Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

What happens in the body when reading?

By Mary-Katharine Phillips

In recent years, digital news has flourished, perhaps due in part to the ability to gather data purporting to show reader engagement. But so far print editions have not been able to benefit from this. To bridge this gap, we initiated the Digital Reader Engagement project. The goal was to define, measure and predict engagement of readers with their digital newspaper on a mobile news platform and to translate those measurements to key insights that can be used in the newspaper production process. We envisioned helping editors learn how to improve the engagement levels of both their print and digital newspaper publications based on scientifically grounded insights.

But we knew we could not simply use the same metrics as traditional online analytics, which fall short of actually measuring reader engagement. Such analytics solutions have simply made it possible to quantifying the number of eyeballs on a piece of content, through generating statistics based on a digital publication’s measurable traffic. Yet even newer entrants to this industry, while suggesting they deliver revolutionary insights instead of just data, still give in essence the same information: visitors, session length and page views. What we really want to know is how a reader feels while reading and how they appreciate a piece of content.

Simply measuring the time spent on a page is not enough, we need to look at the combination of time and positive affect to truly understand reader engagement. First, we needed to understand what exactly happens in the body while reading a digital publication, and then determine which outcomes are measurable indicators of positive affect. To answer this, we led a research project with the University of Leuven in conjunction with innovation hub imec and Belgian publisher Mediahuis. We outfitted a panel of readers with sensors, tracking device interaction, posture, pupil movement, heart rate, blood pressure, and asked users for feedback on content.

After all this data was gathered, an extensive analysis of all the user reactions and interactions was conducted.

The findings? Reading a digital newspaper does provoke strong emotional reactions. A few key lessons emerged about reader engagement as well:

Scanning pages and articles happens very quickly and requires limited involvement from the reader.
Cognitive reading requires strong attention, as a result the human body calms down.

Explicit pictures or strong emotional titles provoke strong emotional reactions in the body.

Bodies show high levels of frustration when readers are confronted with technical complexity, full page ads or complex visuals.

With these breakthroughs, we then worked on an initiative to improve daily publications by integrating editorial insights into the production process using advanced machine learning. This initiative was selected as one of the six Belgian projects to receive support from Google’s Digital News Initiative Innovation Fund. This allowed us to create “EngageReaders”, which uses predictive modelling to identify over-performing and underperforming articles, as well as highlight hidden gems (articles that were opened by a limited number of readers, but loved by those who did open it).

To date, this is the only tool focused purely on editions, using ePapers as a proxy for their print counterparts. We launched earlier this year in five newsrooms in: Aachener Zeitung (Germany), Het Nieuwsblad (Belgium), De Limburger (The Netherlands), L’Avenir (Belgium), and La Montagne (France).