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Bill Bennett


Why people read less online than with print

People spend less time reading online news than reading printed newspapers because reading a screen is more mentally and physically taxing.

I’ve no hard and fast evidence to offer. This is just my observation. It would make a great research project for someone.

People certainly do read less online than in print. I discovered this today in a different context at Newspapers online – the real dilemma.

Here, Australian online media expert Ben Shepherd was examining why online newspapers earn proportionately less money than print newspapers. He says it comes down to engagement. A typical online consumer of Rupert Murdoch’s products spends just 12.6 minutes a month reading News Corporation web sites. In comparison the average newspaper reader spends 2.8 hours a week with their printed copy.

Print still better in some ways

There are other factors. But I’d argue, the technology behind online reading is part of the problem:

  • Newspapers and magazines are typically printed at about 600 dots per inch.
  • Computer screens typically display text and pictures at 72 pixels per inch. Some display at 96 dots per inch.
  • The contrast is usually far better on paper than on screen.
  • Screens often include distracting elements. This can be particularly bad where online news sites have video or audio advertising on the same page as news stories.

Lower resolution means it takes more effort for a human brain to convert text into meaningful information. Screens are fine for relatively small amounts of text, but over the long haul your eyes and your brain will get tired faster. You’ll find it harder to concentrate and your comprehension will suffer.

I’m a reader who can stay up all night with a decent novel, but I found it hard to stick with most eBook readers for more than ten minutes.

Also, sub-editors and proof readers generally find more errors on a printed page than on a screen.

What does this mean?

  • The online reading revolution is going ahead without anyone worrying about readability, but it’ll be better when improved screen technology arrives.
  • In the back of my mind I suspect this is one reason Twitter’s 140 word limit succeeds. Again, I’ll leave the research project to someone else.



13 thoughts on “Why people read less online than with print

  1. Hmm… it’s a bit more head-scratchingly complex (for me at least), unfortunately.

    Newspapers are printed in 85 lines per inch and magazines, anywhere from 135 to 200 lpi. That however doesn’t translate into dots per inch as such, and there’s also the issue of paper being reflective and screens being radiant to consider.

    One thing that I note is that if you move the text up and down, which you do as you scroll on a screen, it’s that much harder to read. This is what you don’t do with a piece of printed material – you hold it still and move your eyes instead up and down the page.

    1. The numbers you quote are for halftones, which applies only to continuous tone illustrations, not (normal) text.

      Imagesetters used to make plates for printing are usually run at either 2540 or 3380 DPI. That’s not necessary for the text, but it does make a big difference with how many shades you can display in a halftone.

    2. I’m out of date then.

      I’ve definitely published magazines at 300 lines per inch — but that was some time ago. When I started in newspapers they were printed using hot metal — which I’m told is like 1000+ dpi.

  2. 72 DPI is long gone!!

    For what it’s worth, the two screens I spend vast hours each day reading are 133 DPI (17″ MacBook Pro 1920×1200), and 160 DPI (iPhone).

    I’d put both very close in readability to 300 DPI laser printers due to them having a large number of gray levels to do anti-aliasing, while laser printers are strictly on/off. That seems to be worth a factor of two in pure resolution.

    I’ve read probably 50 full length novels on the iPhone, including such massive tomes as e.g. Dune, the Foundation trilogy, Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s great, even with these 46 year old eyes.

    1. @Bruce checked my 18 month old 17 inch LCD, it’s 96 dpi. The display on my slightly older Thinkpad is 72 dpi. I’ve noticed that Windows tends to display text in smaller sizes as the screen resolution increases, is that not the case with the Mac?

      1. I can’t help it if you’re still buying old-tech low resolution screens! Better stuff is available now and it’s .. well .. better.

        OS X displays everything using the same number of pixels, no matter what the resolution of your screen is. Which I like: — Monaco 9 is great at 133 dpi, even though it’s only actually 4.9 pts in physical size.

        I find that the modern glossy screens, as found optionally on the MacBook Pros the last couple of years, also help hugely in making small text contrasty and crisp. Matt screens are just full of fuzziness.

  3. I’ve also heard it argued that the screen refresh rate has a lot to do with it. While we consciously see a solid image, our brain+eye operate a lot faster than 50-60 Hz and have to do ‘mental and physical work’ to process it. This is why it takes us a little while to reorient ourselves when scrolling on a screen vs scanning a printed page.

    Not sure how this applies to LCD screens though.

    1. My LCD refreshes at 75 Hz, it’s a definite improvement on the old CRT for reading, but it’s still harder than reading on paper.

      1. LCDs don’t refresh so that number is meaningless. It could say 10 Hz and it would be just the same.

  4. Right then.
    This original post went online a few days after I started Cliptec. Since that time we have processed more than 1.5 million clips. These days we are reading nearly 1900 clips a day midweek. So I perhaps I have a some insight into online news. Also I have a vested interest in the success of online news sites. So if i am sound critical it is only because I care.

    Firstly I don’t think there is anything seriously wrong with the reading of text on a screen. I would expect that these days 90% of text that is read is read off some screen. People adapt just a people had to learn to read with out speaking once reading became common.

    There are two main problems with online news
    1) Lack on unique content. NZ is small there are not that many interesting things happening per day, most stories are massively duplicated across sites. There is insufficient unique content to support paywalls, even if they are shared.

    2) Screens are too small still. Take a look at the NewsTalkZB’s web site half the page is banner and story images. On many screens you have to scroll down to see any text.

    …Actually there are three problems
    3)No one on the net cares what you used to be. There are no newspapers, broadcasters or radio stations on the internet. You are an web news site, understand this, accept this and forget about the good old days.

    …Which brings me to the fourth problem.
    4) People used to buy a newspaper in the same way they used to buy albums. You bought the bloody thing so now you are going read every page, listen to every track. Music faced this problem but still made the move to iTunes admittedly unwillingly. The problem is with news, is that itunes for news would be like having 20 million sound alike hits to choose from.
    Public consume news page by page on the web rather than buying an edition this means the advertising model is screwed. You used to be able to sell advertising based on circulation on every page of the paper. You can’t do that online because you get relatively few page views per visiter.
    Newspapers have tried to cope with this using those god awful e-editions where you are presented with a fake newspaper complete with page turning. This demonstrates more than ever point 3. Can you imagine a broadcaster putting a fake page turner on their website.

    Alright then…
    Point 5)
    Index pages, are a bastard, without any other source of incoming traffic you have to have your front page as an index page. They are called an index page for a reason, because the front page basically has to be a table of contents as well as front page. This means they look awful, especially if you have a lot of content pages to index. You can’t dedicate half the page to a story without shaving off all the links to other pages which you desperately need to get traffic to the rest of the site. You can see both fairfax and APN struggling hard with this issue and coming up with some creative attempts to solve this problem. So far no one seems to have come up with a solution. I guess this is why they need to have google and twitter which provide an alternative path to the internals of the site. I don’t know if there is a solution to this problem.

    Ok last one I promise
    6) Advertisers are part of the problem. Click on some of the adverts on a website and see where you go. If it takes you to a company index page then you have every right to curse the lazy SOB’s who just wasted their clients money. Click throughs are hard to get, don’t waste them, having punters go to a static page or an order form is ridiculous. It is like having a sign on your shop window and greeting people with an eftpos machine asking for their cash when they walk in the door. The click through is a chance to get them into your domain, this is the beginning of the process of selling not the final hurdle. If people took more care of this side of the equation then click throughs would result in better outcomes and would be valued more. New sites need to get tough on advertisers to hold up their side of the bargain.

    Ok having slung enough muck what are the answers.
    Bigger screens offer more real estate for advertising and more space to separate editorial from navigation. Video advertising of course has the ability to embed advertising without consuming screen area, so maybe the future of revenue particularly in the mobile space. Text may be only required to facilitate search based discovery of content in the absence of searchable AV (remember it took more than two millennia for text to be searchable).

    Here endith the rant.

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