What’s wrong with online reading (question mark or period, you decide)

This is the 500th post on this blog (for those of you who have been with me online for a while, you know I've had a few blogs and this is more like the 1500th post I've written, but it's an interesting enough milestone for this specific post, I think).

Settle in. If (big if, it turns out) you actually read this post for comprehension, it'll take a good half hour or so, starting with the 15 minutes you're about to spend clicking through this presentation from Randy Connolly at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

We've known for a while (through studies and our own behavior), that we scan, rather than really reading online. And it appears that the earliest eye-tracking studies we had are still relevant; essentially we look at the screen in an F pattern, reading the first few words of each line, and maybe the first and third or second and fourth paragraphs on a page.

So we don't read in-depth when we're looking at a screen, but isn't the web a great place for learning?

Not really, it turns out. We have such short attention spans that we just jump from hyperlink to hyperlink, scanning pages and not absorbing very much. Our retention is terrible.

With the glut of information available, you might also think that we'd get a wider diversity of viewpoints, but that's also incorrect. In social spaces, we tend to follow those who agree with us. In research, we search Google, and, if we don't like the first two results, most of us just change our search term.

This surprised me: Only one in six people can identify which search results are sponsored and which aren't, so there's a good chance that 80% of the people reading online are getting their information from advertisements.


The other interesting thing in the presentation is the implication for newspapers (start at slide 76). People who read a hard copy (the physical newspaper) tend to read every section and read articles of all types. People who read online self-select their stories, and tend to read more entertainment and less information. Because it's entertaining, which is why we call it entertainment.

Newspaper design has changed a fair bit since the advent of the Internet, too – pages used to be full of dense, small type, with few photos and small-to-medium headlines. Now, pages feature lots of white space, huge headline type, and large, colorful images.

I can't help but think circulations are not only dipping because younger people aren't buying the paper, but also because people who have read newspapers for years are unimpressed with the website-ification of the printed product. [That's another discussion for another day.]

The biggest thing I learned from this presentation was this: We're born to scan. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are always on the lookout for danger or food. Reading requires a lot of focus, and we've only been able to spend that focus on reading since the advent of leisure time. On an evolutionary scale, that's not a very long time.

Bottom line: if you really want to comprehend something – and if you want your kids, students, friends, etc., to understand something better – give them a book, or write them a letter longhand.

Or make evolution move faster. Just sayin'.

Redesigning newspapers

Take five minutes to watch this presentation. Thanks to Susan Hall (Twitter) for passing it along.

First let me say that that newspaper is gorgeous. Decorate-your-wall gorgeous. And if you transfer those infographics to the web, they'd kill on digg. And yes, I'd probably buy it with some sort of consistency, because I like pretty things.

I wrote about 2,000 words about why I think this wouldn't work in the U.S., focusing on the fact that people who read newspapers like to read stories and people who write newspaper stories like having a place to show off their writing and more and more, the stories in this paper are being told with photos and graphics.

But I realized as I was writing, it's fairly obvious that readers don't enjoy reading quite as much as writers enjoy writing. So the fact that there might be no more than 200 words on a front page or 500 words in any interior spread isn't a problem for me.

I do, however, think it has a magazine-like quality that makes it less attractive as a daily news source and more appealing as something to look at slowly throughout the day or week. It makes me want to admire the artwork, not find out what's going on at school board meetings – I think I'd be distracted from the news.

But then, maybe that's just me. I like news, and I like the written word. Perhaps people would get more out of bigger graphics and shorter stories, though – USA Today has done very well on that model, and it's not a paper I pick up at all, which means I likely wouldn't be the target audience for something like this.

What do you think?

The truth: The Internet is a great big rumor mill

I tend to check Google Trends in the morning. It's one of the things I do in terms of a morning coffee ritual when I get to work. For those not familiar, it's a list of the things people are searching for on Google; typically it's updated every hour or so, but sometimes it goes on for a few hours before it updates. Whatever.

Frequently, it's people wanting to watch one of last night's TV episodes. There's usually something that's been featured either on The Today Show or Good Morning America. Sometimes there's sports scores. And sometimes it's people in a large enough market searching for school closings.

And then sometimes it's dead celebrities. The Internet loves to kill people. Failing that, maybe the Internet is retiring athletes mid-season.

Tuesday morning, there were two. The top search was justin bieber dead; the second hottest search was casey johnson dead.

Being a pop-culture-ophobe (OK, not really, but I'm pretty dim when it comes to this stuff), I'd never heard of either of these people. Which means that I had to wade through the search results to figure out who they were, never mind if they were actually dead.

Bieber, it turns out, is a 15-year-old kid who is some sort of pop sensation or something. He appears to be living and breathing and making teenage girls cry with his sensitivity instead of in mourning. This, apparently was not the first time the Internet killed Justin Beiber (via WikiAnswers:

Casey Johnson is the great-great-granddaughter of one of the founders of the Johnson & Johnson Company (if you've ever read a label on anything in a bathroom, you've heard of them). She's also the daughter of Robert Wood "Woody" Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets.

Casey Johnson is, in fact, dead. She died this week at the age of 30, and at this writing, we're not sure why.

So, what did we learn from this? That Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes was correct: Newspapers (and other traditional news outlets) are going to turn into truth filters.

While we'll get most of our news from places like Twitter or Facebook (not necessarily those places, but places like them), where we select who we get the news from so the news will be relevant to us, we'll still need places like The New York Times to tell us whether the news we got is actually true.

The lesson: If you're not sure, check with someone you trust. Don't freak out over something you heard from someone who heard from somewhere that something may or may not have happened, which means it absolutely did.

Just like in many aspects of your life, you need to actually use your brain to use the Internet effectively.

What would baseball fans do without newspapers?

When The Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased their print editions, something happened that wasn't evident to either the save-the-newspaper or the dude-the-Web's-great crowd: fans of the Colorado Rockies and Seattle Mariners both lost local places to study box scores.

When I moved to Syracuse, I not only arrived in a town which places much more emphasis on college than professional sports, I discovered I was in a place where people by and large aren't baseball fans.

People here definitely have allegiances – I've met lots of Yankees and Red Sox fans, and a smattering of Mets fans – but by and large, these are team people, not baseball people.

There are some of us die-hards, who live for the smell of grass, the season's first hot dog, who keep score at games, and who study statistics.

Baseball fans? We're numbers people. There's something old-fashioned about that, for sure.

And while the Web is certainly a great place for box scores and statistics (it's bottomless, it's got great archiving ability, great sharing ability), there's something that seems right about having that stuff in a newspaper, isn't there?

Seattle and Denver still have print newspapers, but across the country, that could continue to change.

And ESPN.com's Jim Caple is worried about it.

Could bloggers and Web writers cover teams, get access to players, managers, coaching staffs, etc.? Cover both the news and analysis? Absolutely, admits Caple. But, he asks, could bloggers afford the travel and lodging expenses required to go on the road to cover a team?

Not likely, he says.

News flash: Newspapers can't afford to do it either. That's why they're cutting down on news hole and in some cases, stopping printing altogether.

Some former Colorado Rockies beat writers for The Rocky Mountain News have started InsideTheRockies.com, which is part of a project done by former RMN reporters called In Denver Times (which is in beta now and launches May 4).

There isn't up-front advertising evident, and it looks like In Denver Times is going to try out a subscription model. Is it sustainable? I guess we'll find out (and good luck; I'm always rooting for new Web sites, especially if they're doing original reporting).

Caple's right in one aspect: most people can't afford to travel with a team and cover them without the backing of Big Media.

But to successfully cover a team, I don't think that's necessary.

Follow me here. You do a league-wide network with localized editions for each team. You need two bloggers for each ballpark: one covers the home team every game, and the other covers the visiting team – senior partner and junior partner, if you will.

The person who covers the home team is going to be the primary expert on that team. The person who covers the away team is going to act essentially as a stringer for that team's hometown edition. Newspapers already do this for minor league baseball and hockey – they pay somebody on the other end to cover a game and get into the locker room for post-game quotes.

If a team is truly giving a hometown beat writer access, they'll accept a phone call if clarification or more information is requested.

The funding model for this is the same it is for any other online-only publication: you sell advertising, and maybe you can do some exclusive content (extended video interviews with players, perhaps?) for subscribers.

Why couldn't that work?

Newspapers in Q1 2009: Full-circle

My first post on newspapers in 2009 went like this:

I was horrified to find out yesterday that at least one Connecticut lawmaker is considering a government bailout of a newspaper.

I'm still horrified by this prospect for the same reason: How can a newspaper impartially (read: critically) report on the government that funds it?

Well, it's been another week of devolution in the newspaper industry (if you consider dealing with the effects of refusing to evolve to be devolution).

The Christian Science Monitor has printed its final mass-market daily edition. Cox announced it will shut down its Washington bureau on Wednesday.

And that piece I wrote a few days ago about the newspaper crisis hitting home? AnnArbor.com is now live, which makes the impending closing of the print edition of the Ann Arbor News feel that much closer.

Andrea pointed me to a piece by Dylan Stableford on whether newspapers might go non-profit in an effort to save themselves.

Stableford's question stems from legislation introduced by Maryland Senator Ben Cardin that would allow certain newspapers to become 501(c)(3) organizations.

Why do we need legislation for that? The non-profit Poynter Institution owns the St. Petersburg Times, and you can write off a donation to Poynter, so is it really necessary?

There's a gray area here, in that a non-profit newspaper may be able to sell advertising under current tax law.

But there's some major problems here. If you actually read the legislation (PDF), you'll find that it says an eligible newspaper is one that publishes regularly and includes local, national and international news.

I'm OK with "regularly" – most papers come out with some frequency (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.). But the legislation appears to specifically exclude some types of publications. Niche publication? Nope. National (with no specifically local news)? Application rejected. Local weekly? Out.

Let's also not forget that to qualify for a 501(c)(3), an organization has to be non-partisan. So, no more candidate endorsements (which, by the way, is fine with me), but also no being critical of any government institution or politician, lest you be accused of being impartial. You'd better included representatives from the IRS on your editorial board, in your story budget meetings, and maybe you just turn over your assignment editor positions.

Maybe print folks think I'm not taking the newspaper crisis seriously enough. Maybe it's because readership here is strong (via Sean Kirst).

Or maybe it's because I just don't think that the Web is destroying journalism, but rather that Web sites help newspapers.

David Eaves points out that the fact newspapers are in trouble means that democracy and the exchange of ideas are healthy. In fact, after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer went online-only, some of the folks who didn't make the cut from the printed version to the Web site are working on starting competing sites. When the Rocky Mountain News shut down, it didn't mean Colorado Rockies fans are going to be left without coverage, it means that former beat writers have new opportunities.

So where are we? Moving forward, in some direction or other. As Yogi Berra once said, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it."

Some related stuff

» Gina Chen: Old journalism might be fading out, but let's make sure some standards stick around

» Jay Rosen: Here's some stuff you should read regarding where newspapers are heading

» Idea Lab: How much local news is in your newspaper?

» Also, was I self-referential enough to fulfill Paul Dailing's requirements for becoming a death of newspapers blogger? (Hat tip to Alana Taylor.)

Newspaper crisis hits home

I can't imagine that you've missed the news about the state of the newspaper industry. If you have, go spend three days reading about it, and talk to me when you've left the corner you've been rocking in.

Colorado's oldest paper, The Rocky Mountain News – which was actually launched in the Kansas Territory, before Colorado existed – has dedicated its Web site to the paper's shuttering weeks ago.

Photo of empty Post-Intelligencer box
by Brian M. Westbrook. Used with permission.

Washington's oldest paper, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, stopped print publication last week but is thriving online, to the point where you would have to actually know there was once a print edition.

The Christian Science Monitor will go to primarily online in April (they'll print a weekend edition, and have some other print offerings for subscribers, but nothing you can buy on the stands on a daily basis).

Gannett, which owns USA Today and a hundred-plus other newspapers across the country, has announced new furloughs as we move to the second quarter of 2009.

With all this going on, CNN wants to know what newspaper readers are going to do.

It's all felt very close, considering I once was a newspaper editor and reporter, before moving on to spend two years in grad school bitching about the decline of local news in newspapers (that was the unofficial name of my program).

And now I work for a Web site that's affiliated with a newspaper (they're owned by the same parent, but operated independently).

Operating independently, we don't take a direct hit when something happens in the newspaper industry. We're more like the person on the corner when the SUV slams into the hatchback, hoping we're standing just far enough back to avoid flying steel.

I'll be honest, it's been tough watching newspapers go down, but to some extent, the ivory tower in me is saying, "I told you so." But this week...well, this week, one of the newspapers in our chain announced it will go online only this summer. Another is planning to publish three days a week come June.

The newspaper chain my company is associated with announced a company-wide series of 10-day furloughs, apparently including my site's affiliate, The Post-Standard.

Some anonymous commenters are flat-out saying that production problems with this morning's paper may have been sabotage in the wake of the furlough news.

For the record, I very much doubt that.

Some people are still trying to save newspapers as printed products, but I've moved onto the fence. While I still enjoy kicking back with a Sunday paper and a cup (or three) of coffee, but let's face it, Clay Shirky gets a few things right.

Printing presses are expensive to buy, build, and run. Newsprint costs fluctuate, but overall, rise steadily. The price of distribution rises and falls with gas prices, which, as a whole, are going up, even if there are peaks and valleys.

I'm more interested in saving journalism than necessarily the printed product. I will always prefer reading longer pieces on paper, but with shrinking newsholes, we're getting shorter pieces overall anyway.

I have some ideas for making sure journalism survives – and that journalists thrive – but it seems like printed newspapers have spent a lot of time avoiding change.

And now, that avoidance is hitting really close to home. I'm hoping my colleagues hang in there, because I enjoy working with them, they're good people, and many of them are among the best in the country at what they do. Good luck, folks. I hope there's light at the end of this tunnel.

Newspapers or newsprint, which is in deeper doodoo?

The video that used to be above but was taken down by the user was essentially this piece from TJ Sullivan offering a really bad idea on how to save newspapers.

Sullivan says that from July 4 to July 10 this year, papers should stop offering free content online by blacking out their Web sites.

Let me include the disclaimer here that I work for the online component of a newspaper – its Web site, where they offer news free – before I tell you this will help further damage newspapers.

Before you read the rest of this post, be sure to catch up (if you haven't already) on my thoughts for a paid online newspaper I'd subscribe to. Go on, I'll wait.

Back? Good.

Now, why do I think this is such a bad idea (apart from the timing, which requires newspapers to make do with what they've got for another five months)? Let me count the ways.

Web sites do not replace the printed edition. Many people who are in-market who read a newspaper's Web site also subscribe to the printed edition. The majority of people who read newspapers' Web sites without subscribing to the newspaper are local ex-pats, now living out of town, for whom subscribing to the print edition would be both cost-prohibitive (who can swing $7 or $8 a day and $12 on Sunday to have the paper mailed to them?) and time-insensitive (it's not breaking news if I get the paper a week later – heck, you're not even reporting on the latest football game anymore).

Web sites increase news hole. By offering only the printed edition, do you (a) simply cut out a lot of what your reporters write, or (b) go ahead and print everything that they'd write for their blogs, because it's still content people want?

Newspaper Web sites have their own writers, too. Yes, newspapers provide the vast majority of content for their Web sites. But almost every (at least mid-size market) daily newspaper Web site in the country has other bloggers or beat writers. Will you spend that week printing their work, too?

Newspaper Web sites provide a space for people to interact with reporters and with each other. Are you suddenly going to expect your reporters to exchange lots of phone calls with readers? If 200 people send the same e-mail to your local college hoops beat writer, the writer typically can just post a response in a blog. You either risk cutting out that interactivity, or you risk losing your reporter. You also lose the ability for people to interact with each other – and a week may be just long enough for people to find a different forum and never come back.

Newspaper Web sites have different advertisers. Because they attract more of a national audience, affiliated Web sites attract different advertisers than the printed paper. If you lose the ads for a week, you lose some advertisers forever, and others you lose until you can bring traffic back up to what it was.

A Web site is a great marketing tool for the newspaper. Every business needs to be on the Web today. Every. Business. If you sell nothing but toothpicks, it will cost you next to nothing to have a permanent billboard with a potential audience of billions of people. If anyone was thinking about signing up a subscription, or thinking about advertising, that week, and can't find your contact info on a Web site? You're out of luck, sorry.

The answer is not shutting down the Web sites, it's charging for them, plain and simple. Sullivan's driving thesis is that America needs newspapers. Not true. America needs good reporters doing good journalism. When it comes down to it, the main differences right now between newspapers and their Web sites are:

  • People pay for newspapers.
  • Newspapers cost (a lot) more to distribute.
  • Web sites provide (near) infinite news hole, easier and less time consuming interaction, and the ability to include video, interactive graphics and sharper photographs.
  • Newspapers have a bigger environmental impact and get your hands dirty.
  • Newspapers travel better.

OK, great, so what we've found out is that newspapers travel better, and people are paying for them.

But people don't seem to care about the portability issue these days (maybe we appreciate that more in northern climes, where we're more likely to bring one down to the lake to read, rather than stay inside for the short outdoor season).

Sullivan, by the way, has set up an online petition, and almost exactly three days after he posted it, he has all of 103 signatures, including himself, "Close down these propaganda outlets," and "I. DisagreeButThereAreNoComments."

So what it comes down to is, we need to find a working model for paid newspaper Web sites. I'm totally OK with that, given the right model.

Journalism is not broken. The printed newspaper as a delivery vehicle might be, but there's a great call for journalism, particularly online. And if you tell people to pay for it or they won't get it, they'll pay for it.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that he'd rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers, he was really talking about journalism. He didn't have radio, television or the Internet as a delivery vehicle.

What are your thoughts?

It’s not all enterprise reporting (or, why I’m not ready to pay for newspapers online, yet)

Most people who write about the industry aren't declaring newspapers dead yet, but some are starting to give them one last crack on the noggin toward that end.

The latest bigger-city bad news is that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will stop printing in five weeks if no one buys it, and may consider an online-only publication, but only outside of its joint operating agreement with the Seattle Times.

David Swenson and Michael Schmidt proposed a preposterous idea in the New York Times last month: set up endowments to save newspapers, turning them non-profit and sustainable.

I don't know exactly what it costs to run a newspaper, but the story says that the Times, for instance, would need a $5 billion endowment to get going.

I'm sure this is plausible for a few papers. Figuring that no self-respecting newspaper would accept a government-funded grant, high rollers would probably put up the cash to sustain papers like the Times, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and LA Times.

But what about newspapers in smaller communities? Sure, they require less of a start, but could newspapers in mid-sized markets like my hometown of Springfield, Mass., my adopted hometwon of Syracuse, N.Y., and other cities like Hartford, Austin, Oklahoma City, etc., put together $800 million endowments quickly? [Yes, I'm pulling that number out of thin air, based on the suggestion the Times would need $5 billion.]

I'm betting that under that model, we have maybe a half-dozen nationally distributed, well-funded papers, and hundreds, if not thousands, of newsletters and blogs that recall the early days of yellow journalism in America.

I'm not ready for that model.

Those people who point out the benefits of maintaining newspapers in communities look to papers' large newsrooms and ability to do meaningful enterprise journalism.

I'm not going to argue with that. At all. That enterprise journalism is my favorite stuff to read. I'll read books of it. And I prefer it in print, even over on a computer screen, but especially over radio or television.

But those who are calling for newspapers to stop offering free online content are pointing to enterprise journalism – which is expensive – as the reason readers should pay for online content.

But it's clear to me that Stu Bykofsky and like-minded pundits aren't reading their whole newspapers, or taking in their newspapers' Web sites as a whole.

At any given time, a newspaper Web site might have a link or two to a current enterprise piece from its home page, but the rest of the offerings are wire or locally written national stories, along with the same crime, fire and man-on-the-street stories I can get on TV or radio with just my antenna – without paying for it (outside of having the equipment and signal, something I also need if I'm going to read a newspaper online).

Tim Rutten points out that the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times charge for online content, but he neglects to mention that they're not general interest publications.

A lot of academic journals also charge for online content, but again, most of us aren't interested.

Rutten does offer a good pricing model: give media sites an antitrust exemption and set tiered pricing (as long as it's affordable). But other than that, he still relies on the notion that newspapers primarily do enterprise reporting, which simply isn't true.

The fact that people are visiting newspaper Web sites (even if they're not spending very long on those sites) clearly isn't lost on people; what is lost on people is the same thing that has been lost on Chrysler and GM for the past several years: the reason we're not willing to spend good money on the product is that the product doesn't necessarily meet our desires.

Bykofsky calls for a $5/month charge for newspaper Web sites; ostensibly that would be in addition to a subscription charge for the paper version, and he doesn't mention what sort of mobile offering would accompany that.

I'm going to offer a model that I'd be willing to pay $10, maybe $15 a month for, that covers all three.

Printed Edition: Once a week, delivered with my Friday mail, a 30- to 40-page paper, 90 percent of which is two or three long-form enterprise stories with a couple of good photos and a description of associated online multimedia content, with the ability to comment on the story and multimedia.

The rest of the paper contains digest items listing the miscellaneous crime, courts, safety, etc., news, alerting me where online (in a mobile-friendly format – more on that in a minute) I can find more info.

Delivery by mail means newspapers don't have to pay as much for distribution – no sending laden trucks far and wide, paying for gas, drivers and vehicle maintenance. Friday delivery means I can spend the weekend with it, when I have time and the desire to sit down with a couple of cups of coffee, and read slowly, turning pages.

Mobile News: You know when I most want crime and safety news? When I see fire trucks returning to the station, or when I happen by several police cruisers on the street. It would be great if I knew exactly where to go for that news.

On my mobile device is also where I want my sports news – and by sports news, I primarily mean game updates. I want scores, injury reports, and other game notes as games are happening; a game analysis could come later, still maintaining a mobile-friendly layout.

Online Content: Everything should be online. The news hole is bottomless, the multimedia options are limitless, and opportunities abound for interaction between readers, between journalists, and between journalists and readers. Lead with your enterprise stuff, and make it obvious where I can find the other stuff. The enterprise stuff is where newspapers beat other media types, and heck, if you want to team up with local TV news teams to have them provide the day-to-day crime and fire news, great. I don't really care where it comes from; if you've got four teams (three TV stations and a newspaper) covering a break-in, you're going to have four nearly identical stories.

And that leads me to one other thing that journalists have been hearing about, but for the most part have been doing poorly: interaction. Gina Chen (a colleague of mine) offers some great tips for journalists. It's not enough to be using social networking sites: you have to be social with them. I wrote more about this in my wishes for newspapers in 2009.

Let's not put newspapers on the cart yet. Let's get rolling to make sure their best work continues to shine.

More on newspapers and the Web in 2009. Plus: adult personals?

Wish I had seen Adam Reilly's post on dailies in The Phoenix (via Romenesko/Poynter before I wrote my screed this morning.

Reilly touches on some of the same stuff I do: the Christian Science Monitor and the Detroit papers as signs of the times. The future of papers being good reporting on the Web. Collaboration.

He also gets into deep cuts and niche coverage.

One thing he doesn't touch on didn't occur to be until I remembered what The Phoenix is: a free paper that is frequently fat. As in, a huge newshole.

You know how it supports that big newshole? Advertising. Specifically, adult personals: there's a large section each issue.

A lot of newspapers aren't going to be willing to accept this kind of advertising – my employer and its sister sites used to take personal ads (not the adult sort), but it went more family-friendly – but it could be a good bailout for some establishments.