July 1997

Root Page of Article: Online Newspapers as Familiar Artifacts in New Settings, by Sue Mings

The Online Newspaper Pilot Study

As an initial attempt to explore questions of online newspaper audience motivations and activity, a pilot study was conducted in which an undergraduate "Writing to the World Wide Web" class at a Northeastern U.S. university was introduced to both commercialized online newspapers (such as the New York Times on the Web or the San Jose Mercury News Mercury Center) and to the personalized news service Crayon (Create Your Own Newspaper). At the beginning of the class period in which the students explored these online news services, they responded to electronic surveys requesting demographic data and information about whether, why, and how the students read print newspapers. At the end of the class period, students completed electronic questionnaires pertaining to what they'd sought, and found, in their online news viewing experience.

Two weeks after this class period, students were invited to participate in an individualized online newspaper-reading activity. Those who chose to participate, a total of fifteen students, were scheduled for an hour's activity at a networked Pentium PC in a faculty member's office. The activity was structured as follows: The student was first given an orientation to the activity, and asked for their consent to participate in the study, and to be video--and audio-taped. If the student gave consent, a video recorder was started, and the student began a twenty-minute activity of online newspaper reading. In this initial activity, students were given a selection of four traditional newspapers' online services, which the researchers considered representative of different newspaper audiences. (The list included two local and two national newspapers.) If students preferred, they could select any other World Wide Web (WWW)-based newspaper. As the student engaged in the reading activity, the video recorder captured every screen movement. The audio recorder captured the student's think-aloud protocol (a concept students were introduced to, and had practiced, in their Writing to the WWW course).

After 20 minutes (or when the student decided to stop, if sooner), the student answered an interviewer's questions about the activity. After another brief orientation, those students who had set up personalized Crayon newspapers engaged in the activity of reading them, for up to fifteen minutes. Again, a video camera recorded screen activity and a tape recorder captured the student's think-aloud protocol. And again, at the end of the activity (at 15 minutes or when the student chose to stop, if sooner), the student answered an interviewer's questions about reading their Crayon.

Three datasets were thus gathered in the pilot:

  1. Survey data about the participants' self-reported print newspaper reading practices, and their experience with online newspapers;

  2. Video recordings of the participants' commercial and personalized newspaper-reading activities; and

  3. Audio recordings of fifteen participants' think-aloud protocols as they engaged in the reading activities.

At the time of this writing, only survey and video data has been fully transcribed and analyzed to any extent. The videotaped data was transcribed and coded for the variables including:

  1. Content (type) of the screen viewed: includes audio-visual material; body text; messages (not pertaining to the news, for example, an error or system message); search screens; summary screens; and Table of Contents screens; etc.

  2. Subject of the screen viewed: includes advertising content, news (local, national, and international); sports; comics, etc.

  3. Graphics makeup of the screen viewed: includes entirely graphic, mostly graphic, fifty/fifty text and graphic, mostly text, and entirely text.

  4. Time spent viewing the screen, in seconds.

  5. Time Spent Waiting for the next display (after the viewer had made a selection), in seconds.

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