6.1: A New Way of Writing

Eye Trac study

A reader wearing an eye-tracking device takes part in a study of newspaper readership. Eye-track studies about Web use have discovered much of what we know about how people read online material.

Earlier in this course, we talked about metaphors for the Web page. We saw that that many Web sites tried to preserve the feel, if not the exact look, of the print document. The Christian Science Monitor is a good example.

At one time, the Monitor tried to represent itself in what Mindy McAdams calls “a fully responsive (as opposed to merely ‘interactive’) image of each and every page.” If you visited the Monitor site, you could find an image of each page, with clickable hot spots to take you to each story. The Monitor then evolved into what it called a “treeless edition,” simply a downloadable PDF file of the entire paper. You had to pay to get it, though. In this regard, the Monitor followed the lead of The New York Times.

Dennis Mallett, the Monitor's product manager, told McAdams: “The goal is to associate the Web site with the printed paper, with the same navigation and feel as the print edition.”

The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times today look much like other news sites, with multimedia presentations sprinkled among the links to stories. But if you follow a link to a story, you will find that both newspapers still follow the writing model of long-form journalism, a style more suited to ink and paper, Mindy McAdams believes.

In this respect, the newspaper is the parent of the Web site; Mallet‘s criteria still holds.

Dr. Mario Garcia of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies urges against using the “newspaper metaphor.” The Poynter Institute and Stanford University studied Web site reading habits using Eye-Trac technology. From his findings, Garcia came to believe that Web users are highly selective. In other words, people have a good idea of the kind of information they will find when they go to a news site. Just as they do with books.

Garcia urges us to throw away the inverted pyramid style beloved by generations of newspaper writers. Jakob Nielsen, for one, isn't ready to jettison the inverted pyramid. He believes you do need the most important information up front. But he adds that the Internet allows us to put all the context and background information on other Web pages, with links allowing the user to pick and choose what to read. Nielsen sees many smaller inverted pyramids floating in cyberspace.