A Factoid is Born

This recent report has all the makings of a “fact” that will gain credence because it is so easy to grasp, so tempting to repeat and conforms to our preconceptions: “New research shows that news stories online are barely read by anyone 36 hours after they are first posted.” Taking a moment to scan the original research paper reveals that this observation is based on a one-month survey in 2002 that examined how 250,000 Hungarians consumed 4,000 news stories posted on that country’s most popular web portal. There’s a definitive work! Or, as we often joke in the newsroom, never over-report a good story — otherwise you’re likely to learn it isn’t true. All kidding aside, the research suggests some useful tips for web publishers.

In a few words, placement matters. Just as in a newspaper, the more prominently an item is displayed, the more likely it is to be seen. And the new media reader who doesn’t happen to visit the web site on any given day is unlikely to browse backward into the online archive to read a story, any more than the audience in dead-tree media is likely to fish back through the pile of past papers looking for news — unless, of course, they’re waiting in the doctor’s office. Here’s how PhysicsWeb summarized these points:

“The short life of a news item — combined with random visiting patterns of readers — implies that people could miss a significant fraction of news by not visiting the portal when a new document is first displayed, which is why publishers like to provide e-mail news alerts. The results also show that people read a particular web page not just because it looks interesting but because it can be accessed easily.”

Two parting thoughts on this item. First, web publishers might be wise to reserve a little real estate on the home page for a “recent hits” section where they can draw attention to important or popular stories.

Lastly, while it is no dount true that an online story’s readership falls off dramatically in a relatively brief time, it is also important to note that search engines create an entirely new way for stories to reach the very people who are most likely to have the deepest interested in a given topic because they found the piece after looking for key words. This long-life phenomenon is something I’ve experienced in my day job as a newspaper reporter, as for instance with one piece that I wrote in 2003 about a trillion dollar accounting goof by the Pentagon. That story periodically elicits the odd email from someone wondering if the missing money was ever found (not so far as I know).

Though these hits from buried-stories are unlikely to be numerous, they nevertheless draw some attention to novel content. And since these visitors will enter through a side door rather than through the home page, this behaviour poses additional challenges for web designers — a topic I’ve discussed once or twice before.

A late note to myself Jay ( Press Think) Rosen is generating a buzz around a recent posting that restates the new media mantra that the audience has an ever-increasing voice in news-making process.