Print is more memorable than digital. It’s also less measurable.
Led by assistant professor Arthur Santana, University of Houston conducted a study earlier this month to help newspapers understand how readers experience content through different mediums.
The first claim was supported by the study’s findings. The second is based on my personal experience writing for both print and digital outlets, and advising clients on which media opportunities to pursue.
Two groups of college students with no prior knowledge of what the study was testing were asked to read The New York Times for 20 minutes. One group read the print version while the other read the same day’s online version.
Participants were then asked to recall as much as they could about what they’d read. According to the study, on average, print readers remembered 4.24 news stories while online readers recalled an average of 3.35 stories.
Conclusion: print stories are more memorable.
There are a few unknown factors that could have affected the results.
The type of device(s) online readers were using is unknown. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones can all access online media, but of course all provide a different user experience.
It’s unknown how many stories each group read, or skimmed through, during the 20-minute span. We only know how many could be recalled.
Printed material may be easier to recall, but that’s not the only factor that should be taken into consideration when comparing it with online material. In order to produce content that resonates with an audience, that audience must be understood. Without knowing how a story affects an audience, the impact of that story can rarely be measured.
It’s difficult to measure the impact of a print story.
Circulation, at best an incomplete measurement, possibly a total misrepresentation of reality, is how print media outlets typically measure their reach. The New York Times, for example, reportedly has a daily circulation of 2,149,012 readers, but that’s assuming every newspaper finds a reader, and often takes into account other factors such as the average family size of its readers, who, of course, also read it every day. What do they read, these 2 million people: the whole thing from front to back? Every word of every story, every day? No one does that, but every New York Times story is supposedly circulated to 2,149,012 people per day. That’s nonsense.
Pulling complete, meaningful insights about print media audiences is, at this time, an impossible task and will continue to plague the industry at every level. Journalists and editors don’t exactly know who they’re talking to, advertisers, who keep them in existence, don’t exactly know who they’re advertising to, and public relations practitioners often use a distorted metric based on advertising costs divided by this and multiplied by that to meaninglessly quantify results to clients. The blind leading the blind leading the blind leading the blind.
It’s easy to measure the impact of a digital story.
Views are measured, along with a laundry list of other relevant metrics. Clicks. Shares. Time spent on page. Bounce rate. Referral traffic. With heat maps, you can easily tell which sections readers spend the most time on and the sections that are quickly scanned. Geographic data lets you know which countries and cities your readers are in. Their age, sex, and interests are documented. Devices are recognized to help you determine what to optimize for. The list goes on. Almost anything you can imagine measuring can be measured. It sounds like something straight out of The Circle but it’s all aggregate data and is invaluable to publishers.
Once a story is digitally published, it quite literally has a life of its own that can be followed in real-time. It can be observed in great detail, sliced a million different ways, followed from beginning to end. The New York Times will never know when someone is reading a print story from 5 years ago.
I’ll know when someone is reading this 5 years from now.