Distribution of News by the Reader

I finished reading a fascinating article by the NY Times which discussed how readers (specifically of the NY Times) continue to distribute the contents of news articles to friends, family, and colleagues.  According to this particular article, Researchers from U of Pennsylvania studied the habits of readers as they emailed NY Times articles to other people.  The purpose of the research was to help create a sociological theories of why people choose to share information. And the methods used in the study included examining a list of 7,500 of the most frequently emailed NY Times articles.  Researchers analyzed the results in 15 minute segments,

checking it every 15 minutes for more than six months, analyzing the content of thousands of articles and controlling for factors like the placement in the paper or on the Web home page.

The results indicate that readers tend to distribute info that has a positive nature (opposed to a negative nature or theme), and were longer articles (more content) with intellectually challenging topics.  More interesting, at least to me, was the fact that science articles tended to have stronger circulation.  In fact, the researchers found that,

20 percent of articles that appeared on the Times home page made the list, but the rate rose to 30 percent for science articles, including ones with headlines like “The Promise and Power of RNA.”

I’m one of the guilty parties that the researchers were studying and slanted science stories.  As a Science Librarian, I like to keep tabs on current info, both popular (newspapers & popular magazines) and scholarly literature (trade & scholar journals).  If I see something that relates to the research of a faculty or student member at my institution, I forward it along to the individual or to the department.  I frequently discuss the differences between popular and scholar literature, and try to use current examples in my library instruction sessions.  I also use RSS feeds to provide current content to the online library subject guides; sometimes these topics provide inspiration for a cutting edge research topic.

Philosophically, this article also offers an unusual glimpse into the inner workings of a news corporation: how the researched worked (teaming up with external researchers), the type of data it looked at (specifically emailed articles, something that could be easily measured and reveal what type of readers view the content of the newspaper, and to perhaps refocus or reinforce certain areas of publication), the possible impact of how titles of articles play into readership/further distribution (positive/negative titled articles), length of articles, geographic readership and times of the day articles are viewed, how placement of an article within the newspaper factors into readership, types/themes (e.g. popular themes or scientific themes), etc.

The question is always what will this corporation do with the data?  How will they use it to change their current business model, and to draw in more readership and make more money?

I also think that popular literature (non-peer-reviewed), such as the NY Times is playing an important role in scholarly communication.  Keep in mind that this type of literature uses less technical language and easier to understand by the average reader. Also worth noting is our society’s tenancy to shorten content, to boil things down to the basic highlights because we are so busy; we’re screening a huge amount of material on a daily basis and filtering information that is relevant to us as individuals.

My theory is that when we come across information that is relevant and applicable, we slow down and take the time to investigate further–at least we skim the information more closely.  We also filter information that might be relevant to people we know, and this is where this particular study comes into play.  We forward along the info and allow the receiving reader the option of filtering the same information or reading for further details. Unfortunately, I don’t have anecdotal evidence for this theory other than my observation of other people and myself; I help a lot of faculty and students and feel that I have a good vibe on the situation.  However, if you are looking for a research topic, this might be one to consider.

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About repplinger

John has served as a Reference Librarian at Willamette University since 2002. He is the liaison to the Science Departments, and is responsible for maintaining the collections related to the life & physical sciences. His research interests range over the entire spectrum of libraries and information sciences, but includes: - Google and its influence on information & society - The Internet's influence on information seeking & sharing behaviors - Trends of scholarly communication - Electronic learning environments - Traditional pedagogy - GIS use in academic libraries

Posted on February 9, 2010, in Libraries, Philosophies, Scholarly Commun. and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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