What do we do instead of reading the paper?

For news organisations, especially ones rooted in print, stories have totally changed since the advent of the internet. I don’t just mean our stories, I mean the ones our readers put together internally without noticing it, about what they do and see, constructing the assorted stuff and fluff of the day into a nice neat narrative which contains a sensible answer to the question: What did you do today?

It used to be that “reading the paper” was a single activity, physically and mentally, bounded by the single physical experience of picking up a newspaper and then, well, reading it. Not all of it, probably. Not even necessarily very much of it. Not everyone starts in the same place or cares about the same articles. But even if you read completely different bits of completely different newspapers to everyone else in your office, or even if you just looked at page 3 and the punny headlines and then called it a day, you still called it “reading the paper”. And that’s how it turns up in the story of your day. (What have you done at work so far? Not much, just read the paper and answered some calls.)

It also used to be bounded by the covers of the paper, not by the subjects you pick within it. Which paper do you read? Your identity is to some extent bound up in that brand choice, in the UK at least – people have made good satire about this, and there’s a wider point. Your newspaper said something about you. It featured in the story you told yourself about yourself, as well as the one you told other people. Reading the paper isn’t just learning about the news or the sport or the arts coverage; it’s also an element of your identity, a piece of your personal puzzle. A Guardian reader is not the same thing as a Daily Mail reader. Most people only get one.

Except that’s all gone out the window, now. The Mail Online has god-knows-how-many million readers; the Guardian has a smaller but still reasonably mind-bending number. Both numbers are too big to imagine and you have to resort to comparisons like the population of London. And of course those audiences overlap. They’re both much bigger online than in print, and they both require much smaller commitments in terms of reading – a single article, not a whole paper (whatever a whole paper used to mean, anyway). But also, and this is important, because reading one or two or twenty articles from a single news source doesn’t make me a “reader” in the way that it would if I “read” the paper. Not in the story I tell myself about myself, and not in the story I tell other people.

Which wouldn’t be so hard to manage, if it wasn’t for the first problem. Because actually it’s really easy to miss that you read an article from a newspaper, if what you’re doing is browsing the net or chatting on Facebook or catching up on Twitter. You click a link from the thing you’re doing, you read the link, you click “back”, you carry on. You can do that dozens of times, clicking all over the place, and still it doesn’t turn up in your story of the day as “reading the news”. What are you doing? Just checking Facebook. Or wherever.

Apps take you back to that activity of reading the paper, reading the news, within the nice neat cozy boundaries of a virtual cover even if not a real one. They require certain physical activity, too. It took a while for that to click with me, but I think I get now why print people are comfortable in app space.

But people that actually go to the front pages of news sites online are pretty few and far between, compared to the numbers that just turn up on article pages when they’re in the middle of doing other stuff. So obviously that raises huge issues about making sure that every article page is a good front page, a good gateway into your site, good enough to maybe persuade a couple of those people not to click “back” but to stick around and change what they’re doing. But also it raises issues about the visibility of what news organisations are doing. Because if your readers don’t consciously realise they’re your readers, that has to change the way your brand works.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

5 thoughts on “What do we do instead of reading the paper?”

  1. Spot on Mary. I think what has to change is how news websites work and feel.

    You talk about identity coming from which newspaper is under your arm. People transfer that same identity over when they get apps on a tablet device.

    So what news websites need to do is harness that community/brand feeling more. Make their website more appy.

    Since the Guardian launched their Facebook app I’m bombarded with a great number of friends reading nearly always Guardian articles. Likewise the The Times website feels like an app, it feels like something premium. That goes someway towards that brand identity on the web.

    1. Thanks – and yes, I agree with you. Thinking more about how to personalise experiences to an individual reader would be a start, and I’m genuinely impressed by the HuffPo’s approach to showing friends’ activity on the site and to making the comments section into its own network. Not just making the site more appy, but making it into more of a destination in itself, a place where people want to spend time catching up with their friends and leafing through the news (as far as that’s possible on the web).

  2. I’m sharing this post with my team, Mary – it’s a great explanation of why we need treat everything we do as our shop window.
    We spend so long agonising over homepage design but actually it’s the touches within each article that makes reader (unconsciously, half the time, I’m sure) choose whether to browse some more or bypass further content.
    Dan – good point about Facebook’s Guardian app. The number of my friends reading and sharing Guardian articles is going up all the time, simply because it’s so easy to sign up for, and to install.

    1. Thank you! It’s well worth – if you can – having a look at how first-time users interact with your sites. Overwhelmingly now it seems that first-time users are entering news sites on article pages – it’s the folks who already know who you are and trust you who are coming to the front page. It’s the strongest argument I’ve yet seen for making certain that article pages are working well. And it’s one of the things the Mail Online gets right, of course – that tower of content down the right-hand side of every single article page, enticing you deeper into the site with the promise of gossip and bikinis…

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