Damon Kiesow on how readers make sense of their world

Damon Kiesow and co-author Shuhua Zhou

By Ellen Clegg

In the Boston Globe’s boxy old brick Dorchester plant, Damon Kiesow and his colleagues on the digital side sometimes seemed beamed in from the future. For starters, they occupied the innovation-focused “Globe Lab,” housed in an airy open space on the second floor where classified advertising salespeople had once reigned supreme. The fat classified sections that helped fund the Globe’s journalism for so long were a thing of the past. The lighted ticker tracking phone calls from people eager to buy a classified ad in the print edition had disappeared, along with most of those ads and a significant chunk of revenue. The midcentury industrial cubicles were gone, too, replaced by sleek tables and digital screens. 

The irony was intentional. Instead of ad salespeople working the phones, Kiesow and his colleagues were working to develop and refine the Globe’s digital strategy for a new epoch. Kiesow, now the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, was developing mobile products for Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com. Working with a team focused on emerging technologies in mobile, social and the internet of things, Kiesow immersed himself in research on human-centered design and mobile-first culture.

The seeds of that research are flourishing as Kiesow and fellow researchers in the academic world continue to contribute important new insights about readers and how they interact with a print newspaper versus a digital site. Now, he and his colleagues have published two papers that explore an essential fact: “[e]ach medium of news delivery has a unique set of attributes that facilitate or impede news consumption,” they write in a study in Digital Journalism entitled “Affordances for Sensemaking: Exploring Their Availability for Users of Online News Sites.” Kiesow is lead author of the paper; he’s joined by two other journalism professors, Shuhua Zhou at Mizzou and Lei Guo of the University of Nebraska. 

At first, this premise may seem simplistic. But Kiesow and his co-authors conducted in-depth interviews with readers to understand their experience as they consumed news online and found a “complex relationship between people, processes, and technologies.” Kiesow notes that even though digital news subscriptions in the United States have doubled in the past four years (half of those gains went to the New York Times and the Washington Post), key questions remain: “What happened to the high hopes all news publishers first had when experimenting with digital platforms 25 years ago? We built it, why did they not come? Or more accurately, why did they not pay, especially in support of local newsrooms?”

A partial answer, the researchers find, is the fact that editors and news producers in the 1990s had a sense that print and online audiences might differ and diverge, but did not have a full understanding of the essential signposts that characterize each experience, signposts that help readers make sense of information.

The digital study comes about six months after a similar study of print readers, entitled “The Values of Print: Affordances and Sensemaking for Newspaper Consumers,” published in Journalism Practice.  Kiesow and his colleagues talked extensively to long-time newspaper subscribers to understand how they perceived the physical characteristics of the print product and how their longtime experience with print affected the way they consumed news and made sense of the world. In both papers, the researchers analyzed reader responses in a novel way: They applied a concept from the field of perceptual psychology known as “affordances.”

Overall Kiesow finds reason for optimism about the industry’s capacity to change and adapt. “Journalists are not blindly resistant to change for-the-better,” he recently tweeted, “they are just busy and appropriately cynical about easy answers, trendy solutions and corporate jargon that often arrives in a box called ‘innovation.'” 

In fact, he and his colleagues write, the constant predictions of the complete demise of the print newspaper “may blind us to some of the innovative efforts undertaken by newspaper companies. Those blinders also lead us to ignore some of the hard-earned lessons of the print past, leaving us with unanswered questions about the digital future.” 

I recently caught up with Kiesow by phone. What follows is an excerpt of our discussion, in Q&A form.

Q. What prompted you to look at news readership through the lens of perceptual psychology?

A. It depends on how far you want to go back! It started when we launched BostonGlobe.com in 2011. I came in as the project was already under way, all the basic stuff was done, we were building and testing. I was not working on the website specifically but I was working on the replica edition, and we were trying to build a tablet app and we were working on iPhone apps. As part of that, there was research going on about how to design BostonGlobe.com that [Globe research director] Sue Dimanno was leading. If I could oversimplify some of the findings, our quote-unquote print readers were really interested in knowing what’s in today’s paper. And our quote-unquote digital readers were interested in knowing what are the newest, latest updates. 

That was fine because we had Boston.com, which was a digitally focused product that didn’t really highlight the Globe’s journalism in the same way. It wasn’t the centerpiece of it, so to speak. The challenge was, and it was a major discussion, was, “Well, when we have a site called BostonGlobe.com, it’s going to feature the quality journalism from the quote-unquote newspaper… how do you design and offer and present that material.” Because you’ve got two audiences who are not dissimilar demographically or geographically or psychographically. But they have a different psychological need to consume the news, to make sense of the news, by seeing it in a package. Which is the print or the replica edition. Versus readers who say, “No, I want to curate my own experience,” which is the firehose of digital. 

In digital, if you put the same stories on the front page for 12 hours, people think your website is broken. So there was this tension between those two needs. Again, to oversimplify, how do we serve the print audience and the digital audience on a digital platform? How do you make both of these experiences accessible to different parts of the audience who want it but without making those two presentations interfere with each other because they are completely incompatible? This is still an ongoing struggle. 

At McClatchy,  we had a very popular replica edition and we developed this line of thinking there, in thinking about digital strategy, which was what I would call: edition versus firehose. The pond versus the stream. The pond is nice, calm and self-contained. You can swim to one side or the other. It’s accessible, you can see the end of it. Whereas the stream is always changing. You can swim upstream or downstream but you have to work the entire time. We began to think about it that way and assess it. It’s a psychological need, potentially more than something just like habit or digital comfort. 

Q. Why did you start by looking at print?

A. We started with print not because print is better, or that print is the end goal of the study but because of the theory that print does a really good job in supporting the cognitive needs of readers to understand the news. But that did not necessarily happen intentionally. I think that happened over time through the evolution of the medium. Things we are all familiar with. We put things in sections because it made more sense. We labeled things clearly like opinion. The top of the page is more important. Bigger headlines are more important. Bigger photos. All these conventions evolved with the technology and with the audience. … if print developed these signals over time, and those signals were developed symbiotically to really support explanation and understanding of the news, then which of those were lost, enhanced, improved, degraded, ignored when we moved to digital? 

Q. Can you tell us, in lay terms, what “affordances” are? 

A. Affordances are just the opportunities or the actions that an object in the environment offers to you as an observer or a user. A rock has an affordance to throw it, or it has an affordance to build a foundation with it, or it has an affordance to put it on a piece of paper to hold down the paper. It has all these options that are not, in this case, designed into the rock. Because a rock is just a thing. But depending on your needs and your experience and your perception of the object, you’re going to perceive it to have different opportunities for use. 

We argued that affordances offer a theoretical lens to understand print, or any other media, in how they facilitate the acquisition of information and how people make sense of the news.

There’s 10 or 12 affordances that we’ve identified between the two studies, things like timeliness, genre, retrievability, importance, immediacy. There are a couple that apply more to digital [than to print], like hypertextuality and interactivity. 

Q. Is the reading experience different for print and digital?

A. Digital is great for finding and learning facts. I can look up any known sports score, election result, budget number etc. almost instantly. Print is better (we argue) at communicating narratives. Part of that is because the habit of getting/reading the paper daily enforces a very curated experience literally designed for relevance and continuity. Online, I may read on the same topic from five different sources over a week. Some coherence is lost in that process.  Online is a sea of distractions and I may end up falling into a deep well of cat videos as easily as reading the latest city council update.

We have a psychological need for completeness. We start a task and finish a task. You want to start a book and finish the book. That’s a basic, we like to finish things. You open up a [print] edition, you start it, you finish it. You’re done. You can check the box. You open up a digital site, and you start it and you never, ever finish it. You don’t ever know if you know everything you need to know. 

That’s cognitively taxing. We would theorize that it reduces your perceived value of the product, because you’ve learned something, but did you learn everything you needed to know? Or did you miss something more important? So there are all these… tradeoffs. You have an unlimited amount of information, but you don’t ever know if you’ve read the right information. You have an unlimited availability to see the latest update, so, you’ve got timeliness. But you have no way to know if the update changed two minutes after you closed the browser. It creates this huge tension, and we would argue that some of those key tensions that are created in that environment are directly related to sense-making of the news…

What is the actual goal of the reader? It’s not to sign up for a newsletter or read this sports story today. It’s to be informed, to understand. What are those deeper psychological needs that they are actually chasing? I would argue that the goal of news is to help people understand their world, their community.

Q. In your digital paper, you write: “The question facing local news publishers now is: ‘What do readers want, what do they value and what do they think is worth paying for?'” You conclude that answering that essential question “requires us to better understand how news is presented in print and on digital platforms and how those mediums support or neglect the reader’s need to make sense of the world.” Are you saying that we’re really just in the early stages of understanding digital?

A. It took print 150 years to develop the maturity of the storytelling model. And that storytelling model includes the moment from assigning the story to designing the story. To delivering the story. That’s all part of the storytelling model in print. It took 200 years for the ramifications of the printing press to shake itself out, right? We’re only 20 years in to digital news. 

Q. What’s next?

A. There’s a level we haven’t gone into in the research yet, which is a level deeper in the newsroom process. This question eventually leads to: Do we have to write stories differently? Do we have to assign stories and write them and frame them [differently]? When we write our stories, we assume a physical relationship on a printed page between content blocks, so to speak, between articles. So you either need to figure out how to recreate that physical relationship in digital or you need to write stories differently in a way that doesn’t rely on that physical relationship as a cue to understanding. We’ve relied on that metaphor because we’ve always had it in print. It doesn’t translate. 

We’ve set up all these false dichotomies between print and digital, between young and old, that kind of thing. It’s not relevant to the question of are you actually serving people news in the way that they need it in order to make sense of their lives. And the answer isn’t the same for every person. I think you can still identify clear gaps in any current product that could be improved to make it more valuable to them and therefore make them more likely to pay for it. Potentially.

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