Scott Stanford: If you start this column, you’ll read most of it
July 5, 2007
Editor’s note: Scott Stanford is on vacation. This column originally published March 29.
I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has suggested that “readers only look at the headlines.”
My response? “People really do read the stories. That’s why we continue to employ and pay reporters.”
This week, I got affirmation that I’m right. Woo-hoo!
A new study by the Poynter Institute shows newspaper readers read most, if not all, of the articles they start. That came as no surprise to me.
The study also shows online newspaper readers tend to read deeper into stories than print newspaper readers. That did come as a surprise to me – I thought everyone on the Web who wasn’t scamming was just skimming.
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Poynter (www.poynter.org) is a St. Petersburg, Florida-based training center for journalists. Its Eyetrack 07 project was its largest research study ever, and it has produced interesting information about newspaper reading habits.
The study used cameras mounted on glasses to measure actual readership of two tabloid newspapers (the Rocky Mountain News and the Philadelphia Daily News); two broadsheet newspapers (the St. Petersburg Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune) and two online newspapers (St. Petersburg and Minneapolis). More than 600 newspaper readers were tested.
What the study showed:
n Tabloid newspaper readers finished 57 percent of the stories they started to read.
n Broadsheet newspaper readers finished 62 percent of the stories they started.
n And online readers finished 77 percent of the stories they chose. Further, two-thirds of online readers finished every story they chose to read.
There was no difference in the length or content of the stories the test subjects saw in print or online. Readers were not prodded to read certain stories. They were tested for 15 minutes per day for 30 days and chose what they wanted to read in the newspaper. The study measured how far they read the stories they chose.
The study showed big headlines, big photos and color can help attract readers in print, while such features were less important online. Online users tend to go immediately to navigation bars to seek stories by topic.
Readers do better with bells and whistles than text. When a story was presented in an alternative form to text – a Q and A, graphic or photo essay, for example – readers did better on comprehension tests.
The study told us something we already knew – readers don’t like stories that jump from one page to another in the newspaper, especially in broadsheet newspapers. They are more apt to turn to the jump in a tabloid. Stories typically don’t jump online, though I have seen some newspapers continue long stories on a second, third or fourth online page. (Newspapers jump stories in print because they have to; why anyone would repeat this irritating practice when it isn’t necessary is beyond me).
The Poynter study is particularly applicable for the Pilot & Today, which produces a free tabloid, a paid-circulation broadsheet and a news Web site. I don’t know that it will dramatically change what we’re doing, but at last it’s nice to know people are reading more than the headlines.
I’d write more about the study, but seeing as how my print readers likely bailed after paragraph 12 and most of the online folks left me after “comprehension tests,” why bother?
Scott Stanford’s From the Editor column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today. Visit his Blog at steamboatpilot.com/stanford, call him at 871-4221 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org