Study: Print Media Moved To Digital Without Understanding How Contextual Cues Are Different

Earlier this week Pew Research Center reported how news consumption has massively shifted to digital channels.

Now, independent-but-related research from the University of Missouri School of Journalism suggests that print newspapers might have moved to digital platforms without understanding the differences in the print and digital mediums — and how readers use contextual clues to help them make sense of the news.



Damon Kiesow, professor of journalism professions and lead author of the study, and Shuhua Zhou, a professor of journalism studies and co-author, conducted in-depth interviews over a two-week period with 12 digital news readers. They identified eight characteristics that digital news readers value. They are:

  • Genre, or the use of digital cues, such as labels, to distinguish between different types of content and to help lessen the confusion between news stories and opinion pieces.
  • Retrievability, or the ability to find previous news stories, such as with a simple keyword search.
  • Importance, or visual cues such as a story’s location, headline size and word count, that allow readers to understand the level of importance of a particular news story.
  • Immediacy, or the ability for content to be updated quickly and to help lessen the confusion between new and old stories when sharing on social media.
  • Hypertextuality, or the ability to include additional digital information by linking to related articles or resources.
  • Convenience, or the ability to access vast amounts of digital information at one’s fingertips.
  • Adaptability, or user-friendly features that make it easier for one to navigate through digital news content and be able to read the news on multiple digital platforms.
  • Interactivity, or the ability to share news articles with others, and create a community by interacting with comments left on an article.

Together, these characteristics offer contextual clues that differ from traditional print devices intended to signal their own sets of contextual clues. Digital readers expect that news in the online channel should offer those eight characteristics even when print can’t.

“When these cues are missing or ambiguous, it can lead to reader confusion,” Kiesow stated. “For example, readers may believe an opinion column is a news story, or assume an old article shared on social media is actually new. This may contribute to reduced trust and engagement.”

Overall, the findings support Kiesow’s and Zhou’s belief that print newspapers moved to digital platforms without having a proper understanding of its distinctiveness — and how readers use digital contextual clues to help them make sense of the news.

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