Continuous Updates: Design decisions when designating breaking news

This is one in a series of reports on DiSEL (Digital Story Effects Lab) Research projects conducted in 2007 through a research grant from the University of Minnesota. First in the series was on Navigation through Slide Shows

Why we did the study

One of the great strengths of the Web is the ability to keep news updated and to alert readers immediately to stories they need to know about. This is also one of the biggest organizational changes the Web has brought to newsrooms. Shifting from daily to constant deadlines has caused a rethinking of work flow, editing, and reporting responsibilities.

But questions remain about the best way to ensure that these updated or breaking news items are presented on the page for greatest visibility. Judging from the wide variety of design techniques newsrooms use to designate breaking news, there is no consensus on the best approach.

In May 2007 the top 102 US newspapers’ websites were analyzed to catalog the different ways “breaking” news was being displayed. We looked at labels used to indicate news was updated or new and the design techniques for differentiating “breaking” news from other news items on the homepage.

Labeling: Thirty-four of the online news sites examined had no designation of “breaking” news. Of the 68 sites that did:

  • 31% used some version of “Breaking”
  • 30% used some version of “Latest”
  • 14% used some version of “Update”
  • 25% used miscellaneous labels including “Developing News”, “News Flash”, “News Bulletin”, “News Alert”, “Up to the Minute.”

Design: The methods used to designate, design-wise, the “freshest” news items on the page varied, and were often combined.

  • 12% tagged individual stories with “New” or “Updated’, usually in a bold color
  • 57% put “updated” stories in a box
  • 62% timestamped the entire page and / or individual stories

It was clear that no conventions had been established for designating those news items that were freshest or most recently updated.

We designed the study to get at the following questions:

  • Did the design choices made to designate updated content affect the user’s recognition of which items were new or updated?
  • Would the design aid, or impede, the likelihood that the news user would find, read, and remember news items most recently added to the site?

How we did the study

We worked with the Minneapolis Star Tribune to get daily feeds of their homepage. We inserted into the “live” page a fake “breaking news” story (about a tank truck accident and subsequent chemical spill shutting down a major highway in town.) Each day of the testing, our designer created three test “home pages” using the top three ways updated news is being designated on websites – timestamp, labeled, boxed – to distinguish this “breaking news” story from the others on the page.

Version 1: Timestamped

Version 2: “New” placed next to updated story

Version 3: Updated story headlines in a separate box

Participants: We wanted to study a wide array of online users in this research so we took the eyetracking equipment to two locations in Minneapolis: the student union at the University of Minnesota (where the demographics were largely young, Anglo adults), and the Midtown Global Market Downtown (where the participants represented a wide range of demographics – age, race, education.) In all, 96 participants were tested, divided into each of the three conditions.

After the eyetrack calibration, research participants were asked to go to the homepage and “just look around.” They were told they could look however long they wanted and could click on whatever they wanted. When they indicated they were done, they were asked a couple of questions:

  • What are the main stories you recall from the website?
    The response to this question could be checked against the eyetrack video. Was it clear they “saw” the updated story yet did not list it as one of the stories they remembered?
  • What was it about these stories that made you remember them?
    The response to this open-response question helped catalog the attributes of the news story that made it memorable.
  • Which of the stories on the website was identified as a “news update” // or which of the news stories was the most recently updated?
    This question sought to discover if people, in fact, recognized that there was a story that was designated differently than the others.
  • Do you try to find the most current story when you go to a news website?
    This question would allow the researchers to see if there was a difference in response from users who are self-proclaimed “fresh” news seekers from those who are not.
  • On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 not at all interested and 5 very interested) how interested are you in: Politics, Crime, Traffic Reports, Sports
    This question could help researchers to see if interest in a news topic (in this case traffic) resulted in a higher degree of recall.


Both the eyetracking videos and the post-exposure survey responses were analyzed and matched – the videos to see whether participants eyes “fixated” on the breaking news visual cue and the survey to see their responses to the post-exposure questions. Here are some of the key findings:

Finding 1: Bigger is Better – or is it? In terms of visual cues, it was clear from the results of the eyetrack sessions that the larger the cue, the more likely it was to be noticed. By visual cue, the percent of participants exposed to that style of display who fixated:

Headline box: 89%
Timestamp: 48%
“New”: 49%

But when participants were asked in the post-exposure survey to say which story on the homepage was the most recent or which was the breaking news item, the participants exposed to the timestamp (35%) and “new” pages (32%) had greater recognition of the freshest news than those exposed to the headline box (20%). Even though 89% of the people exposed to the headline box page clearly looked at it, only 20% of them recalled any breaking news story.

What might this mean? Although the headline box drew more eyes, the headline text size in the box was smaller than the other two display styles. Headline text size may be an important factor in user’s memory of a story. So, although boxing the headlines made that visual element on the page more broadly seen, the small size of the headline type within the box made the recall of the story weaker.

Finding 2: Story Attributes Participants were asked in the post-exposure survey “What was it about the stories you recalled on the page that made you remember them?” Their open responses were analyzed and categorized (for example, if they said “I remembered that story because it happened near where I live.” Or “I drive that highway every day.” the response would have been coded as proximity or familiarity. If they said “I remembered it because of the color photo next to it” it would have been coded as “photo.” Here are the categories and findings:

I have a personal interest in this story 41.0%
I’m familiar with the topic or focus of the story 9.4%
There was something surprising or emotional 9.4%
Size / position of the story on the page 10.5%
Photo 8.4%
They had clicked on the story 5.2%

The attributes of the story and what made people recall them fell into two categories: personal and design. By far (66% vs 24%) it was the personal triggers (interest in the topic, proximity, familiarity, emotional response) rather than design cues (size / position on page, photo, hyperlinked headline) that were given as reasons for recalling the story.

Observations: The old adage “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” probably fits here. If there isn’t interest, the design may well not have any impact.

There is a good deal more observations we can make based on this research, look for more results in future OJR columns.

Five lessons from 2007

We hope that you’ve been reading, enjoying and learning from OJR throughout 2007. But just in case you’ve, um, missed an article or two here is one editor’s humble attempt to distill an entire year’s articles into five simple lessons.

1. Newspapers: Get a breaking news blog

I asked several friends of OJR to suggest their favorite news sites and features of the past year, and many Southern California neighbors pointed toward the coverage of this year’s wildfires by the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune’s

In May, I wrote about the Los Angeles Times’ use of a breaking news blog to keep readers informed about that month’s wildfires, which struck the city’s popular Griffith Park.

Blogs are the ideal format for breaking news, as they allow newsrooms to swiftly publish little bits of information, as they are confirmed, and without having to weave them into a traditional story format. They also make it easy for readers to see “the latest” on a developing story, rewarding the reader and making it easier for traditional-print newsrooms to compete with the immediacy of broadcast media.

2. Get widget love

Text, photos and video are just three of the tools available to online news publishers, with which to engage readers and hook ’em into spending more time with your site.

Millions of Web readers are using online widgets, from embedded YouTube videos to online polls, to dress up their blogs, personal websites and Facebook and MySpace pages. There’s nothing keeping news publishers from using these same tools, as well.

  • The LAT and SignonSanDiego employed Google Maps in addition to blogging, to help readers see where the fires were, in relation to their homes and workplaces.
  • Easy-to-use online polling tools can help news publishers provide an attractive way to get readers to contribute their first bits of content to a website, leading them into discussions and other ways of participating on the site.
  • Check out OJR’s “to-do” guide on publishing tools, for more low- and no-cost widgets that you can employ to help spice up the functionality of your webpages.
  • And don’t forget the Web’s original interactive widget: hyperlinking, which can help enliven any news story by providing additional context and background, without interrupting its narrative flow.

    3. Learn from sports how to engage readers

    While newspaper websites tend to do well in moving pageviews and attracting audience during major breaking news events, most of such sites do a poor job to drawing traffic and building community on a daily basis.

    With one exception. At most newspapers websites I’ve encountered, the same section of the site consistently leads in traffic, comments posted to the site and inbound links from other sites.

    That’s sports.

    Sports provides the best training ground for managing reader comments, its columnists transition well to blogging, and sports desks tend to have many writers and editors who are heavy Web users themselves, allowing them to bring all the pieces together in compelling and heavily read Web productions.

    Not to mention that sports reporters tend to have no fear of data, using sports stats on a daily basis. So the next time you are assigned to put together a new online publishing project, why not bring on some help from your sports department — or look to a sports blogger for inspiration?

    4. Ask readers for information, not articles

    The failure of one “citizen journalism” Web business after another this year ought to be showing news publishers that a business model based on readers doing reporters’ jobs for free isn’t working.

    That does not mean that readers do not have information that can build the foundation for a website. Or that readers are unwilling to share that information. It’s just that they are not, except in rare or special circumstances, going to produce that information within or according to traditional journalism story formats.

    Instead, ask for information in nuggets: A photo, a short eyewitness report or a questionnaire. Use crowdsourcing techniques to collect sets of data that you can use to provide a well-reported investigative feature or breaking news package.

    User-generated content powers many of the Web’s most popular sites, from blog communities to discussion forums to photo-sharing and other social networks. News publishers can better employ the power of “UGC” for journalism if they resist the temptation to see content-generating users as replacements for reporters and start looking at them as great potential sources.

    5. Call out the liars

    The new year will challenge all online news publishers. Not because the new year will bring its own news stories, new website competitors and new temptations for readers’ time. Almost certainly, 2008 will see the popping of the housing bubble drag the U.S. economy into recession. That will further endanger ad revenue even as publishers hope for election-year campaign advertising to surge.

    How do you distinguish yourself among all this information competition? Don’t rely on the value of and goodwill toward your publications “brand.” If that was gonna bail you out, it would have already. No, news publishers need to provide information that is more timely, more accurate, and above all, more useful and rewarding to their readers in order to claim a larger share of what might be in 2008 a shrinking ad revenue pie.

    Readers today are drowning in lies: People lying about their employment and income to get home mortgages. Mortgage lenders lying about their borrowers’ lies. People lying about relationships and pre-existing conditions to get health insurance. Politicians lying about criminal investigations, CIA tapes, Iranian nuclear programs, disaster preparations, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, etc.

    The news sites that prosper in 2008 and beyond will be the ones that do not leave their readers hanging with “he said, she said” coverage, but that report aggressively to reveal to readers who’s lying and who is telling the truth.

    The online medium is changing journalism. But not just to make it a 24/7, global, clickable and interactive. By unleashing fresh competition on the field, it is pressuring established newsrooms to wake up from their lazy practice of stenography-as-journalism, and start calling out the liars again.

    Now, whether those newsrooms respond to that pressure by stepping up their reporting… or by badmouthing the ‘Net, is up to their leaders.

    We’ll see what happens in 2008. Happy holidays!

  • Bloggers organize international day of support for Burmese freedom

    As the world awaits the U.N. briefing on this week’s peace talks in Myanmar, the chaos and violence on the ground ensues. The rising death toll is estimated in the hundreds, with injuries and arrests mounting by the day. But anyone outside the country’s borders is virtually in the dark as to how the situation is now unfolding.

    That was not the case this time last week.

    On Friday, Sept. 28, the Myanmar government effectively shut down all cell-phone and Internet communication, stunting a citizen-journalism movement that had itself drawn international recognition.

    The state-controlled media in Myanmar has been tight-lipped, to say the least. Communication with international news organizations has been spotty, and soldiers continue to turn reporters away at the borders. The message has been clear: “Nothing to see here.”

    But armed with cell phones, cameras and laptops, common citizens and protesters stepped in to expose the conflict in real time. Some ran blogs of their own. Many dispatched pictures and videos of police violence to off-shore bloggers and news sites. Either way, they loosened the government’s chokehold on communication.

    Now, with the ebb and flow of information from within at a standstill, the offshore sites are left to sustain awareness. A brand-new site out of Germany,, calls on bloggers around the world to post a “Free Burma” awareness graphic on any posts today, Oct. 4. Organizer Philipp Hausser talked to us about “International Bloggers’ Day For Burma” and the impact of Myanmar’s citizen-journalist phenomenon.

    Online Journalism Review: First off, can you tell me a little about the history of your site?

    Phillip Hausser: The original idea came from a Blogger in Italy. The well-known German blogger Robert Basic had an idea “to do something” and asked what could be done. Many comments; different opinions. Everything was discussed in a Wiki and the idea of an international blogger day was born.

    Christian Hahn [Hausser’s partner] and I found that this was a good idea to show the people in Burma our solidarity for their peaceful protests. To help the action to get better organized (the wiki was and is still very unorganized) we decided overnight to set up the domain and build a website.

    OJR: And how have results been so far?

    Hausser: It’s now in seven different languages, with an overwhelming success: Over 10,000 visitors came just in the first 24 hours, and over 30,000 visitors to date. The site [launched] Sunday.

    The reason for so many visitors is a good working network. People spread the message within ours around the globe and many people joined.

    And yes, the support was great! We reached many, many people in almost every country and had media coverage around the globe – all in 4 days.

    Let’s see what happens on Oct. 4.

    OJR: What sort of goals have you set for the site?

    Hausser: The situation in Burma is getting more and more quiet in the last days; not because of a better situation, but because the military is trying to avoid any outgoing communication.

    We want to keep this “burning topic” on top in the media. The bloody pictures are getting fewer every day, and the media are losing their interest to report about the topic. We want so set a peaceful sign to keep it on peoples’ minds.

    OJR: Do you have a sense of how effective the government shutdown of Internet and cell-phone lines has been? How long did it take to figure out that outside communications had been halted?

    Hausser: We/the bloggers realized very quickly that there was no more connection to Burma. Hours later the media spread the news. And yes, it was effective. Most blogs about Burma are written outside Burma (see our blog list on the blogs inside stopped refreshing and the remaining bloggers are afraid for their lives. They have taken pictures of themselves down from their blogs so the government can’t find them. Everybody there is in danger.

    OJR: What are citizen journalists in Myanmar doing now to get information out of the country? Have they been able to get around the government barriers? If so, how?

    Hausser: Not sure. But we know that it is not easy. They talk/write less about Burma every day. We try to stop that.

    OJR: How are the off-shore blogs and sites like yours dealing with the block of information flow?

    Hausser: To be honest, currently I’m more and more dealing with interviews and communication than working for the page. The response is overwhelming, more than we ever expected.

    OJR: You’ve really tried to spread the word with Wiki, Digg, Facebook, Flickr, etc. How successful have those social media tools been in spreading awareness?

    Hausser: Facebook is not directly connected with us, but they are promoting the action. Top referrers are Stumbleupon and We used Flickr for the graphics collection, and the wiki as a democratic element to collect ideas, translations and everything else.

    OJR: Finally, do you have a particular, numeric goal in mind for the big Burma blog day on Oct. 4?

    Hausser: No, nothing. The visitor counter is growing very rapidly, as are subscriptions (see the news page for updates). But like I said: This is more than we ever expected, and no one knows what’s going on today/tomorrow. But I’m sure it will be a lot!