Stop kidding yourself. Your audience scans print like they scan smartphones.

David Simpson is the director of student media at Georgia Southern University.

Let’s start with my conclusions, because as will become obvious I am not depending on you to read this whole post. Here’s what I conclude about readership of our student newspaper:

  • Our readers are scanning. Period.
  • They are not looking for articles to read.
  • They expect to learn enough simply by scanning.
  • They are not in the market to read for any length of time.
  • Their thought process is NOT this: “The headline, the photo and the pullout quote are interesting, so the article will be interesting.”
  • Their process IS this: “I read the headline and (maybe) the pullout quote. Got it.”
  • In short, they consume print the same way they consume social media on their phones.

And yet I remain determined to publish our student newspaper twice a week. Some of you will conclude that I am way off base about either the conclusions or the continuing value of print, so this may be the point where you say, “Got it,” and swipe. Farewell.

Still here? OK, let’s start with what brings me to “college students consume print like a phone.”

My colleague Samantha Reid and I taught a “Campus Journalism” first-year experience class in fall 2016. The 30 meetings of the class coincided with the 30 publication dates of our student newspaper, The George-Anne. The 23 (later 22) students had to bring in that morning’s edition and spend the first five minutes of class circling every headline, pull quote and paragraph that they read.

(This “circle what you read” survey is suggested by design guru Tim Harrower. And I’m indebted to our graduate assistant Chris Nwankwo for tallying up the circles into one master copy of each edition.)

We’ve done this survey sporadically in past years, often by taking one edition to a journalism class. The results from our first-year students are in line with those earlier surveys. But if you want to consider how much faith to put into our sample, here are details about our class.

  • They’re first-year students, brand new to our campus.
  • All but one of them voluntarily chose to be in a
    “campus journalism” class. (They must take an FYE class, but they have
    dozens and dozens of options.)
  • They always had at least five minutes in class to flip
    through the paper and circle stuff. (They generally needed less than five
    minutes.)

Early in the semester, we might get 14 out of 20-23 students circling a particular headline, which is much higher than anything we had seen with upperclassmen. But after a few weeks, it settled down to a level I’ve seen before. And, also as I’ve seen before, most text articles had zero paragraphs circled. That’s right, not even the lead.

There were exceptions. For example, a major story about problems with campus safety alerts got some readers. But after turning page after page and looking for those circles, the pattern was clear:

  • Readers scan headlines and some photos.
  • If they are interested by the headline or photo, they will scan further to subheads or text boxes.
  • And MAYBE they will read under a subhead.

It’s important to note they do NOT necessarily read beneath the first subhead. They are very comfortable browsing information without regard to the article narrative.

For example, we had a two-page spread recently about an alum who played women’s basketball here and now has transitioned to identify as male. Six students circled the headline. None circled any other text on the first page. But three circled several paragraphs of text under a subhead on the second page.

So I propose that when our readers turn to a page in print, it’s as if they’ve opened their social media app on their phone. What is visible on THIS SCREEN that is interesting? If nothing, then they’re scrolling away.

When a headline is worth reading, readers are in effect stopping their scroll. Now what other information about this topic is being presented on THIS SCREEN? Maybe they’re willing to scroll a little to see another photo and/or read some brief featured text in a box.

But what if there’s a link on the screen to take them to The New York Times or thegeorgeanne.com? What would induce them to CLICK ON THE LINK? It takes a lot. And I think that’s the analogy to a decision to start actually reading an “article” in print. How high is that bar? I would say (half joking), this high:

News rack with bees (2).png

(Source unknown. Reverse image search unhelpful.)

Consider a George-Anne story headlined, “Stun guns and tasers allowed on Georgia college campuses.” The headline got 15 circles, which is very high. And a pullout quote at the bottom of the page got seven, which is still very good. And the actual article got zero. Not even the lead got one circle. So people were interested in the topic, but it was just too high a bar for them to trust that it would be worthwhile to read the article. (Bees, I tell you!)

Ditto this story, “Multiple reports of car break-ins in Statesboro.” The headline and pullquote each got nine circles. The story got zero circles.

On many other stories, I could see people browsing just about everything EXCEPT the article. We had a major criminal verdict in a student death. The opinion editor interviewed four students for reaction, presented their views in individual boxes with their photos, and began with a brief text article explaining the background and methodology. Seven of our sample class members circled the headline, and the four pullouts with individual students got 6-7 views each. The writer’s intro got three circles – good compared to other articles, but it probably would have done better if it had been formatted as bullet points instead of an article.

When I’ve seen text getting no circles in the past, my takeaway has been that we needed to do better at getting good photos and graphics and points of entry for stories. And those things still are true. But seeing no paragraphs of text circled even when many people circled the accompanying headlines, subheads and pullquotes leads me to believe that the bar is very, very high to get people to read something that looks like a straight article.

My intent here is not to say we should never write an article. It is to say that when we want people to read something of any length, we’re going to have to work a lot harder to get people to “click” on it and then to stay with it. I think that means clever treatment of type and an understanding of browsing behavior throughout the design. Yes, user experience.

This is by no means a new idea, but I think we need many more short pieces, organized well, in place of what are now “medium” articles. And then let’s devote serious time and attention to the few pieces that really deserve to be read at length.

By the way, we know this is the format millennials prefer. Nielsen tells us that millennials aren’t reading print newspapers, but they read print magazines at higher rates than Baby Boomers. Cosmo, Vogue and Rolling Stone are attracting millennial print readers. Pick up a copy. Does that magazine look like your student newspaper?

So this is where many student journalists will say, “This guy wants us to dumb down our newspaper.”

I submit Popular Science, circulation 1.2 million. I think it’s safe to say its readers are above average education and are pretty interested in the subject matter. (Most of them pay for it.) Certainly Popular Science readers would seem more likely to read whatever is offered than our average student newspaper reader. So Popular Science writers can just write an article, right?

The issue of Popular Science I scanned last week had exactly ONE conventional article. That was the cover story, which was LONG. Its first few pages were heavily designed, then the editors just draped the jump all over the back of the book. (I’m guessing they think almost nobody reads that far.)

Everything else was quick and to the point. Either the text guided the reader through an infographic, or it was a fairly short burst with a compelling photo, or the “article” was broken up in distinct, independently scannable pieces. For example:

Popular science health page.jpg

I mentioned I’m still in favor our twice-a-week print schedule. The newspaper still makes a profit (advertising revenue less marginal cost of publishing), and I believe it reaches many students who would never consciously consume “campus news” via any other medium.

But I’m not here to tell you how all this should translate to your publication schedule, your audience and your staff. I’m here to challenge your assumptions about what your audience is reading and why it’s not reading more. And if you’ve read this long, I will show my gratitude by stopping.

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