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Readers consume content differently now, say neuroscientists: Here’s how publishers can benefit

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A series of studies over the past year have found that news readers are increasingly looking for easy and quick ways to stay updated on what’s happening around them. But the proliferation of news sources makes it difficult for them to choose whom to follow.

In such an environment, publishers who are able to build trust and save readers’ time through brief and timely content updates stand a better chance of growing a loyal and paid subscriber base.

The best indicator of a paying reader

The Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative recently revealed findings from the analysis of anonymous reader and subscriber data from the Chicago Tribune, Indianapolis Star and San Francisco Chronicle.

The study concludes that a regular reading habit is the best indicator a reader will continue to pay for news or turn into a paying subscriber. It trumps the number of stories read or time spent reading them.

A 2018 survey by American Press Institute looking into news consumption behaviors found that 4 in 10 Americans scanned headlines several times a day, and another 3 in 10 said they did so once a day.

Going for the scanners and skimmers

Harvard-trained neuroscientist and expert on the science of reading Maryanne Wolf wrote in a 2018 Guardian article (selected for Guardian’s best of 2018) that skim reading had become the normal way of reading.

While her article delved into how skim reading is rewiring our brains, the central idea that humans are increasingly adopting this habit is something that deeply affects publishers.

When combined, these findings indicate that news publishers can build regular reading habits in their readers by providing them with curated and skimmable content. This content can be in the form of brief “snackable” summaries that lead to deeper pieces for those who are interested.

Publishers like the New York Times and Washington Post already have homepages that help readers get a general idea of what’s happening around them that they should know. They have important headlines with brief descriptions which are apt for scanners and skimmers.

Most local news outlets are not yet doing enough for readers who check-in for quick updates, thus losing out on the opportunity for encouraging reader engagement, increasing consumption and fostering loyalty.

According to Ken Doctor, President at Newsonomics, “I don’t see products out there that acknowledge that that’s how people will use their news websites. What I see most often is a kind of the same list of headlines. What you’re talking about is a notion that was talked about even 20 years ago – here’s your five-minute afternoon report, for instance.”

“The major check-in behavior that newspapers have figured out is the creation of the newsletter. The newsletter essentially gives readers an edited version of ‘Here’s what you need to know this morning or this evening or this afternoon.’ The ones that are well done have very good open rates. So that’s the major way they have dealt with that.”

Overcoming barriers to staying well informed

Another 2018 survey by Gallup in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation had 58% of respondents stating that staying well informed is difficult. According to the analysts, the growing number of news sources and platforms are barriers to staying well informed.

They state in the report, “The explosion of information is a defining feature of the modern media landscape. Many Americans find this transformation daunting.”

However, according to the American Press Institute study, “While people are alarmed about the state of media, they are able to find publications and sources that they not only trust but that they think are improving.” It found that Americans’ level of trust in their preferred news source, had increased (32%) rather than decreased (13%).

A neat way to build reader trust

One way to build trust is by providing readers with background information to their stories. This will not be applicable to skimmers, but those who opt to go deeper can be provided with such information.

The idea comes from the findings of a new study by the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, which says that providing readers with supplementary information on how a journalist approached a story may be effective in building reader trust.

The study looked into the effect news articles had on reader trust when they were accompanied by an “explain your process” box, as well as without it.

Source: Neiman Lab

People who viewed a news article with the box rated it significantly higher on 11 of the 12 attributes of trust compared to people who saw the same story without the box. The attributes include being transparent, accurate, informative, fair, credible, unbiased, and reputable.

Source: Neiman Lab

The proliferation of news sources and the easy availability of too much information creates information overload. People want to stay updated but have a limited capacity for consuming information. That’s why they look for trustworthy sources that can satisfy their information requirements quickly and with little effort.

According to Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute, news websites should aim to cater to people in a hurry, as well as those eager to invest their time for a deeper understanding.

He says, “You need to be a place that gives people quick updates so they feel informed and then they can dive in deeply on a couple of pieces a day that they want more on.”

Add the trustworthiness factor to the mix, and publishers can be on solid ground to cultivate a loyal and paying readership.