Web vs print story recall: Can social media play a role?

Sharing ToolsIn its 2009 website redesign, the Globe and Mail got rid of a link on the front page that listed all of the stories contained in the print version of the paper that day.

Of all the changes to the website, that was the one that affected me most. It always seemed that the beefiest stories were there — the ones I was inclined to remember — even if I looked more often at the parade of breaking news on the front page.

Of course, that link simply let me read the “print” stories online. But I felt more informed, knowing I had read the stories the editors, considering the space restrictions in a print edition, thought were most important that day. In a time before there were social media interaction statistics, the role of the editor was significant.

A study presented this month by three University of Oregon researchers provides further evidence in a growing body of research suggesting that readers pay attention to the agenda-setting function exercised by editors. The authors, Santana, Livingstone and Cho, conclude in their paper that: “Print news readers remember significantly more news stories than online news readers.”

Specifically, they suggest that the choice readers have online to follow their own interest leaves them less able to gauge a story’s significance.

They state:

Online newspapers are apt to give fewer cues about the news story’s importance, thus giving readers more control over story selection. In this way, part of the agenda-setting function of the newspaper is lost in the online version.

Wisdom of the crowds” logic would suggest that readers can compensate for the weakened influence of editors by using other readers’ reactions in social media as a guide. For example, they could use the numbers of Facebook Likes, retweets and comments visible in a story’s social media toolbar to gauge story importance.

However, this appears not to have been a major factor in the current research.

Why? It might be because the news source used in the test was the New York Times, chosen by the researchers because it “has historically offered content that is considered trustworthy, complete and balanced” and it was likely to be familiar to students.

However, relative to many mainstream news sources, the Times offers weak reporting of story interaction statistics. Only the number of comments appear on a typical story like this one — and the number isn’t prominent on the page.

Take a look at this LA Times story, which has a more active social media toolbar at the top of the story reporting retweets, shares, comments and Facebook Recommends. The Huffington Post reports social media statistics even more prominently on its stories.

The influence of one’s own social media network is likely to be a great influence as well. Seeing a story retweeted and commented upon by one’s peers is bound to affect the reader’s assessment of its importance. So, comparing print and online stories in isolation from their social context may be an increasingly inadequate way of assessing importance or recall.

It will be insightful to see a study conducted using more integration with social media to see if the influence of readers’ peers is as significant as that of editors’.



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