The Problem with Digital News Websites

Printing newspapers

Throughout most of my childhood, my family would get a physical newspaper delivered to our house. The familiar routine of running to the end of my driveway and bringing the paper into the house and handing out different sections of the paper to different family members was always a comforting morning routine. My brother would pour over the sports section, reading and memorizing every statistic from last night’s Red Sox game, and I would obsessively read each comic strip and fill out the Sudoku puzzle trying really hard to not look at the answers on the back of the page.

Print newspapers are magical in the sense that they create an experience where a person is interacting with information using a tangible object. The physical object takes you into a different space, whether it be a sports game or a comic strip world. Holistically, this is a really incredible experience because the person interacting with a newspaper has very few distractions. Sure, you might be drinking a coffee at the same time or reading the paper at the table with distracting family members, but for the most part it is a focused experience for digesting large amounts of information. When newspapers went digital, this experience was lost, and we need to bring it back.

To be honest, I am pretty frustrated with most digital news websites. It is apparent that headlines are written to compete for our attention and articles are written to fit our 5 minute attention spans. A lot of digital journalism is conforming to the culture of skimming information and perpetuating the notion that knowing a surface level of information is enough. Just like how a newspaper is a physical object that takes us into another space, our computers and phones take us into another space as well, but this space is a little different. The digital space is complicated because there are literally hundreds of thousands of different types of information constantly competing for attention. Whether it is email or news or videos or images, the current digital space as we know it does not promote long periods of focus (for the most part). This sort of experience makes it easy for readers to not critically think about the things they are reading or further inquire about the context of the information they are consuming. This is incredibly detrimental to society’s overall ability to learn.

Given all of this context, there are several pockets within the digital space that do promote long periods of focus. For additional clarity, although platforms like TikTok and Facebook swallow long periods of our attention, they do not promote focusing on one thing at a time for a longer stretch of time.

The best example I have found for promoting a long period of focus is Netflix. The minute you navigate to Netflix.com, you are greeted by a black background that creates the same feeling you get when you go into a movie theater. It is a very focused experience where you feel like you can sit and watch one thing for a long period of time. Once you decide on a movie or TV show, there are no distractions on the side or notifications that take you away from that focused experience. This cleverly designed experience is one of the reasons why so many people find themselves in Netflix binge sessions. It is also why, in my opinion, Netflix is so successful in the TV/movie space.

Wikipedia is another example of a website that encourages focus and absorption of large amounts of information. The interesting part of the Wikipedia user experience is that most users enter the experience through their own curiosity rather than a curated feed of sorts. This unique entry point is one of the key reasons why the platform promotes long periods of focus. Wikipedia pages have a surprising amount of distractions, mostly in the form of hyperlinks, but because the experience is driven out of user driven curiosity, the distraction promotes a more thorough understanding of the subject.

Although not everything on the internet needs users to be completely focused or have longer attention spans, however, the digital news space should consider putting more money and resources towards their user experiences. Over the past 10 years, we have seen how much the news and media can influence public opinion and general knowledge about topics. To be honest, I don’t have an outright solution at hand, but it could be beneficial for digital news websites to take a deeper dive and gain inspiration from websites like Wikipedia and Netflix.

Over the next year I’d like to spend more time investigating the user experiences of various news sites and how they impact our ability to process information.

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