Early lessons from Poynter's Eyetrack07

The Poynter Institute has a long tradition of doing ground-breaking research. The latest is Eyetrack07, the fourth of their eyetracking projects over the past 16 years. They went to four cities (Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and St. Petersburg) to look at the patterns of reading in broadsheet, tabloid, and on- screen publications. In all, 600 participants (200 for each of the media) were tested.

On April 10-12, the Poynter Institute held a conference – “EyeTrack07 – Discover Its Power” – billed as a pre-publication party (the book of findings is being edited by Dr. Pegie Stark Adam and is due out in June). Attendees included the vast team involved in the project, the news organizations that collaborated with them, and editors, researchers, and media consultants who hoped to find actionable insights from the findings.

In the opening speech veteran news designer Mario Garcia presented a timeline of Poynter’s research work in the areas of design and reading patterns.

The first, in 1990, used eyetracking equipment to see how people’s eyes moved around the printed news page. The key findings from this study included:

  • Readers enter a printed page thru the largest image on the page.
  • A majority read the headline before going to the text.
  • Photo captions were the third most frequently visited part of the page.
    These findings influenced newspapers’ use of photos on front pages and the understanding of how important clever headline writing is.

    The second, in 2000, focused on how people moved through news websites and found that, unlike with print, online readers entered the page through text and headlines – not images. This showed, as Dr. Garcia told the group, how the Web was more like a book in which people want their text in a flow uninterrupted by images. The rise of the photo slideshow was a response to this.

    The third, in 2004, further focused on online reading behavior. The study (conducted by co-columnist Laura Ruel with Steve Outing) used less invasive eyetracking equipment and relied on mocked up news pages to test different aspects of the online reading experience. Key findings from this study included:

  • Dominant heds most often draw the users eye first when entering the screen
  • Eyes fixated first in the upper left corner of the page.
  • Top navigation was most readily seen and used.
  • Shorter paragraphs were read more than longer ones.
  • Ads in the upper left and the top of the homepage received the most attention.
    Actionable advice from this study included the need for attention-grabbing words at the start of headlines, greater use of “chunking” text into short grafs, and the preference for one column formats for stories rather than multi-columns.

    What this study showed, too, was that larger font text was quickly scanned and smaller fonts engaged in depth reading. It was clear that reading was being done online.

    And that brings us to the latest Poynter eyetrack study – an attempt to discover differences in reading patterns between different media and formats of news presentation – broadsheet, tabloid, and online.

    The research team drew up a set of issues they hoped to have the project address:
    1. Have we lost our ability to read in depth?
    2. Are we a society of scanners?
    3. Has the newspaper habit disappeared from most people’s lives?
    4. In a multimedia society how can the various media compete and survive?
    5. Can a real fusion of online and print truly exist?
    6. Do readers actually read and retain info online?
    7. Are large formatted papers more likely to disappear than small format?
    8. What is the role of advertising in a multi-platform environment?
    9. What is the new definition of news?
    10. What role will mobile appliances play in newsgathering and disseminating?

    In 600 research sessions, they recorded participants’ eye movements as they looked through one of the three media formats, resulting in more than 102,000 “eye stops” (demonstration of significant interest in the element of the page / screen being looked at) which were coded and analyzed by researchers at the University of Florida. In all, over the course of five months, 30 days of published material was recorded:

  • 2,364 broadsheet stories (average no. of stories read – 11.8)
  • 2,188 tabloid stories (average no. of stories read – 10,0)
  • 2,306 online stories (average no. of stories read – 11.9)

    In the major findings revealed in the opening day of the session, a few of these questions were apparently addressed. Here are some of the conclusions from the research that are particularly relevant to online news reading in comparison to print reading behavior.

    Reading thoroughness:

    Once people chose what they wanted to read they read more thoroughly online than in print.

  • Online readers read both short and long stories more completely than either broadsheet or tabloid readers (online 62% of the text of stories longer than 19 inches was read compared to 52% in tabloid and 49% in broadsheet.)
  • Online readers, overall, read an average of 77% of the stories they chose to read.
    Implication? Can we get over the longing for the “good old days” when supposedly people sat and read the newspaper cover to cover? It is clear that once engaged, the online reader stays with the text of a story longer than the newsprint reader. What might this mean for online news design. Does this, for example, argue for the placement of supplemental links 3/4ths of the way down the news story since interested readers seem to get that far?

    Reading styles:

    There were two reading styles revealed in the research – methodical readers and scanners. The “methodical” reader is described as someone who reads from top to bottom, without scanning, moving down the page / screen and sometimes going back to re-read material. The “scanner” would move quickly from headline to photos to reading part of a story without going back to the same place in the text. The eyetracking showed:

  • 75% of print readers were methodical.
  • Online readers were evenly split between methodical and scanners.
    Implication? In the newsprint world one size, by necessity, fits all – and a majority of readers have developed a habit of newspaper reading fits the medium. Not so online. One of the ongoing challenges for online news design is accommodating readers with different levels of interest – how do you provide both the quick hit news and in-depth content. Now, knowing that the audience is split between two different types of readers, how can online news be designed to engage both types of behaviors. Would it be a reader service to provide alternative second level story pages – one designed in regular column format with few graphic distractions for the methodical reader and one with multiple story sets with images and graphics to facilitate scanning behavior?

    Reading entry points:

    The first stop and second stop points, those places where the eye initially and secondarily fixated, differed by medium:

  • Broadsheet: Headlines then photos
  • Tabloid: Photos then teasers (directionals)
  • Online: Navigation bar / teasesrs (directionals) then headlines or ads
    Implication? Giving online readers guidance to where content can be found and featuring / teasing to stories you want to showcase will get their attention. Headlines guide readers to those stories they might be interested in and, once they are interested, those stories will be read quite thoroughly. There is much more to be studied about how this finding might help lead readers to stories that fulfill that “need to know” mission of the news organization.

    How graphics were viewed:

    Different graphic elements drew the attention of different media readers:

  • Broadsheet: Explanatory graphics drew the most “eye stops.”
  • Tabloid: Charts were most frequently viewed.
  • Online: 88% of the eye stops on graphics went to maps, including weather and traffic.
    Implication? The Web is a learner’s medium. Maps provide specific, actionable information, particularly when it is constantly refreshed with the latest information (as with weather or traffic.) This also might argue for greater attention to the use of mash-ups as a way to display geo-specific information and reference.

    What got looked at online?

    The eye stops data from the online readers was analyzed to see what content elements were most frequently fixated on by users. Here is the heartening, or depressing, statistics on what, out of 11,400 eye stops, got viewed:

  • Story lists: 35%
  • Teasers / directionals: 27%
  • Ads: 18%
  • Blogs: 4%
  • Photo galleries: 3%
  • Podcasts: 1%
    Implications? Segmenting content by its form (photo gallery, blog, podcast) rather than by its subject content may well be marginalizing.

    Interesting future research might look at how packaging relevant alternative material with key related news stories improves the use of this supplemental information as the Washington Post does with its sidebar links to a collection of relevant photos or to “Who’s Blogging?” that specific article.

    These are just some of the preliminary findings from what promises to be a deep and much discussed research project. Project leaders Sarah Quinn and Pegie Stark Adam have provided online news designers and those interested in deeper research into what works, and why, online with a rich vein of data and I, for one, am looking forward to the final report of findings. If you are, too, information can be found at http://eyetrack.poynter.org/.

  • Teaching the future of journalism

    Convergence? It’s dead. No, it’s alive. No, it lurches through the battlements like the Ghost of Hamlet, joined by other media visions: Community, Authenticity, Diversity, Objectivity, even (“most horrible”) Who Is A Journalist.

    We struggle to capture these phantasms, to define them and straighten them up to do good things for us. Bloggers besieging the gates tell us to not even try. To define is to destroy, they say. Meanwhile, corporate media strategies tend to kill innovation and revert to established practices in deference to “limited resources,” tradition-grounded careers and returns on investment — not first and foremost to share knowledge and foster discourse through new media.

    If the critics are right, if “convergence” is better left undefined and free to roam, where does that leave journalism educators — and all those who have a stake in seeing that journalism schools adopt “best practices”? How can we tell where the media industry is going and what should we be doing in response?

    I reported on this topic for OJR a year ago, and it’s helpful to look at how much issues involving convergence in the classroom have changed in 12 months. In the past year, newsrooms have begun to treat convergence differently, to see it as a solar system of loosely connected functions, rather than a hard-wired fusion of media. As bloggers and independent niche online publishers attract fast-growing audiences, media executives feel pressed to invest in experimentation. They seem more aware that prizes go to the swift, the nimble and the daring.

    As in the OJR article last year, the focus in this story comes from an annual three-day seminar held at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., titled “Convergence Journalism for College Educators.” Al Tompkins, the institute’s group leader for broadcast/online, and Howard Finberg, interactive learning director/news, led 24 educators in discussions from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1. I was on the visiting faculty, joined by Victoria Lim, who each day spans WFLA-TV/Tampa Tribune/tbo.com with her consumer coverage, and Rob Curley, the director of new media at the Naples Daily News and the creative maverick of convergence.

    The educators, most of them experienced journalists, described the place of online journalism in their schools’ curricula, how they saw convergence as an impetus for change, how their schools were responding to the need for new courses, and what they felt their schools lacked. There was a wide variety of questions raised — about coursework and faculty staffing, technology and facilities, and the direction of the journalism profession in general. Participants also wanted to make sure students continued to learn the basics of grammar, newswriting and storytelling while experimenting with new technologies.

    If the group had a common plea, it could be this statement: “I want to come back with an answer that works. I want to bring everyone out from the dark corners of the campus, a community effort that will involve everyone.”

    These are big questions, but the good news from the seminar is that, since last year, the concerns have changed. In February 2005, questions were more tentative, the unknowns were more daunting and the proposed solutions were often unconvincing. A year ago, wary faculty members and cost-conscious top administrators were reported to be offering stiff resistance to both journalism curriculum changes and investment in new media facilities.

    Several participants said their deans, provosts and college presidents were now pushing them to teach new media topics, were offering to build facilities and were willing to consider interdisciplinary approaches. Perhaps the heavy enrollments in journalism and communications on their campuses helped sway the decision makers. Whatever the motives, the choices in this seminar were more about “what,” “how” and “how soon,” rather than “whether” or “why.” And most of the good ideas this year came from the educators. Clearly, a lot had been learned. If this seminar is representative, we in academia are much further down the road toward solutions for out-of-date instruction.

    Questions and concerns expressed at the seminar covered a lot of ground, but they fell into identifiable categories that raised issues with specific implications for how we teach journalism. Here are the main concerns, many of them new revelations about convergence, with discussion points that were raised, and at least guidance, if not answers, suggested as paths that educators could pursue:

    1. Online video is not TV news.

    Online video requires different tools than broadcast news and has a different purpose for the audience. Authentic images have become dominant in the online world, superseding both text and traditional TV news presentation. A new medium or “voice” is emerging, Howard Finberg said, one that we should recognize in our classrooms.

    • Broadcast TV news works well on websites and blogs as short segments, cut to illustrate a point or highlight a conflict or outrageous behavior, or to cover a fast-breaking event. On a routine basis, full streaming of news casts, the video equivalent of print shovelware, may be a tough sell.
    • The user chooses online video elements to verify or amplify an event described or showcased by text, often “real” or “raw” images taken by eyewitnesses with video recorders or cell phones. Sources for “reality video” can be Web cams, surveillance cameras, police video, official websites (NASA’s or the Pentagon’s) or global niche sites, such as Islamic online news outlets. Images can range from photos posted on a blog by a U.S. Marine in Iraq to a video taken by insurgents who are shooting at Marines. Propaganda and ideological visuals have value when identified and used in a neutral context (e.g. the many videos available on the horrific power of roadside bombs).
    • The work of online photojournalists has a “raw,” over-the-shoulder viewpoint that may seem chaotic but can help to place the viewer into the scene. As Al Tompkins put it, this natural technique allows the user “to experience information and they will remember what they feel longer than what they know.”
    • This approach stresses accuracy and authenticity over traditional production values. It creates a sense of presence and participation in the scene.
    • The online editor or photojournalist can create multimedia collages, presentations that put control over non-linear narratives and visual perspectives in the hands of the user.

    The Message: Because online video is different, a convergence curriculum that stresses conventional broadcast production, the use of high-end equipment, news teams and text-heavy websites may not be doing students any favors. Not that print and broadcast writing and reporting should be scrap-heaped. More emphasis on “the basics” is badly needed, employers tell us. But all students should be at least exposed to new methods of video and audio storytelling. They may never know when they will need this experience.

    2. New tools, new possibilities

    The online journalist is now free to make use of the medium’s full digital potential, now that broadband capacity has kicked in and content can be aimed at high-speed users. This includes Flash animation, panoramic video and 3-D imagery.

    • News Websites have experimented with “gaming the news” and developing interactive discourse on policy issues with some success. The Washington Post’s “Debate Referee” and MSNBC’s airport baggage search game would be examples. Other news sites have designed interactive tax legislation calculators, “Sims”-like planning options for major public projects and imaginative uses of databases and search functions keyed to news topics.
    • Software makes public policy exercises, “what if” scenarios, more possible for journalists and more compelling for the audience. It is a promising — and growing — area of new media that is being exploited by forward-looking news organizations.
    • Data can now be presented through graphic organizers and concept maps. These are new ways to see relationships that could only be enabled by high-speed connections.

    The Message: All students need to understand the importance of immersive environments, “serious” interactive news games and the power of relational databases. Those who plan to go into online operations will have to know Flash, Photoshop and video editing tools as a second digital language.

    3. Trust the audience

    Multimedia storytelling requires the journalist to have a mindset that rejects the authoritarian, hierarchical and simplistic attitudes towards audiences that infect the lamest newsrooms. It calls for a high level of trust that the public is smart and can make reasoned choices about what is important. Successful bloggers and niche websites aim high and assume much in the way of intelligence. In Dan Gillmor’s immortal words: “My readers know more than I do.”

    • The role of the journalist as verifier includes being a guide and advisor to the user. Engineers have a term for this: domain expert. For example, multimedia presentations allow journalists to advise the user that a “raw visual” included in a package of choices is violent and comes from a terrorist website, but that it also carries a truth or perspective that users might not get through mass media. Or, to use another example, a text block might declare the intent of a graphic: “This Flash graphic depicts the number and location of deaths of U.S. military in Iraq; it is not meant as a statement for or against the war; it is neutral information.”
    • Digital software allows news to be faked with ease.

    The Message: Classroom discussions of ethics and threats to credibility may be more necessary than ever, now that viewers have so much control — and so many choices. Instructors have to stay on top of fresh case examples and be able to detect fraud and sleaze. Students need to learn what to look for and how to inform audiences to stay on guard.

    4. Audio directions

    Online audio has singular properties, distinct from radio news, that are taking journalism in new directions, podcasting being the most recent example.

    • News sites, such as Rob Curley’s operation in Naples, are enthusiastically adapting podcasting, cell phones and personal digital assistants to perform both news collection and distribution by means of video and audio. As he puts it, “We try a lot of new stuff. Just in case it does work, we don’t want to suck at it.” This is understatement. As he showed us, new forms of mobile audio and video do work, and his staff of online editors is very good at it.
    • Spontaneous, user-generated audio has similar values to “raw” video by being timely, compact, relevant and authentic.

    The Message: MP3 technology is ripping through all of media. We have to cope with that in the classroom, especially with this generation of students who seem to be born with little white objects in their hands and wires in their ears. But the suite of software and new technology that instructors are expected to be good at keeps expanding. Schools have an obligation to give faculty members time to learn it, or give them the option of bringing in guest instructors, coaches, team teachers — whatever works.

    5. The basics still matter

    Digital tools have limits. Text is still the preferred medium of knowledge transfer for many topics and genres and remains an essential part of the multimedia news package. “Shell packages” of mixed content and collage formats require organization, navigation design, clear presentation and distribution, and appropriate platforms.

    • Students, once reluctant to deal with sophisticated technology, now take to it much more easily — too easily, several educators at the seminar noted. As one put it: “We tell them they still have to care about telling a story, but they think technology will take care of it.”

    The Message: Let’s not surrender too much territory. The basics, including grammar and story construction, still count and employers still put job applicants through traditional skills tests as a condition of hire. Convergence now means that photographers are getting writing tests, print writers are asked to show they can write a radio or podcast script and online applicants have to prove their creativity with images and their grasp of design. All are quizzed about their work ethic and self-motivation. In today’s competitive job environment, the journalism applicant with both a depth and a breadth of skills and a willingness to work at engaging the audience has the edge.

    6. The 24-hour news cycle requires greater creativity and depth

    The Internet puts a greater responsibility on news organizations to operate 24/7 and to expand the criteria of story coverage to topics not dealt with in newspapers and on TV. 24/7 does not have to correlate with vapid news.

    • This approach might be seen as inviting the reader into the newsroom. As Rob Curley describes it: “We give our readers access to the people we have access to,” which includes the timely data that many sources now control. Precinct results in local elections, he said, can be e-mailed to subscribers over night or sent by SMS to cell phones. High school sports scores can be updated by SMS every quarter or half or with the final result, whatever the user prefers.
    • A timely and perhaps controversial video clip can be put on a message board, creating an instant discussion with sharp focus.
    • New topics — or versions of standard ones — can attract a substantial niche audience. Curley said he makes a point of including video of high school marching bands in coverage of sports events. “Our traffic shot up. They never got covered on local TV,” he said. Usage climbed again when his site focused on local entries in the statewide band contest.
    • Many topics lend themselves to creative use of database software. Curley covered a drought by taking a feed from a county computer that monitored well levels. A program turned the data into graphics that operated in real time.
    • Having all news organization employees equipped with video phones gives a 24/7 extension to the newsroom. “We use cell phones a lot,” Curley said. Image quality might suffer but the loss is more than made up by speed and relevance to the audience.
    • Curley constantly experiments with new services on cell phones — wake-up calls, up-to-the-minute alerts on traffic, weather and tides.
    • Curley’s staff sent out questionnaires to every restaurant in the area, 22 questions that allowed creation of a database. “You (the user) can ask questions like, ‘show me the restaurants that are serving sushi right now,'” he said. The database also compiles reports, reviews and comments submitted by the audience. (“A good restaurant, but if your waitress’s name is Brenda, move to another table.”) Curley said restaurant managers often called in with responses, updates and offers to correct flaws.
    • The same approach can be taken when covering city hall, matching up elected officials with searchable databases containing their votes and campaign contributors — or citizen reviews of council actions and imaginative news games. (While in Lawrence, Kan., Curley turned council elections into a form of “Survivor,” a gambit that won him national notice.)
    • Curley believes that local sports coverage can be done in a professional manner right down to T-ball and Little League, including video coverage of games. “It’s awesome when you hear an 8-year-old talking about how he’s ‘seeing the ball better this season.'”

    The Message: Beat coverage is still important — and the traditional beats can’t be ignored. But it doesn’t take much extra time or effort to expand beats into new territory, especially going into more depth. Staying with shallow definitions of news and always going back to the same sources no longer works, especially with 24/7 news on multiple platforms. Timeliness and local topics still come first in news.


    One more word about what we have done at the Annenberg School of Journalism to cope with new visions of convergence. We stress the basics of writing and reporting and production in print and broadcast over three semesters of a Core Curriculum for incoming students and graduate students. We have postponed dealing with online and multimedia journalism until a required survey course for all undergraduate journalism students in the third year. We are now creating upper-level and capstone courses with an emphasis on graphics and technology for those who want to be online journalists.

    No one answer fits. All schools are finding a distinct path. But when it comes to teaching convergence, it’s no longer “if” but “how.”

    'New News' retrospective: Is online news reaching its potential?

    Ten years ago, at the first “New News” seminar held at the Poynter Institute, a group of digital pioneers brainstormed what would be new about online news. They listed what it was that newspapers were not providing that the new digital news space would enable and how the new medium might change news reporting and writing.

    Many of the predictions were based on the idea of the “limitless newshole,” an endless space for providing deep context and satisfying the “give me more” that reporters thought news seekers were craving. The promise of hyperlinking and easier communication between readers and reporters were all high on the list of ways this new news space would change news. Creating new expressive forms of reporting, providing better follow-up on reported stories and crafting new relationships between words and graphics were noted as new potentials for online news.

    Ten years later, just how far have we come in realizing these predictions? How much have we truly leveraged the possibilities of new forms of news writing and reporting online?

    Limitless newshole

    The Promise: In the early days of online news it seemed that its greatest attraction would be online availability of all the information reporters gathered but couldn’t fit into available print column inches.

    The Reality: Online news is still a downstream product. For the most part, the news text comes to the screen after it has been edited for the print – and that means that the “extra” reporting has been edited out already, although there are sometimes exceptions in newspapers’ news sites.

    As Dennis Buster, news editor at Minneapolis-St. Paul’s startribune.com, commented, “Here at the Strib … I haven’t found that it’s a regular practice to insert into Web stories the stuff that was taken out for the newspaper version. But it does happen occasionally. Where I am most aware of it is in reviews, where it seems to happen most often (though it’s still far from an ‘often” occurrence). A late review comes in and has to be trimmed into a hole that has been left for it in the paper. The reviewer has quite a bit of other good stuff that would be beneficial for readers to have access to, so we sometimes get a request that night or the next morning from our features folks to run a longer version of that story. It has happened a few times with sports stories and metro stories, but that has been a VERY rare happening, in my experience.”

    More frequently, this bottomless newshole is being used as an endless news stream for television station video reports. Teresa Moore, executive producer of Web content for WTSP-TV Tampa Bay’s 10, reported: “We stream unedited videos along with stories that ran on our air with shorter soundbites. For example, we’ll post whole interviews online or show whole press conferences live that won’t make it on air. When our reporters do live shots for air – we stream them online and keep them talking about stuff they couldn’t cram into 1:30. You can see this in action, go to http://www.tampabays10.com/news/live.asp and you’ll see reporters come and go around show times. This is still in the beta phase. We’re getting ready to roll some more production behind this. We’re going to brand it – but right now we affectionately call it ‘tampabays10 unplugged’ – like VH1.”

    Give me more

    The Promise: People hungry for context and comprehensiveness would clamor for everything you could package together. The Web would be where people went when they wanted deep content and they would be looking to their news organization to give it to them.

    The Reality: The Web has become an alert service, the place for time-starved but news-hungry consumers. As Rusty Coats, formerly of Mori Research cautioned, “Don’t market your site by saying we’ll give you more. People don’t have enough time now. They don’t want more, they want efficiency. How will your site make their life easier?”

    When news seekers want comprehensive, in-depth coverage they find it themselves through news site hopping. News aggregators like Google News facilitate this. Are you really interested in Bernard Ebbers’ conviction for WorldCom fraud? Google has pulled together links to 1300+ news stories for you.

    Where news sites are taking advantage of the “give me more” nature of the Web is with the packaging of related source materials. Now you can read the transcript or hear the full speech or see the video from the event – these media elements enhance the text story package and provide a sensory “give me more” that was impossible to do with newsprint.

    Another problem realizing the potential of the Web for deep reporting on any particular topic is that there are fewer and fewer newsroom resources available for original, in-depth reporting. Look at most online news sites – what percent of the coverage is wire copy? Pack news judgment reigns in most news organizations. No wonder there has been a rise in niche news sites, bloggers who consult esoteric sources and discussion areas where people intensely interested in particular topics can get more and different news than they will from their still geo-focused local newspaper.


    The Promise: Hyperlinking was going to be the biggest enhancement to online news. Through links, news producers would be able to send their news audience to related stories on their own site, to important stories offsite and to essential Web sites where more information could be found. This Web of news would provide greater context and allow for news consumers to find in one spot all the information of interest related to the story they are reading.

    The Reality: The promise of linking hit the reality of production. Few news sites regularly link to outside Web sites because 1) it takes time to find and verify the authenticity of the sites you send your customers to and 2) who wants to send customers off to another site? As for linking to related stories within the news site, this is more common, but not nearly as routine as it should be. (A recent check of the New York Times Online front pages stories showed no stories with external links and internal links only to “Most E-mailed Stories,” “top articles” or “related stories” – most of which required a payment of $2.95 in order to read.)

    The issue is one of time, but also of information management and the packaging of ongoing news coverage. Some news sites have taken routinely covered topics in their region and made them into “story shells” (a term coined by Jane Ellen Stevens – see related OJR story) where current stories sit on top of the other coverage. This requires a rethinking of news divisions on sites that, for the most part, mimic the newsprint sections and a determination of which areas will have ongoing coverage. A micro-site would be designed to hold all the relevant material (more about this below in “Follow-up on stories.”)

    Communication between reporter and reader

    The Promise: No longer would communication with readers be “us to them” — now we would have two-way communication. This new communication paradigm would democratize news, making the reader the correspondent, inviting in their stories and viewpoints. It would also help inform reporters about the readers’ real world interests and concerns.

    The Reality: nytimes.com does, but washingtonpost.com doesn’t. USATODAY.com doesn’t, startribune.com does. Having bylines linked to e-mail for their reporters is not at all the common practice that was promised, in the early days, as one of the great benefits of online reporting.

    Reporters who do make their e-mail addresses available find that this is a powerful way to stay in touch with their readers, to get story tips and to tap into the expertise of their audience. But others still consider it to be a potential time suck and would just as soon keep the communication flow going one way. As for facilitating communication between readers through forums and chat areas online, these continue to be conversational cul-de-sacs, for the most part – dead-ending in the forum. They are not being read by reporters who could use them to cull interesting ideas and people.

    Blogs promise to bring in a new wave of communication linkage between reporters and their audiences. Dan Gillmor’s famous statement that “my readers know more than I do” honors this idea that a dialogue rather than a lecture will lead to richer reporting. The Weblog form (see “New expressive reporting styles” below) has hit mainstream newsrooms from the sports desk, to business, to political columnists. But many of them, like Daniel Weintraub’s California Insider, for example,
    (user registration required) don’t have comments links – so they are still just one way communications, a new form, yes, but same old flow out only.

    The harshest reality that news organizations have to face is that readers are finding each other, cutting out the “middle man.” The lackluster support and catchall nature of news sites’ forum areas have sent most dedicated posters to sites where the community they are seeking is much richer and livelier. Disease sufferers, tropical plant growers, music fans, political polemicists, tree-huggers, and do-it-yourselfers have all found places for conversation, advice, and support — and it isn’t the news site. It has been said that the role of the newspaper is to get a community into conversation with itself. Well, the newspaper’s hoped-for role has been abdicated to any number of online discussion areas.

    How I wrote the story

    The Promise: This abundant newshole we talked about earlier would also make it possible for news organizations to provide some transparency in their reporting. Reporters would let readers behind the scenes to hear how the news was gathered. Much like the trend that was happening in investigative reporting when the methods for data gathering and analysis became interesting sidebar material, it was felt that the online news space would allow reporters to let people into the news process.

    The Reality: Multimedia has helped to make this promise a reality in a lot of online news packages. The growing practice of creating slide shows with audio overlays about the pictures that are being seen, and the story behind them, is bringing a conversational, insider tone to news reports. In some cases it is the photographer who is telling the story behind the pictures, other times it is the reporter telling the story. A mix can be seen at the New York Times Multimedia page. This type of story, often supplementing the regular text style report, brings a more human side to news coverage and lets people feel more involved in the process.

    New expressive reporting styles

    The Promise: Online reporting would allow reporters to have a new news vernacular, more informal. They would be able to tell stories in new, non-linear ways. The pyramid style report could be blown up.

    The Reality: As noted before, most online news content continues to be the same news text from offline displayed online. The same reporting forms. The same AP style. But there are sections of the news site that have supported new expressive forms: blog columns and forums. The blog format being used by some columnists and reporters provides a much more conversational approach to the news, the sort of insider dialogue between cohorts that makes the blog such an appealing form. This more informal style of writing and the openness to sharing of ideas that blogs represent are important steps towards realizing the early promise of new reporting styles. In addition, reading forum areas on news sites certainly takes people away from newspeak into the vernacular.

    Follow-up on stories

    The Promise: Newsprint reporting is, of necessity, episodic and short-lived. Online reports can be encyclopedic and have a long shelf-life. This was the great promise of the online news site – its archival potential could create evolving news reporting that could keep developments in short-term and longer-range news stories up-to-date.

    The Reality: Some news sites are using the archival nature of the Web to create ongoing coverage sites of important news topics. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Traffic site and the Lawrence Journal-World’s Legislature site with its cumulative coverage of legislative issues are good examples of this use of the Web. Even updating individual stories is being done. The Orange Country Register’s “Toxic Treats” series offers updates about more recalls or state-wide actions to curb the distribution of these dangerous candies.

    New relationships between words and graphics

    The Promise: New storytelling software that would make the merging of words and images easier would change the way stories were packaged and presented.

    The Reality: The interest in using Flash and other multimedia software for creating new story forms is growing. News sites from organizations of almost every size are playing with animated slide shows and experimenting with new presentations of news. Multimedia stories with images, sounds, and text (as opposed to multiple media packaging where the various media elements sit next to each other rather than being integrated) are being crafted. The reality, though, is that the time it takes to break out of column inch display of news text into new story forms is time that is hard to find.

    People often object to the term “new media” – look, it’s been around for at least a decade. But if you look closely you’ll see that the great promise that was seen for this as a new form of journalism has yet to be fully realized. New methods for crafting and delivering compelling news stories online are still a long way from being fully developed.