Check out the New York Times’ prototype for an article skimmer. As this blog post explains—and judging by the reactions of most commenters—with this skimmer The Times has moved that much closer to replicating the best feature of the print newspaper: the ability to scan the display type for a wide range of articles.
One of the key challenges of the newspaper online is that you often get very little context or textual/visual “hooks” to draw you into the story beyond the hyperlinked headline, as Ethan Zuckerman notes (and as Cass Sunstein laments in describing the lack of an “architecture of serendipity” in online news media). Quoting Zuckerman:
Today’s New York Times has six major stories and seven minor stories on the front page. The major stories, which include headlines, large blocks of text and, in two cases, photos or graphics. Those stories include substantial hooks to interest a reader – 200-400 words of text, plus images, designed to convince a reader to a) buy the newspaper and b) read the body of the story. The seven stories at the bottom of the page include 17-48 words of text as hook, and three include pictures. Count every mention of a page inside the edition you could turn to – the paper equivalent of a hyperlink – and there are 23 links a reader can follow from the front page.
The contrast to the online edition of the Times is pretty stark. Just counting possible links (using a search for anchor tags in the source HTML), there are 423 other webpages linked from the front page. A more careful count, ignoring ads, links to RSS feeds and links to account tools for online readers, gives 315 content links, possible stories or sections a reader could explore from the front page. While there are almost 14 times as many pages for a reader to explore, they’ve got much less information on what links to follow: while twelve stories have text hooks, the wordcount ranges between 10 and 26 words. While there’s a good chance one of those stories might convince you to click on it, you won’t start reading it on the front page, the way you might with the 200-400 word stories in the paper edition. (There are lots more images to choose from – 15, one of which is a video – in contrast to the seven images on the paper front page.)
Okay, so the paper gives 7% as many options to the reader that the online edition does, though provides up to 20 times as much text to get a reader invested in a story. So what? And isn’t this just a function of what medium is good at? If the paper edition of the New York Times could support hyperlinks, wouldn’t there be 300 on the front page? (And if computer monitors were as eye-friendly as printed paper, wouldn’t the Times website feature lots more text?)
Newspapers have at least three public-interest functions. They report news, they offer a space for public debate, and they prioritize news for readers. There are powerful online alternatives for those first two functions. I’m starting to get concerned that there’s not much good thinking about that third critical function.
What do you think?