Friday, June 28, 2013

Print vs Online: Remembering the News

When it comes to how well people learn from the news, which is better -- print, or online?

The winner (in at least a new study) is ... print.  Which fits much of the earlier research, but not all of it.

The latest issue of Newspaper Research Journal (yes, there is such a journal and I'm even on the editorial board) includes a study: "Print Readers Recall More Than Do Online Readers."  First, lemme quibble with a title that steals the punch line.  Why read more?

Study participants were randomly assigned to either a print (hard copy) or online (website) version of the same The New York Times. They were given 20 minutes with instructions to "peruse the newspaper in any manner they wished."  Subjects were not told what stories they'd be questioned on or that the study was even about recall at all.  They then were asked to recall as many news stories as possible and details about those stories.  They were also asked how much of each story they read.

Print readers remembered significantly more stuff, and more main points.

A few points:
  • This is the intensive study of the college journalism student.  Your results may vary.
  • In the online group, the story mattered.  The multimedia stuff, less so.
  • Most news orgs don't really care about user learning. They care about user time and attention.
What can we take away from this? I've written about this before, but basically people approach a print product and an online product with subtle differences.  Print is seen as more work, as "hard," and therefore we tend to bring more attention to the task than we do on TV and, possibly, the computer screen.  We also tend to skip when reading online, to jump ahead, to move to another story faster.  That can influence learning.

I suspect as we move more and more to mobile, the differences will widen.  Tablets, those I expect to not dramatically reduce learning, but mobile is different and it all has to do with the "uses and gratifications" we bring to the experience.  In simpler terms, we think of mobile as catching up, as what's happening now, and that can in many subtle ways influence the quality of learning from exposure to the content.  Yeah, I'm going all PhDweeb on you, but this matters if you believe the news is about creating an informed public, not just attracting eyeballs to sell ads.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

L'burg Newspaper Fail

My hometown is Lawrenceburg, Tenn., a place famous only for once being the home of the world's largest bicycle factory.  The other day I was surfing and came across this story about Moody's downgrading L'burg's bond rating.

Ah, I thought.  I should pass this on to the two L'burg weekly newspapers (one of which I interned for a million years ago).  And so I emailed the link.

That was June 13.  So far, neither has clicked on the link.

Maybe they already knew about it, but I've checked the papers and they don't seem to mention it.  Maybe it takes a few weeks for email to reach Lawrenceburg.  Maybe they just don't give a damn.  Maybe they don't want to explain bond ratings to their readers.  Hell, maybe they don't understand bond ratings and why they matter.

Or maybe, they just suck.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Ordinary" Matters, At Least in Poll Wording

Two polls this week on the NSA mess offer a nice case study of the power of a single word in survey research.

I offer to you, dear reader, that simplest of words -- ordinary.

An ordinary word, ordinary.  It means "commonly encountered," according to this dictionary.  Or, more to the point in describing me: "Of no exceptional ability, degree, or quality; average."  Yup, that about sums me up.  Ask anyone.

But here ordinary carries extraordinary meaning.  A recent CBS news poll asked:
In order to reduce the threat of terrorism, do you approve or disapprove of federal government agencies collecting phone records of ordinary Americans?
Thirty-eight percent approved of collecting phone records, while 58 percent disapproved. I underlined ordinary because, in this instance, it's anything but.  A Pew poll conducted at about the same time asked a similar question:
As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?
See that millions?  Sure you do, because I cleverly emphasized it using all the typographical tools at my disposal.  The results are different.  Fifty-six percent find this acceptable in the Pew poll, significantly higher than the ordinary CBS wording.  That's a helluva difference.  Yes, the questions differ in other ways, but I'm certain the use of ordinary versus millions makes all the difference in the world.

So, which is the more accurate question?  Glad you asked.  In this case, I find ordinary to be an extraordinarily loaded word, to make it sound like it's something closer to home.  I like the millions language better.  More abstract, less threatening.  Less loaded.


E-Readers vs Paper vs Screen

A piece by The Atlantic today, based on this study, finds people who used e-readers and computer screens did as well as those who read paper in reading comprehension.

The research, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, features the intensive study of the college freshman -- which as everyone knows only vaguely resemble humans.  Ninety of 'em, ages 18 to 25, were randomly assigned to one of three conditions (Kindle, computer, paper) to read "five expository texts and five narrative texts."  These were high school level writing, about 500 words each. 

Previous research tends to find print superior to other versions.  The hook in this study, the headline, is that they found no differences.  In other words, it's a rare case of non-results becoming published results (if you care and can access it, read the pdf of the study).  The authors note, of course, the limitations of the study: reliance on college kids, the artificial nature of the experiment.  But, they note:
From an educational and classroom perspective, these results are comforting. While new technologies have sometimes been seen as disruptive, these results indicate that students’ comprehension does not necessarily suffer, regardless of the format from which they read their text. This knowledge informs educators and encourages the adoption of new strategies, by students, teachers, professors, and schools alike.
It may very well be that younger readers, more attuned to digital reading, do get as much if not more from a story via e-reader/screen than paper. I'm not buying it yet, not on the basis of these 90 kids, despite it being a nice, clean experiment.  Previous research and theory suggests paper will remain superior for some time -- at least in how well people learn from the written word.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

ANES 2012 and Media Variables

The American National Election Studies have historically been weak on media questions.  For the 2012 survey, released Monday, this is not the case. From a media perspective, here are a few new (and old) twists in the preliminary release of the ANES 2012 Time Series Study:
  • Exposure and Attention.  There's a difference between exposure to a medium and attention to that medium.  At times the ANES has included both measures.  They're back to some degree.
  • Source Specificity.  Questions get at specific programs and news sources (i.e., NYTimes, Good Morning America).  This is extensive and useful.  Keep in mind, however, many respondents are coded as "inapplicable" due to random assignment to questions.
  • Separation.  Like some previous surveys, the 2012 version separates "print" from "online" news sources.  Important.  This is becoming the default for many surveys today.
  • Candidate websites.  This version asks a number of questions about respondent visits to campaign websites.  Useful.
  • Social Media.  Yes, Twitter and Facebook show up in the survey in a couple of different ways.  Again, useful.

I've only downloaded the codebook and data today, so I can't write extensively yet about results. This is a huge survey, the 29th in a series, with the largest ever sample size (5,916 respondents) with random samples in a fact-to-face and Internet modes.  The "Big Five" personality traits are included, as well as some other neat tricks.

For those budding mass comm scholars out there, a warning.  ANES (and to a lesser extent, Pew) data can be daunting when you first sit down with a codebook and your favorite statistical package.  So many questions.  So many confusing question experiments.  This is particularly true of the 2012 version.  Read the explanations carefully, weight the data appropriately,  and beware the various splits and splices in the ANES questions.  It's easy to screw up hours of analysis.  Yeah, I've done it myself.

The strength of the ANES stuff has always been the large collection of variables for analysis.  The weakness, from a polcomm perspective, has been its corresponding weak collection of media variables.  This has changed in the last few releases.  Perhaps it's time I offered a graduate class just in the careful analysis of secondary data.  Our students seem oblivious to the potential here.  I can feast for a year or more on the 2012 data alone.

Do People Actually Learn from Colbert and Stewart?

We've had some time now to review an emerging body of work that asks whether people learn from such faux news programs as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.  While I'm not going to bore you with a formal lit review, I will try to summarize what we know so far about the effects of such "soft news" programs.
  • People view such programs differently than traditional news.  Call this the couch potato hypothesis.  With less mental effort you get less learning.  After all, most people sit down in front of the TV to be entertained and even when they do try to be informed by such content, the brain is wired differently. 
  • Similar to above is the empty-calorie hypothesis, that idea that people will rely on humorous forms of news and feel filled up, like sucking on a Coke, and won't consume their vegetables (real news).  The result?  Less knowledge.
  • What you know matters.  Well-informed folks glean more from an information source than less-informed.  That said, TV best serves those who know least, especially TV news, because of the way TV tells a story versus the traditional inverted pyramid of print news, which with its emphasis on the latest information first assumes prior knowledge.
  • Humor is thought to get in the way of learning, but to help in persuasion.  The theory is straightforward -- humor lowers our defenses, reduces counter-arguing, and is therefore more likely to persuade.  But humor interferes with actual learning.
  • The content of these faux news programs resembles in some ways the TV newscasts.  Content analyses find many similarities, though these also find dramatic differences.  It's hard to make tragedy funny, and often Colbert and Stewart take the easy way out, the easy laugh, because it can backfire if you try to make a tragedy into something it's not.  Quite simply, unless you're consuming traditional news, there are huge holes in your information, gaps found in news quizzes or measures of political knowledge.
  • But ... the people who watch these programs tend to be news junkies anyway, well-educated and young, people who "get" the jokes because they're at least moderately informed.
  • Finally, it's that "moderate" thing that matters.  It's the folks who attend to no news but watch these programs who come out losers, at least as measured by tests of political knowledge.
  • Beware the methodological mess-up.  Sometimes scholars will combine these two shows with the late-night talk shows (i.e., Jay Leno).  They are not the same.  Different content, different audiences, different results.  I'm in the middle of a study that finds, today, you really have to ask about exposure to specific networks (Fox News, etc.) and even specific programs (The O'Reilly Factor) to get at the kinds of effects that matter in political communication.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Journalism Degree. Lousy Investment?

Thanks to the magic of Twitter I came across this piece today (hed: Journalism is the worst 4-year college investment -- Be a sailor instead) that riffs on this study.  As Ken Layne points out in his lede:
If the constant downsizing in the news-media industry hasn't already convinced you to pick something else to do with your life, a new study shows the worst "return on investment" for a four-year degree is a job in journalism. It takes journalists nearly 32 years to pay off their college loans.
Ouch.  Does not sound good, I'll be among the first to agree.  Except not.

First, I'm biased.  I'm a journalism prof, dammit.  I need students, otherwise I gotta work for a living. 

But let's set that way aside for the moment, way way aside, and look at the study itself.  At first blush it's hard to argue with the stats, which come from the feds and appear on the surface perfectly sound and logical.  Here's my problem -- the salary for journalists is misleading.  Journalists often become something else after putting in their newsroom time.  Maybe they go into government, maybe they become a flack, maybe graduate or law school.  If you're a dentist, you tend to stay ... a dentist.  A pharmacist?  You're probably gonna stay a pharmacist.  So the salary reported for journalists can be fuzzier and fizzier than what's presented here.  Plus so many journalism jobs are starter jobs in small markets that the numbers can mislead.  There's a churn in journalism jobs that you don't see in other fields.

That said, it does suggest if you're going to journalism school, or becoming a marriage therapist, find a way to avoid school loans.

Finally, to put in a UGA plug, I wonder about those "college costs" given access in Georgia to the Hope scholarship.  Both of my kids go to UGA.  Neither is a journalism major (one is in geology, the other a double major in microbiology and genetics), but there's no way either is gonna cost me $52,596.  If so, I'll be dancing topless on Jackson Street to pay the bills.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Polls that Make Ya Look Good

I've preached this before -- beware the poll that, coincidentally, supports the position of the folks who paid for it.  Today's installment comes from the Missouri Press Association:
More than 90 percent of Missourians who responded to a recent survey believe the wording of constitutional amendments should be published in their local newspapers before election day. That's according to a poll by Pulse Research Inc. commissioned by the Missouri Press Association (MPA).
Okay, you get it, right.  Of course the MPA is happy about this, because they're not giving way that space for free.  Also, when it comes to political advertising:
The survey also showed 55.5 percent of respondents believe political advertising on television is the most offensive. Only 2.8 percent said newspaper ads are the most offensive.
Which, of course, is no surprise to anyone who has watched TV.  What this fails to note is whether or not political ads on TV are more influential, or reach important subgroups, than newspaper ads. I'm a newspaper guy, but I'd deserve to be fired if I recommend to a candidate he or she spends money on newspaper ads rather than local Tv.

All we know about this survey is it's of 386 respondents "from every region of the state."  No idea if it was a telephone poll, a robo-poll, if it is weighted or not weighted geographically or demographically, or hell -- anything at all.  It's a small N, to be sure, but not terribly bad for this kind of thing.  I merely point to it as yet another example of a survey just happening to support those who paid the bill.  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Next R&B Publisher?

Soon after The Red & Black publisher Harry Montevideo resigned, people began to wonder who might take his seat high on Baxter Hill.

I have no candidates in mind and I'm unlikely to play a role in the search, which means from the safety of my "academic perch" (as one critic described it) I can offer all kinds of suggestions without any of those pesky responsibilities.

I expect the search will be inundated with the names of impressive pros looking to leave the industry. Searchers, fight the temptation of a splashy name or a splashy newspaper. One of those folks may very well turn out to be your best choice, but I'd prefer to see a young and hungry entrepreneur, someone not necessarily from the newsroom but someone who gets journalism.

Someone with ideas. Not someone with war stories.

In other words, someone who approaches the R&B like a startup, someone willing to reboot The Lady on the Hill. But -- and I can't emphasize this enough -- mindful of the R&B's storied past, its role in the University community, and of course the role journalism plays in society. Someone who can talk to townies and business leaders and university administrators and please talk to the students who spend countless hours at the newspaper because, dammit, they've gone and caught the journalism bug even though their momma warned them to practice safe studentdom and daddy insisted they get a degree in something that pays more.

Is there such a person out there?  If so, please apply.  If so, search committee, please hire.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

R&B Resignation

Harry Montevideo, the longtime publisher of The Red & Black, has apparently resigned (Flagpole story).

[update, also on Poynter now]
[update, board statement]

Allow me to hijack my media blog to offer a few words.

I won't write a lot about Montevideo because, frankly, I've been a UGA journalism prof for 21 years and I don't think he's ever asked my advice about R&B plans and strategies.  That either makes him incredibly dumb or canny beyond belief.  After all, my expertise is in reporting, not managing a news operation, so other than to tell him the move from 5-days print to 1-day digital all at once is really truly marvelously stupid, I couldn't add much other than to tell him "I told you so" after the plan sent the paper stumbling into near irrelevancy.

There's no reason for me to recount Montevideo's history.  It'll be written elsewhere.  His leaving is an end of an era for the paper -- a creature he nurtured and nourished and helped grow into an award-winning operation with a really big building on Baxter Hill.  He deserves loads of credit for making the paper what it was, just as he deserves credit (along with a few of its kookier board members) for making the paper the lesser creature it is today.  His recent foolishness (wrestling a student to the ground, the walkout, the obscene salary, the mangled move from print to digital, trying to pick a fight with my department) all conspired to lead a fresher and more clearheaded board to a simple conclusion, that it was time for Montevideo to step down.

So give Montevideo credit for a job well done.  Yes, he was successful when it was easier to be successful, and yes he fumbled the job when times became tough, but the R&B is a nationally recognized student news organization and he deserves much of the credit.  Not all.  The students did the reporting, the editing, the shooting.  But give him credit nonetheless, and let's move on.

May we live in interesting times?  Grady College has a new incoming dean.  The Department of Journalism has an new incoming chair.  And now the student paper will have, after a search, a new incoming publisher.  It's a time for fresh starts all around.

It's an opportunity I hope that won't be wasted.

Opinion vs Fact-Based Reporting

Here's a brief but fascinating piece from Pew that analyzes the three major cable networks in terms of how much of their time is devoted to fact-based reporting versus opinion.  The graph I put below, but check out the site as well.