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.

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