What’s on Your Plate

Although the study didn’t determine why online readers showed greater stickiness to stories than their offline counterparts, Quinn reasoned that news stories on Web pages contain fewer distractions than a newspaper page, where other stories compete for a reader’s attention as they start to read a story.

“It’s an eating-what’s-on-your-plate sort of thing,” she said of reading news on the Web. “Whatever’s on your screen you focus on and absorb.”

The study’s findings suggest fears that the Web will cause a “dumbsizing” of the news may be overblown.

“Content rules,” Quinn declared. “If you have good content, people will find it and read it.

“Long-form journalism has a place online and a lot of people are accessing it there,” she added.

Salvation From ‘Dumbsizing’

It’s good to see evidence that people will read longer stuff online, observed Dan Kennedy, an assistant journalism professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

“I certainly don’t mind most of our journalism moving to the Web,” he told TechNewsWorld, “but what drives me crazy sometimes is to hear people say, ‘If you’re going to do things on the the Web, then everything has to be in bite-sized chunks,’ because I think that could result in a real dumbing-down of the news.

“The news has already gone a long way toward migrating to the Web,” he added. “I just hope that we can keep long-form journalism when most or all the news is on the Web. Maybe this study is an indication that we can.”

Nevertheless, the Poynter researchers found that “alternative” methods of presenting the news — questions and answer formats, timelines, sidebars and lists — were magnets for readers’ attention and that readers retained more information about subjects given the alternative treatment.

“Shorter, alternative story forms are successful tools for people understanding and remembering what they have read,” Quinn noted.

Brute Force Data Gathering

The study involved almost 600 readers of news in four markets: Denver, St. Petersburg, Fla., Minneapolis and Philadelphia. The study sample — which included 200 online readers, 200 broadsheet readers and 200 tabloid readers — was chosen based on familiarity with the news outlets in the project, Quinn explained.

Forty-nine percent of the study sample were women; 51 percent men. They were asked to read a news publication every day for 30 consecutive days.

While reading their assigned publication, each participant wore a pair of goggles with two small cameras positioned over one of the eyes. One records the position of the eye; the other what the eye is looking at. when the images are married together, researchers can determine exactly what the subject is focusing on.

The camera recordings are then eyeballed manually to create quantifiable data that can be entered into a computer and analyzed.

Same Cross-Platform Behavior

What may perplex many media observers about this study is its suggestion that news readers share similarities wherever they’re getting their news, asserted Boyd Peterson, a senior vice president and media analyst at the Yankee Group.

“It appears that the behavior of news readers doesn’t change as radically as some people thought,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“The big difference between a print publication and an online publication is that the friction between Web sites is low, compared to reaching for another magazine or newspaper,” he added. “At the end of the day, though, what people are doing is not that dissimilar.”

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