Assumptions and thoughts about online publishing and reading. What are the phenomenons and changes in recent developments in journalism – what is different comparing to the traditional print news? Do the innovations affect our way of receiving and understanding news? What are the parameters that may influence our decision to read storys or not.
Media consumption has never been used as frequently as today. It‘s not unusual that people look on a web newsfeed with their mobile device in the morning even before they‘re getting out of bed. This increased usage doesn’t only tell about a heightened frequency of media awareness, but involves questions about technical issues of publication and the reception of journalistic content as well. Are the changes concerning learning and understanding fundamental or worrying?
It’s all about the length?
„Most of the people read about 50 % of articles and just a few people read the articles to the end”, states traffic analyst Joshua Schwartz. So we probably could stop writing this article now, because 50 % of our readers have already flipped the page. Nevertheless, for the sake of science we continue. Still, you may already have recommended this article to your friends, since there is actually no strong correlation between reading and sharing. That means that a lot of people share online content, which they didn’t read to the end .
And again, is there a difference between reading on the web and in print? If yes, what could be the reason we tend to flip pages or switch quickly to another site on the web, before we‘ve read it all? Has it something to do with length? Is it a question of resources? Due to the fact that most of the web news are free, there is no significant investment of time and money to get these articles. Does that imply that what costs nothing is worth nothing? Or is our hastiness a result of our ever-diminishing availability of time?
Some professionals reckon that readers will only read an article to its end, when the web journalist limits the page length. The experts suggest that a page on the web should be half the length of a comparable print document. 300 – 700 words would be a reasonable average length for online content. When the article is longer, it is recommended to break it down into sections or create headlines and independent content . But we want to ask critically and reply: Isn’t it a big advantage of the web that you’re not limited in length or space, as in print?
The EyeTrack study from the Poynter Institute compared the habits of readers in print and digital news. They found that most people enter a newspaper page through the dominant photo, then move to headlines, cutlines and secondary elements before reading the story. On the other hand a recent study, analysing readers behaviour in regard to news content on tablets, found that most of the probands tended to read one or two lines of text, followed by subtle, frequent swipes to move a few lines of text into their field of vision like a teleprompter .
Some news platforms like the Austrian version of the „Neue Züricher Zeitung“ – „nzz.at“ – try to aid users in their time-management. They start into an online article providing the approximate time required to read the text. It could be a little tool to help users to evaluate wether it‘s worth their time reading the news. Because of that, headline, subtitle and thumbnail are a big and essential part for the users last judgement.
More scanning than reading?
Cognitive neuroscientists found that our reading behaviour has been changed by internet technologies. According to them we are doing more “skimming” than reading. The majority of users rather „scan“ web pages instead of actually reading the content. Highlighted keywords, headings, short paragraphs and scannable lists help them to scan even faster, recommends the New York University to all online writers .
Others object that the scanning process results in people developing „digital brains“ and losing the capacity to read.Maryanne Wolf, author of “The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”  worries “that the superficial way we read during the day on internet is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing”. Andrew Dillon, professor of the Texas University, also makes a big difference between reading print and scanning digital publication. “We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you” .
Due to the digitalisation of our society and the abundance of available of information it has become much easier to find answers to ones questions in a very fast way. To be honest, it seems inefficient to read all the content we are not searching for. It would probably require a much longer time to jump to a relevant passage of an article without the quick scanning-mode. However, is this manner of reading really something entirely new, evolving along with the way we use the web? Let us imagine how – for example – did a scientist search for information before the era of the internet? Possibly quite similar as users scan through their daily news. In fact there are advantages and disadvantages to both ways and maybe there is even a potential for a bilateral brain, which is able to read and to scan.
Legibility, readability, comprehension:
Do we even understand what we read?
One could think that web users don´t have much patience to read that much – compared to print readers. Of course, web users are rather looking for the very piece of information they want, and they well may skip everything that is irrelevant to them. Because they can. The Internet is more a browsing thing, as we all know
Based on this thoughts, the Danish usability expert Jakob Nielsen makes a summary about how content on the web ought to be „purified“ for us users. According to him: “Users won’t read web content unless the text is clear (legibility), the words and sentences are simple (readability), and the information is easy to understand (comprehension) ”. Therefore, it‘s important that the users are able to see and recognize the characters and words in your text. Basically, you should use a reasonably font size and allow users to change it.
Readability, so Nielsen states, measures the complexity of the words and sentence structure in a piece of content. The assumption behind this rule is that complex sentences are harder to scan than simple ones.
At this point, it is useful to know who the persons that will read an article actually are. Should the content be prepared for people with a high education level or for experts from a field of special interest? Moreover, is the information rather for teenagers, or senior people? When the theme is relevant for people with different levels of education, it‘s a good advice to use common words, avoid difficult terms and try to be emphatic. Furthermore, Nielsen postulates that people will love articles when the most important information is at the very first part. The Danish expert defines comprehension as a measure whether a user can understand the intended meaning of a text and can draw the correct conclusions from the text. Writers for the web should use familiar terms and lists rather than paragraphs.
You probably can relate to what web-specialists suggest concerning user-addressing. Online readers expect a personal tone in web. They find bureaucratic content out-of-place and like to feel familiar with online-articles. If you feel personally addressed, articles are more likely to be read and are easier to be understood as well.
Another key point about the tone is the possibility to write in active voice and show the personality of the writer – like food-blog-writers usually do. The active voice, which emphasises the „doer“ of the action, is naturally less bureaucratic .
The author and journalist Helmut A. Gansterer is a supporter of the printed words and notes that he is taking printed words more serious and he remembers them much longer  Sascha Schröder from the Max-Planck-Institute however, states that we know very few about what goes on in the brain while humans read. Within the reading process it seems to be irrelevant wether the words are printed or displayed on a digital screen. People read faster from paper, but they understand content in print as well as in digital. Moreover, Schröder thinks that web-based usability opportunities – such as scaling the font size – allow even more people to read. Even those having troubles with the static form of printed products .
In web journalism there are a lot more various citing possibilities than in print. Online writers are able to hyperlink source material or even make use of different media resources like videos, interactive images and illustrations in order to explain or argument extensive information. Therefore it’s possible and – even expected – to work with other media-forms to make articles easier to understand.
There are – of course – a lot of positive aspects in digital publishing, but there are also some undesirable developments on the way. We live in a complex world – also known as „information society“. Each day we have to choose what we‘re going to read, which information is important for us, and what kind of opinion we should stand for to make smart decisions. But, what if we do only conform by reading or skimming parts of the content? What can we expect of a society which only knows parts of the whole story?
Nowadays we find more and more very small news with just a few arguments and a lot of images on websites like huffingtonpost.com, buzzfeed.com, upworthy.com, or heftig.de. For us, those are vivid examples of how journalism might look in the future, if newspaper agencies and online writers overstate the suggestions of web experts, to favor reduction and simplification.
The innovations around the internet offer many great chances to give the readers a better context and information of what is happening throughout the world. But reduction of content to address low user-awareness might not be the only way we should inform our society.
We want to call on readers as well as web-writers to be fully aware of all the opportunities the web offers to us.
We hope that digital journalism will make more use of the major advantages the Web holds, like interaction tools, linking alternatives, no time or space limitation, universality and use of different media. It is well worth to spend time on thinking about how to present the information for the audience in a better way instead of thinking about how to make articles shorter and easier to digest. We believe that this is the way that Web-journalism should take in order to improve our society.
6 amazing facts about your behavior in reading on the web. You may be surprised …
1. Promising and exciting headlines strengthen your attention.
2. You don‘t read texts completely, scanning through is enough.
3. Animated gifs! Motion Images bring Eeemotions to you!
4. You rather prefer lists than paragraphs.
5. You feel personally addressed, when headline contains a „You“.
6. You share articles that you didn’t read till the end.