With the eyes of the readers
by Manfred Werfel, Ifra Research Director, Deputy CEO
Is the change from broadsheet to compact newspaper formats a strategy that can help offset dropping reader numbers and advertising income? The results of an Ifra eye-tracking study show that the trend that can be observed in many newspaper markets towards compact formats is especially suited to the needs of the readers. The better manageability is just one point in favour of the compact newspaper. The eye-tracking method permitted detailed findings to be obtained concerning the perception of different design variations in both formats. The analysis shows that the compact format has a major potential of becoming the reader compatible newspaper of the future – but for this an integrated concept of format, design and content is necessary.
The study recently presented as Ifra Special Report 03.2007 was conducted between September 2006 and March 2007 at the Media Science Faculty of Trier University in Germany. The research project was realised with the support of Ifra and the Axel Springer publishing corporation. Springer’s WELT and WELT KOMPAKT supported the recruitment of test persons and organised the delivery of the newspapers in the run-up to the study.
Compact or broadsheet?
For readers more than the format is decisive. From the point of view of the readers, there is a lot to be said in favour of the compact format: For them, manageability is the decisive argument. The study revealed a clear preference for the compact newspaper. However, a distinction must be made in the vote where the contents of the newspaper are concerned. With WELT KOMPAKT a version of a newspaper was tested that contained a target audience-oriented topic selection and processing that do not bring the contents of the broadsheet edition 1:1 into the small format. The direct comparison of the products, that differ in part also editorially, showed that a relevant group of readers exists that appreciate the more compact processing of the contents and prefer it to the more detailed variation. At the same time, there is also a group that does not wish to forgo depth and would like to have the contents of the “big” WELT in the compact format.
Asked to make a choice, only a relatively small group would decide in favour of the classical broadsheet edition. This opinion is encountered mainly in the group of subscribers. This observation indicates an uncertainty factor that is connected also with every relaunch without format change: How will long-standing subscribers react to new developments? A look at already implemented format changes can help here, though all such information can be applied generally only to a limited degree – especially not beyond the borders of national newspaper markets. But one aspect must be stated clearly: A quality newspaper that changed to a compact format must find ways to combine background-oriented, analytical and narrative journalism with the advantages of rapidly absorbable information. This is the only way to keep the traditional readers and attract new ones.
The trend towards compact newspaper formats is in line with the needs of the readers for a manageable, well organised and easily understandable media product. But format alone is not decisive. It is the interaction between the contents and their design that gives the reader the product he values. The compact format has a high potential for reader-friendly design. Principles of modern newspaper design, such as modular block layout or the treatment of topics in clusters, can be better realised in the compact newspaper. Graphic elements, such as photos, information graphics, orientation and referral texts, attract a high degree of attention. If the reception patterns of the reader are taken as a yardstick, the advantages of the compact format become especially clear. For them, reading newspapers is a constant selection process, by sections, by pages, by topics, by elements of articles. The better a newspaper supports this selection, the more user-friendly it is.
At the same time, readers approach reading newspapers with different reception expectations. For some, the aim is getting a rapid overview, whereas others want to enter topics more deeply. A newspaper can also support this selection based on reception levels by processing their topics both for the reader scanning in a hurry and for the intensive reader – e. g. by using intros, summarising information boxes or information graphics.
The results from reception eye-tracking studies clearly show the significance of newspaper design. There may be a few readers who say in an interview that, in their opinion, a quality newspaper must consist of long texts and a small number of images. But empirical investigations on newspaper reading show in many points that content quality must be accompanied by design quality:
• The attention to texts is dependent on their environment, their design and position.
• Page-dominating photos are important pivots for attention.
• Orientation and referral texts receive a high level of attention if they are designed attractively.
• On average, considerably more attention is paid to short texts than to long ones.
With the format alone, no decision is made concerning the journalistic orientation of the newspaper. This is evidenced by the vast variety of newspapers that exist in the compact format. There are both quality newspapers in regional and national markets as well as popular newspapers. Compact newspapers can act as subscription newspapers, pay-for and free newspapers. The newspaper publishing houses have a great freedom of choice. Because content and form go hand in hand in compact newspapers, a format conversion is more than just a question of design. It is in any case a process in which all departments of a publishing house must be involved: newsroom, distribution, ad marketing and technical production. An orientation on how readers actually use the newspaper can support this process.
Page first published: 02.08.2007