Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

How Readers' Respond to Digital News Stories in Layers and Links

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

How Readers' Respond to Digital News Stories in Layers and Links

Article excerpt

Print news, a traditionally change-resistant profession, surprisingly has embraced the coming of the internet and the world wide web. But as newspapers race into electronic publishing in record numbers (2,297 online worldwide at the latest 1997 Editor & Publisher count), they seem to be forgetting the most important thing: their readers.

Perhaps motivated by dreams of profit, or perhaps by a fear of getting left behind, many newspapers are entering the information superhighway without knowing exactly where they're going. Pegie Stark Adam of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies noted in a 1995 conference on interactive media that newspapers are rushing "to dump anything they can online, as fast as they cart, with little customization." Even industry executives admit this is the case. Mercury Center managing editor Bruce Koon told attendees at the same conference that writing for an online newspaper "is like a revolutionary war. You go into action not when you are ready, but when the opportunity presents itself."

The result, according to media futurist Roger Fidler, quoted in a 1995 Editor & Publisher story: "Online publications are still uncompelling, frustrating and time-consuming to use."

Although good things can come out of the profession's open-mindedness and willingness to experiment, things seem to be moving too fast. Currently, "so much experimentation is going on so fast you can see the changes daily." Indeed, the industry would do well to keep its enthusiasm for electronic publishing but back away from this haphazard, trial-and-error approach - which has included everything from a love-letter service offered by the Raleigh News and Observer's Nando.net to a virtual museum exhibit of Russian history offered by the St. Petersburg Times - and instead try to find out what really works.

Among the many questions that need to be addressed is how to best make use of the hyperlinked environment, or the ability to build stories in layers of information so related material or additional details are just a click away. According to a 1995 speech by Nora Paul of the Poynter Institute, "Too many electronic news products are simply shovelware - scooping up the old flat text used in the ink-on-paper product and throwing it on the screen." Hypertext, however, gives us the opportunity to "rethink reporting as a layering of news" - the opportunity to create content with depth by providing links to other relevant documents.

This study addresses how to best present stories in such layers and links to make them of maximum usefulness and appeal to readers. Specifically, it attempts to determine the amount of information most desirable in the top layer of any story and the best way to incorporate links from a story to sidebars or other related material.

Literature review

Until the last three years, most studies related to electronic publishing primarily were concerned with whether computer presentation of news may be inferior to traditional newspaper presentation in terms of readers' processing of information. However, the studies showed there were no differences in reading speed, comprehension or recall of facts between news stories presented on paper and the same stories presented on a computer screen. Researchers also found that recall for computer screen presentation did not differ significantly from that of newspaper presentation.

Other studies have examined audience reaction to information on paper vs. screen vs. multimedia (text on screen with a sound bite); user perceptions of teletext; college students' satisfaction with electronic newspapers and preferences for electronic newspapers vs. traditional newspapers; effects of time spent on the internet upon time spent with traditional media; and editors' responses to questions regarding startup costs, revenue strategies, staffing, content and number of subscribers to online newspapers.

None of these studies, however, directly addresses presentation in layers and links. …

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