Can News ‘Snacking’ Save Local Journalism from Starvation?

The old-fashioned image of the loyal newspaper reader was someone who went through each edition methodically, reading deeply from front to back.

Today’s loyal online news reader may be quite different. Perhaps she catches a look at a local news homepage while waiting for the train. Or she might read an emailed newsletter with story links, scanning a dozen headlines on different stories. If she finds something interesting and has the time, she reads the stories.

A recently released data analysis from Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative shows that a regular habit – not the number of stories read or the time spent reading them – is the best indicator that a subscriber will keep paying for news. Which suggests that local news outlets should foster that habit even with time-pinched customers who may have only a few minutes a day.

The websites of some major news organizations, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, seem to be adjusting to the scanners and skimmers – the “snacking” readers – with homepages that provide headlines plus a sentence or two underneath. A reader who visits the homepage but doesn’t click on a single link gets a cursory briefing on the news.

The New York Times’ homepage features text underneath its main headlines, providing the scanning reader with quick information.

And some local news websites are creating short summaries of major breaking stories, giving readers the option of getting the highlights in 30 seconds rather than spending 15 minutes to dive deeper into the coverage.

But what about local news outlets in general? Are they doing enough to serve readers who simply want a quick check-in?

“I don’t think they are interested in it enough,” said Ken Doctor, a nationally known news industry analyst who is a former managing editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and vice president of Knight Ridder Digital. “The major check-in behavior that newspapers have figured out is the creation of the newsletter. The newsletter essentially gives readers an edited version of ‘Here’s what you need to know this morning or this evening or this afternoon.’ … The ones that are well done have very good open rates. So that’s the major way they have dealt with that.”

The major check-in behavior that newspapers have figured out is the creation of the newsletter.

Ken Doctor, news industry analyst

The emailed newsletter, all by itself, might serve that update function even if the people reading it never click on a story link. In fact, researchers at the Medill Local News Initiative have raised the question of whether news outlets ought to consider charging extra for the newsletter or sell newsletter-only services, since there’s a clear consumer interest in that.

Beyond newsletters, though, Doctor sees a lack of special attention to skimmers.

“I don’t see products out there that acknowledge that that’s how people will use their news websites,” he said. “What I see most often is a kind of same list of headlines. What you’re talking about is a notion that was talked about even 20 years ago – here’s your five-minute afternoon report, for instance. Or even a product that is a quick-read product. Remember NYT Now, which the New York Times experimented with.”

NYT Now, an app launched in early 2014, offered a curated list of stories at a price lower than a full subscription, targeting “a younger, mobile-savvy audience.” The Times eventually made the app free and then dropped it entirely in August 2016.

“It was a younger audience, it was a snacking audience, and they found that it wasn’t a paying audience,” Doctor said. “But they largely incorporated a lot of that learning into their main mobile website.”

Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute, said news websites would be wise to cater to people in a hurry as well as those eager to invest their time for a deeper understanding.

“I really think that what you need to do as a publication is serve the need for frequency and depth,” Rosenstiel said. “Now, that doesn’t mean that every story has to be long. In fact, there’s something of a bell curve in the data that we’ve seen. Which means stories should be either quite short or quite long. It’s the mushy middle that hurts you.”

Stories should be either quite short or quite long. It’s the mushy middle that hurts you.

Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director, American Press Institute

One eye-opening finding in the Medill research was that deep reading showed no correlation with subscriber retention. Medill’s Spiegel Research Center analyzed 13 terabytes of data from the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Indianapolis Star, and found that for two of the three outlets, longer reading time actually was linked to people dropping their subscriptions.

Rosenstiel wondered whether stories in the “mushy middle” might help explain that possible paradox.

“It may be that that’s part of what you’re seeing here, is that stories that really should be 500 words, when you make them 900 words, people find that irritating and think, ‘This story is boring’ and bail out,” Rosenstiel said.

But that doesn’t mean that every story should be short. “If every story you write is 500 words, people are going to think ‘There’s not much here,’” Rosenstiel said.

Rosenstiel said the Medill data may suggest this approach: “You need to be a place that gives people quick updates so they feel informed and then they can dive in deeply on a couple of pieces a day that they want more on.”

The Medill Local News Initiative was launched last year to address the crisis in local journalism by exploring new paths to financial sustainability and greater community service by the U.S. news industry.

Article image CC BY-SA by Lion.harvinder (Wikimedia Commons)

About the author

Mark Jacob


A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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