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September 12, 2008

Journalism online - some thoughts

The American press is struggling to adapt to the internet, according to a study by the Pew Research Institute's Project for Excellence in Journalism

Meanwhile in Norway "circulation figures confirm the future is online", according to journalist/blogger Kristine Lowe and financial daily Dagens Næringsliv. Kristine writes that not publishing articles online means newspapers "cut themselves off from the world" and "print just has a different sell-by date".

When I got into journalism school, Eirik and Jorunn both reacted with: "You don't want to write on paper, do you?" I assured them that I prefer writing with links, and that I assume I'll be working online for most of career. That's just the way the world will be, right?

My school seems to agree. By the end of the first week, we were linking to external sites from our articles and searching for Creative Commons illustration photos on Flikr. Journalen, the journalism students' newspaper, is completely online, and most of my assignments this semester will be published there. And we've been told that chances are, our first jobs will be online writing.

So it came as a surprise when I learned today that only one (1!) of the faculty members has any experience with internet journalism.

Last week, one of our lectures was about how readers percieve newspapers - how many articles the average person actually reads, and how they pick these articles. We saw Powerpoint slides of giant newspaper pages, with numbers indicating what part of the page the average reader will look at first. People focus on other peoples' faces in photographs, headlines, block quotes, fact boxes, really anything except the actual article. The text that goes with the largest picture is usually the first text people read, but by then, they've already scanned the whole page. And of course, photos are very important in determining whether the corresponding article will be read by anyone.

This was interesting, but sounded foreign to me. I don't really read paper newspapers that much. And when I read online, I focus on the text. Most articles I read by RSS, so the layout will look the same (Bloglines style) no matter what the editor thought would get my attention. Headlines are important of course, but usually I just want them to tell me what the article is about in a somewhat catchy way. I'll admire clever headings - but usually after I've read the articles.

The lecturer lamented the poor quality of press photographs online - laptop screens just don't do the original images justice. Ok, I guess they don't. But the real "problem" for newspapers is that they can't control the layout when they can't control the size of the screen. Readers have a choice in their own news layout today.

I don't want to see a "front page" with a picture so big there isn't room for any text on my laptop screen. The actual web browser + big, animated ads at the top of the page + a large newspaper logo + links to the different sections of the newspaper + gigantic "front page" photo = I have to scroll down before I can see any actual news. That's like waiting until the second page of a print newspaper to run the first story.

Writing in itself must adapt to the laptop screen, but the same goes for the theory of how to get readers' attention.

Posted by Julie at September 12, 2008 4:05 PM

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This is a good post, highlighting some interesting points. I agree that the technological revolution refocuses the attention of the news reader on the content, rather than fancy tricks such as single-page headlines, large photos etc. The problem that many news sites have experienced is that initially they staffed their online publications with old newspaper hands, which led to one of two extremes: 200-word soundbite news items (by those who believed no one read anything substantial online), or 3000-word features (by those who didn't know how to condense anything for an on-the-move online audience). As with anything, a balance between the two is far more effective. Internet video, too, while attracting huge ad revenue, doesn't suit every news site, as some are finding, much to their expense. In a nutshell, the technology has thrown the focus of the publication's message in many cases, rather than added to it.

Posted by: Daniel M. Harrison at September 25, 2008 1:58 AM