Just the Facts: How Technology is Changing the News

It’s 7 AM on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Bush is sending more troops to Iraq, Hillary is running for office, and New York is in for snow. We start out on a chilly 6 train toward midtown. Even though the subway trip is only a short 20 minutes, Paul (29, website director) wastes no time as he rides, reading and deleting e-mail that’s come in overnight. By the time we reach his office, only the e-mail “that matters” is left.

“It’s not just e-mail. I get all my news on my BlackBerry,” he admits. “By the time I get to work, I know everything I need to know for the day.”

Even though he works as a director for a major newspaper website, Paul gets his news primarily through e-mail—not from the newspapers and not from websites. In fact, he doesn’t visit any news websites at all. It’s just not efficient.

“The only currency that counts, after all,” he informs me, “is time.”

A former RSS junkie, Paul knows he has a tendency to become overwhelmed by too many websites, too many sources, and too many choices. Now, Paul only subscribes to e-mail newsletters that reflect his specific interests and waits for the news to come to him.

“You don’t need to read anything more than the headlines?” I wonder out loud as I watch him scroll through newsletter headlines, never clicking.

“Since I subscribe to so many newsletters, I see the same headlines over and over. I understand the stories because I’m seeing the headlines from so many sources. And I just can sort of infer.”

Meanwhile, it’s 9 AM on the Upper West Side, and Rebecca (38, graduate student) positions her cup of coffee between her ashtray and her iBook, creating a horizontal symmetry of consumption before her on the desk. “I like all my vices in a row. Once I start reading online, I don’t like to interrupt what I’m doing,” she explains.


We asked people to take screenshots of their browser homepages, to show us where they “start” from digitally. Some included their browser bookmarks, revealing even more about how they organize their sources and what kind of information is included in their daily updates.

Before starting her online ritual, Rebecca has already read the New York Times from cover to cover, just as she does every morning, for exactly one and a half hours over a bowl of oatmeal. The ritual is important to her and hasn’t changed for close to two decades. Her apartment suggests similar tendencies, the rooms designed for efficiency, not forgiving a single decoration or item out of place.

Sitting in front of her laptop, she says, “The Times is still where I read the news. I’ve been doing that since college. But reading online updates me on what I’ve missed since the paper was printed last night.”

“Would you say that the newspaper, the physical paper, is your authoritative source for news then?”

Rebecca considers the question. “Yes, I suppose it is. I just don’t trust the coverage I get online as news. It’s just filling in the gaps the newspaper missed.” Her mouse wanders across the links on the Yahoo! News homepage. “But you know, it’s like, ‘tell me something I don’t already know,’ when I look at these sites. I know that Hilary is running for office. I know that we’re sending more troops in. What can I learn here?”

Rebecca pokes around at other sites—Gawker, BBC, NYTimes.com—before closing down her session for the day. We document her every move, digitally recording what she’s said, scribbling notes on her most salient points, and photographing news artifacts throughout the apartment.

Getting Between the Covers

Paul and Rebecca both characterized themselves as “heavy online news readers.” And although it’s true that they’re heavy consumers of news, their behavior reveals that they are not getting the majority of their news from newspaper websites, as this description might suggest. While Paul is using the Internet to set up his newsletters and alerts, he’s not really reading news online. Instead, he’s reading e-mail newsletters, which is typical of about 50% of Americans who have broadband at home. Rebecca, for all her diligence, is really gathering all her news and commentary offline, then supplementing it by scanning the headlines online, typical of about 24% of all online news readers. Neither one, then, really lived up to their characterization of how they use the news.

It’s no surprise that Paul and Rebecca can’t articulate what they actually do. People often say one thing, then demonstrate another. Rebecca and Paul are just two of twelve people that we’ve been spending time with for a design research project for a news and media company called Daylife. While the results will be used to inform the user experience of a website in the short-term, our larger goal is to understand how people are consuming news and information today. And the fact that people are unaware of the way they consume news is precisely the reason we wanted to conduct the study in the first place.

This approach to understanding user behavior is much different than techniques we have used in the past. Typically, we would conduct “usability testing,” bringing participants into a lab with a two-way mirror, a computer, and a camera. What are people clicking on? Does it take 120 or 150 seconds to make a purchase? How many clicks away is the desired information? These were the kinds of questions we were asking, and we were measuring users’ satisfaction based on their very rigid answers.

For all our good intentions, those labs tear people away from their familiar surroundings—away from their browsers, their bookmarks, their saved passwords, their instant messenger clients, and RSS readers. The lab environment just isn’t a useful way to gather information about aspirations and intentions.


Usability testing provides useful information about interaction design elements at the page level. When trying to determine larger conceptual direction, however, lab testing was not a good approach.

When it comes to consuming news and information, our behavior is increasingly multi-layered and messy. Context is much more critical than it was when using a computer was often a one-way interaction. “People are more complex than we were giving them credit for when we started doing usability testing. We thought features were important to them, more efficiency was important to them,” says Todd Wilkens, Design Researcher at Adaptive Path, who does a lot of in-home research for clients. “As it turns out, we need to understand people in context. We need to understand the importance of emotion, the importance of culture, the importance of meaning. These are the kinds of questions that just simply cannot be answered in a lab.”

In our own research, we tried the conventional usability-lab approach at first. People politely clicked through news sites, pointing out labels that were unclear, talking about news they may have wanted instead of what they were seeing. But the results seemed shallow and only were giving us half the answers—answers about specific interaction design problems—when what we were seeking to understand was a complex network of behaviors that is transforming the way we get information.

Being able to see a person use their own tools, from the mundane to the complex, in their home or office reveals a whole new set of behaviors. These behaviors, raw and unrecognizable even to the people demonstrating them, are starting to reveal new requirements for getting news and entirely new definitions about what news is.

Caught in the middle with news

In the past, news was delivered and consumed in digestible chunks at predictable times—the morning paper and the evening news. Today, 73% of all Internet users report that they get their news online.

But they’re not relying exclusively—or even primarily—on the websites of major news outlets. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, broadband access has increased not only the frequency by which people get news but also the number of sources they rely on. These findings are consistent with our observations of people like Paul and Rebecca. Pew reports that the increased speed of broadband connections adds to the total number of sources people access and increases the frequency with which they access those sources.

So where does this leave traditional papers? Last year, newspaper print circulation was reported to have dropped by 2.8% in the six-month period ending in September 2006, the biggest drop in 15 years. And, most importantly from the perspective of news organizations, consumers aren’t just switching from the print newspaper to the website counterpart. In other words, Washington Post readers are not necessarily Washingtonpost.com readers.

While the way we access news is still very much in flux, an important pattern seems to be emerging. Whereas once readers would rely on one or two major news sources for their information, they’re now relying on a synthesis—they’re relying on aggregators, RSS, e-mail alerts, and Digg to inform them. No matter what the channel, one trait is consistent: readers are aggregating their own news, requiring news and information when, where, and how they want it. Readers, like Paul, are cobbling stories together in their heads out of many different fragments.

Day in the life

Patterns started to emerge with each person observed. News and information gathering happens throughout the day. This diagram does not include radio or television, reported by a number of people as being sources as well.

Due to these new patterns of online usage, site traffic to major news sources is dropping, and with it, revenue. The problem with the trends towards aggregation, from the perspective of the news organizations, is that people are now getting their news without visiting the organization’s websites. And if people don’t visit the sites, then they aren’t viewing advertisements. Simultaneously, newspapers are losing another major source of revenue: classifieds. “At one point at their peak, newspapers were generating more than 70% of their pre-tax profit from their classified advertising,” reports Lauren Rich Fine, Managing Director, Merrill Lynch, on a recent Frontline episode. “Today, a good portion of Help Wanted classified has gone online.” And “online” by and large does not mean going to the newspaper’s website. To add insult to injury, while traffic to the websites of news organizations is decreasing, craigslist is now pulling in 5 billion page visits per month.

The same challenges faced by newspapers are now beginning to impact broadcast news. People, especially young people, are beginning to turn away from their televisions as sources of news. “I don’t think we’ve seen the model for how broadcast journalism is going to end up on the Internet, but it has to go there. It has to,” Jeff Fager, executive producer of 60 Minutes, recently stated. “You don’t seen anyone between the ages of 20 and 30 getting their news from the evening news, you see them getting it online.” But here too aggregators—in this case video sites such as YouTube—may pose a significant challenge to drawing site traffic. And while news outfits such as 60 Minutes are making headway in getting their message out through partnerships with companies like Yahoo!, some fundamental issues regarding revenue remain.

Read All About It

In an aggregated world where information is constantly extracted, abstracted, and re-presented, the challenge for news organizations is to find ways to capitalize on their product without necessarily having direct contact with consumers. One of the few pieces of good news for news organizations is that their product is more in demand now than ever: people still want reliable information from reputable sources. And that’s not likely to change. In fact, with the growing number of information sources, reputable brands may be the only signpost in an otherwise confusing mess of information.


An early version of how we determined the attributes that are important to readers as they consume news. Results of our observations were charted to determine what the patterns were across people in our target audience.

In the meantime, news organizations are going through a series of revolutionary upheavals. In January 2007, The Wall Street Journal decided to shrink their print format by 20% to save about $18 million per year. But amidst the fanfare, another critical change was announced, somewhat more quietly: the Journal will now be dedicating more than half their print paper to commentary. News, of the breaking kind, will be reported on their website. And more change is to come for the Journal. They have brought in renowned news designer Mario Garcia to reinvent the complete Journal news experience, both the paper and the website. With the Journal, and other forward-thinking outfits like The New York Times and The Guardian continuing to take risks and pouring on features such as blogs, video content, podcasts etc., newspapers are certainly putting up a good fight. And it’s in nearly everyone’s interest that they win.

Where We Are Now

Back in the office after several days with people and their news, we compare notes and distill some common traits that seem to be shared by people like Paul, Rebecca, and others who generously shared their media habits with us.

While the distribution of content is widespread, more than ever before, people are demanding transparency. While they don’t care much about where they read their news—whether they’re getting it on the elevator billboard on the way to work or from their favorite blogger—they want to know that the source is trustworthy and the content credible. The only way to judge that is through referencing sources. Those sources can be made credible via a recognizable brand name, such as Business Week, or public ratings, like those on Digg, but transparency about where the news is generated is essential.

Neatly packaged stories from a single source are not what people want; people are demanding tools to bring together different sources, perspectives, worldviews, and fidelities of news. One of our research subjects, for example, cuts and pastes news headline that appear on her Yahoo! homepage into her browser search field. She’s constructed an experience that may be awkward, but it works for her.

Timeliness and Timelessness
The freshness of data was critical to each person we observed. Checking the timestamp on stories, especially in news aggregators where people have a number of sources to choose from, was routine for many of the people we talked with. The fresher the story, the more reliable it seemed.What we didn’t expect to find was that stories retained their relevance over time. More than a few people e-mail articles to themselves, print articles out, or convert articles to PDF so they can keep the story for reference. The arc of a news story, therefore, presents a sort of “dromedary effect”. News from the wire is perceived as important because of its newness; news that is old is perceived as important because of its reference-ability; but news somewhere in the middle (and this timeframe shifts with one’s consumption frequency) isn’t perceived as useful.

Twenty-nine percent of all online news readers say they get their news online because they can access a wider range of viewpoints. Half of them say they prefer getting news from sources that do not have a particular political point of view. Following on the transparency trait, it’s crucial for people to understand a source’s point of view, their editorial perspective. Not only does that inform how people are constructing their news sources (they put together a fair, or left-leaning, or right-leaning news portfolio, for example), it helps them judge a single story from a suite of different perspectives.

Engaged Action
Not surprisingly, the so-called Web 2.0 tools are often mentioned in our research. These tools aid and encourage users to assemble their own news source out of various components.

Many of the people we spent time with gather news from multiple locales. Although they live in New York, their mother lives in London, and their team works in India. They want to aggregate updates and perspectives from both their primary and secondary locations—as well as having instant access to global headlines.

Note: Names, ages, and occupations of subjects in the article have been changed to protect the otherwise private news details that people shared with us so generously.

For more information

1. Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Bloggers: A portrait of the internet’s new storytellers,” Amanda Lenhart and Susannah Fox, July 19, 2006.
2. Usability testing in labs is a valid and quite useful approach to gathering user feedback. For gathering information on emotional responses, inspirations, and intentions, however, testing in a lab is often not the right choice for gauging responses.
3. Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Online news,” March 22, 2006.
4. New York Times, “Newspaper Circulation Falls Sharply,” Katherine Q. Seelye, October 31, 2006.
5. PBS, “News War: What’s Happening to the News” Frontline, February 27, 2007.
6. St. Petersburg Times, “His mission: to redesign with today’s readers in mind,” Eric Deggans, February 20, 2006.

First published in the Adobe Design Center | View original