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.