June 13, 2024 , in technology


The Enduring Power of Print

While news content continues to migrate online, studies show that many readers still prefer to read news in a printed format. In addition, analysis of reading behavior shows that printed newspapers and magazines favor information intake and engagement in ways that online formats are not able to fully reproduce. We look at what digital publishers can learn from print newspapers.

Eidosmedia Print Newspapers

Print Newspapers | Eidosmedia

Whether it’s out of habit, nostalgia, or an actual preference for the printed word, there are still plenty of readers who love print newspapers. In fact, despite a continued move toward online formats, the print newspaper still holds its own in many markets.

The Press Gazette reports, “In the UK, 54% of people now prefer reading news content online than in print newspapers – and the preference is even stronger in the US where it is 60%.” When it comes to magazines, however, the reverse is true - the printed layout is generally preferred.

Research shows these preferences are, in part, due to print-format features that digital formats are not always able to emulate. This fact, and the cost savings due to emerging AI-driven layout automation, could give the printed newspaper a new lease on life.

Harnessing the unique advantages of print media

Conventional wisdom tells us that digital formats provide better, more efficient, user experiences than printed newspapers. However, Damon Kiesow, a professor of journalism professions and co-author of a study from the University of Missouri observed, “We feel newspapers are fulfilling some sort of need in a person’s daily life that is not currently being effectively fulfilled with the digital experience. The contextual clues that help tell readers what stories are important, why they should care about what stories they are reading and where to locate the news that is most important to them, are being weakened by structures missing in digital news.”

Guiding the reader experience

Essentially, the research team believed print newspapers use various surfaces, layouts, colors, and labels to contextualize a news story and guide readers in navigating the content. Meanwhile, digital has abandoned many of the benefits of print publications in favor of endlessly scrolling pages, algorithms that suggest more content, and other digital conveniences. Kiesow said, “Publishers should be looking at elements such as navigation and labels, but also how contextual signals are carried across platforms, including social media, where first impressions of what the news is about are often initially formed before a click occurs. What news organizations should be doing is testing and designing their digital platforms more for understanding, rather than just usability.”

The distraction of digital

Digital environments are inherently distracting, and many of the convenient tools publishers use to add context to stories, earn money, or keep users engaged can sometimes backfire, driving users away from the very content they are reading.

The most obvious example of these attention-killing digital tools is the pop-up ad. Science Daily reports on a Polish study that measures brain activity in people reading online content: “First, the presence of online advertisements influenced participants' concentration.” They deduced this by observing a drop in beta activity in the frontal/prefrontal cortical areas. That’s not all the researchers found: “Secondly, the appearance of the advertisement induced changes in the frontal/prefrontal asymmetry index.”

Add in links to supplemental content or sources, suggestions for further reading, and the myriad of distractions on the web, and publishers have a recipe for reader distractions. It’s little surprise that another study from a University of North Dakota professor found students of all ages learn better when they use printed textbooks. According to the Hechinger Report, “Some experts think the glare and flicker of screens tax the brain more than paper. Others argue that spatial memory for the location of a passage or a chart on a physical paper page can help a student recall information. Digital distraction and the temptation to browse or multi-task is an obvious problem in the real world. But internet browsing or app checking wasn’t allowed in the controlled conditions of these laboratory studies.”

It’s easy to see how these findings have implications for news readers as well, but digital media is not going anywhere anytime soon. So, the question is, what can digital news outlets learn from printed newspapers?

Adapting print principles to digital design

Print newspapers have had centuries to perfect the art of laying out a publication to draw readers’ attention to what matters, and there’s plenty that digital publishers can learn from print products — and some news sites have already figured that out.

Take, for instance, The Washington Post’s 2015 redesign. At the time, The Poynter Institute reported, “When an editor and designer work together on establishing the priorities for content, then it is up to how typography, sizing of elements and positioning come together to indicate to the reader which is the most important story, as well as the rank and importance of those that follow.”

There are a few easy-to-replicate changes publishers can make to use the tricks print news has developed over decades to help guide digital readers through the experience:

  • Have fewer articles on the homepage, drawing readers’ attention to the most important stories of the day.
  • Vary headline sizes to indicate what’s new and important.
  • Employ simple navigation bars to let readers get to the section they are interested in easily.

Essentially, digital designers may want to take a cue from the hierarchical structure of printed newspapers. No more endlessly scrolling screens with purely chronological feeds. Instead, use editorial and design judgment to help readers prioritize their reading—and, increasingly, you can do this with the help of layout automation.

A new lease of life for print publication?

Although, as we have seen, print has a lot going for it in terms of reading experience, there is no doubt that, printed formats have high production costs - costs that are not always offset by the premium value of print advertising. And one of the top items in print production costs is the labor-intensive layout of print pages that absorbs many hours of skilled manpower for every edition.

That is about to change. Several daily newspapers being produced in Germany have adopted an AI-driven page layout tool integrated into their Eidosmedia editorial platform that reduces time needed to layout a print section from hours to minutes.

This development has the potential to significantly change the business model for print-format news, streamlining the production process and, by reducing costs, closing the competitive gap with digital formats. From being a victim of digital innovation, print-media news publishing may turn out to be a surprising winner.

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