Friday, April 18, 2008

Smokin' ACES: Newspapers must get dumb to make us smart


When you viewed this Web page just now, what did you see first? Headlines? Photos? Googly eyes? The links to take you away from here?

That’s what the folks at the Poynter Institute think they’ve figured out.

Chances are that your eyes were drawn to the “nav” bar to the right that allows you navigate elsewhere. The bar combines a little text with several visual aids, such as photos, to make for a more appealing, readable presentation. And apparently, this significantly "dumbed-down" approach to the news is the key to the future.

Poynter, a media research organization based in St. Petersburg, Fla., last year completed an intensive study called EyeTrack. Researchers retrofitted subjects with high-tech goggles that record where their eyes are looking when they view a newspaper or Web page. It also records how long they look at it.

I first learned of the results during last spring’s American Society of Newspaper Editors convention, left, in Washington. Sara Quinn, who directed the study for Poynter, presented preliminary results.

She said large photos attract newspaper and Web readers more than small ones. No surprise there.

She said people read farther into a story on the Web, but stop reading sooner in newspapers. Now wait a second. I thought people who read newspapers were methodical and deliberate. Maybe not.

But Quinn is still at it, further spreading the gospel of EyeTrack at the American Copy Editors Society national conference last week in Denver. She talked about how the study pertains to alternative story forms – such as fact boxes, graphics and numbers – in newspapers.

She said alternative forms aid comprehension of information in print and online. Quinn and the Poynter researchers gave people three pages: one with a traditional story, one with a shorter story and a few fact boxes, and one without a story and just boxes, numbers and photos. Researchers then quizzed the readers.

“People who read the page without the traditional narrative were able to answer most questions correctly,” Quinn said.

Here are three points she made clear about the benefit of these broken-down story formats:
  • They help readers understand and remember facts. (Hey, dumbing down information makes people smarter. Who would've thunk it?)
  • They attract a lot of attention.
  • Newspapers don’t do them very often. Only 4 percent of newspapers studied in EyeTrack used them.
The biggest problem for newspapers these days is that people can’t take time out of their day to read them. As an example, I edited a story a few weeks ago that was 40 inches long and came with an 8-inch sidebar, a 20-inch graphic and two fact boxes. People don’t have time for all of that. You probably don't have time to read this post. If you are reading it, you're a sucker.

No one really knows how to fix this readability issue yet. But “bitesizing” information into digestible pieces is at least part of the equation. Yes, it may be dumbing down the information, but honestly, we just don’t have time to be smart these days.

So as the Black Eyed Peas would say, let’s get retarded.

Not rules, but guidelines for getting stupid

Josh Crutchmer, the deputy presentation editor at the Omaha World-Herald, says newspapers' ability to find the most effective way to communicate information is how they're going to compete with blogs.

If that were true, the industry wouldn't be having the problems it is right now.

Nevertheless, Crutchmer offered a few points to keep in mind when bitesizing traditional journalistic pot roasts.
  • Do it for the readers. (Cliche.)
  • Don't design just to design. It's not about what looks cool; you need content to back it up.
  • Words make an alternative form work.
  • Don't say something in two paragraphs that you can say in one.
  • Criticize before, not after, something goes to print.
Session information
  • Title: "Working Together: Alternative Story Forms, Designers and the Desk"
  • Time: 10:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Thursday
  • Panelists: Andy Bechtel, University of North Carolina; Josh Crutchmer, Omaha World-Herald; Sara Quinn, Poynter Institue; Katie Schwing, (Colorado Springs) Gazette
  • Description: How is the rise of timelines, Q&A material and other nontraditional storytelling affecting the copy and design desks? This panel discussion will examine what ASFs mean for collaboration and work flow, and how readers notice and learn from these forms. Come ready to talk about what works at your publication and what needs help.
Smokin' ACES home


rknil said...

If you're waiting for Josh C. or any other designer to offer anything other than cliches and half-baked claims, you'll be waiting a long time.

They concoct half-truths and lies, and they chant them repeatedly. Then they claim their slogans to be truths.

You can stymie them quickly with the following question: Can you cite evidence that your approach boosts readership, single-copy sales or circulation? Then listen to the crickets chirping.

ReporterGuy said...

As a reporter, we know all too well that writing an in-depth 80 inch piece is time consuming, should be thought provoking, and, let's face it: we write them to win awards.
And nobody reads it.
Poynter or whoever else can fit folks with goggles -- laughable, man -- but the reason fewer people are reading newspapers is not that complicated.
People are dumber these days and are easily distracted by Britney Spears' pregnant sister, what Paris Hilton said, and how pilled-up Anna Nicole was.
Who cares about, oh, farm subsidies, for instance, when Jenifer Aniston was spotted hanging out with Owen Wilson?
If anything was misspelled or you spotted poor grammar, bite me.
I have to log on to and don't have time to proofread.