“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” –Mark Twain
For more than 100 years, newspapers were the primary source for keeping up with world events. Though heavily criticized for their opinions, deceptive reporting, or ignoring important stories, they were icons of power that could leverage world opinion on any subject.
Newspapers remained as the top medium for information delivery until 1995. But online internet news became so popular, so quickly that newspaper publishers were stunned. Subscribership dropped precipitously. Within a few years, there seemed to be little reason to purchase a newspaper, since the same information, delivered online from many different newspapers, was free and more timely.
When television added all-news cable channels, newspapers faced an additional challenge from which they could never fully recover.
Did online news, and TV cable news result in a better-informed public? The potential for more information reaching more people sooner than ever before seemed possible. But that optimistic result hasn’t materialized. Surprisingly, online news sources have left our population dumber.
Timely Information isn’t free. Users either pay for subscriptions or view free sites earning revenue from advertising. Though some sites offer “premium content” for a small subscription fee, the vast majority of newsreaders peruse only material from free sites.
“Free,” of course, means paid through advertising. Sadly, web advertisers have not learned how to provide advertising that attracts reader attention, results in new business, and earns hefty fees for the website operators. Advertisers have tried various schemes, none of which has been successful. Their current approach combines video with voluminous ad impressions on every page. But each ad earns only a small fee when clicked. So increasing the advertising deluge seems to be their only approach to driving ad revenues.
How does this affect the knowledge level of readers? The challenge begins with online readers accessing the news. Unlike access through opening a newspaper, readers begin with a page of headlines and single-sentence descriptions from a site like Google News. Information on these pages is normally repetitious since it often includes the same basic story repeated several times, as reported by multiple news organizations. The headlines, usually written by someone other than the writer or reporter, are often incorrect or misleading.
Many online newsreaders view only the opening headline page. Compared to “headline-only” readers of newspapers, they glean far less information, since newspaper readers glance at pictures, and subconsciously assign importance to more prominent stories depending on placement and headline size.
Most headline readers click on occasional headlines that interest them and link to the full story. Unfortunately, the story page typically greets them with loud video ads, which the user cannot control or silence. Many pages without videos greet the user with a full-page sales pitch to subscribe to their publication. Once readers figure out how to get rid of that page, they must wade through additional ads before finding the desired story. Many advertisers cut the story into a series of pieces requiring a click on a “next” arrow to access each additional paragraph. The “next” arrows often adjoin another set of similar arrows, to misdirect readers to another ad, thus confusing the reader who loses the thread of the requested story.
The net effect is that a user often has a frustrating reading experience and frequently closes the page after a few seconds. The broader effects include a poorly informed populace and ultimately create confused voters.
Is there a solution to this conundrum? Hopefully, there is. Information providers and advertisers must find a way to make web advertising as effective as it is in newspapers. They need to look closely at the reasons that a newspaper ad catches the reader’s eye, and occasionally leads the reader to look further.
Most of us have learned to accept—sometimes even enjoy—advertising when we receive it in a useful way. Before the advent of online news, the information providers—newspapers, television, and radio–controlled the delivery timing and placement. For example, TV watchers have always expected a few commercials before a show begins as well as occasional commercial breaks. Radio listeners realize that after two or three songs, they will hear and accept a few short commercials. Newspaper readers expect a few ads on every inside page, and may even glance at them, looking for local sales or coupons.
Online readers are different. Users maintain control of where and when they accept ads. If they are interested in a specific product or service, they initiate their search as a separate task. They avoid a deluge of random advertising, because finding what they want in that deluge would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Though the effects seem subtle, the switch to online news media is hurting us. Content providers must find a better way to monetize their products online. If they fail., online news will eventually drift away from the private sector to become a taxpayer-supported government service, like the BBC in the United Kingdom.