The changing nature of news consumption and the importance of reading at work

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Unless you've called in sick, the chances are you're reading this while sat at your desk at work. Perhaps you're away from your desk and reading on an iPhone or Android phone, but you're still on company time. If you work media don't worry, this is relevant: content consumption at work is one of the key audience trends in publishing today and it's important to understand the patterns of browsing on-the-job.

A real must-read post from media academic Paul Bradshaw, who has re-visited his 2007 research on news consumption, points out how crucial the workplace is in online reading habits. In short, you didn't used to be able to read stuff while at work beyond the daily paper - now the whole internet is available, depending on the dreaded office firewall.

Here are my take-away thoughts on why this matters:

The psychology of checking websites at work

People read websites at work in different ways than when they're at home. Academic Pablo Boczkowski of Northwestern University has written about this phenomenon and shared his thoughts with Nieman Journalism Lab last year:

He says: "In the case of traditional media like newspapers and radio... you would get the news before or after work, going to or from work, but not at work. Now, a sizeable proportion of people who get their news online do so at work.

"When people are at work they... tend to spend some time looking at sites in a routine fashion, clicking on the homepage and so on. But then any subsequent visits they are a much shorter duration, focused on particular issues, usually not clicking on anything." Here he says this in full:

In other words, people visit sites first to see what's there and later on to see if it's changed. I make no apologies for again citing what I recently called the world's pre-eminent virally driven news site, Mail Online, now on course to make a small profit and £45 million in revenue by 2013.

The Mail understands this motivation inside out: every single office worker visiting during the day will find something new, whether it's the right-hand side Wall of Shame (Right Rail of Genius?) or the never-ending stream of mentally unhinged comments below the line.

Readers like fun, easy-to-read articles

One striking point in Bradshaw's research is how important the virality and buzz of news consumption is for people reading at work, for both consumer and business titles. Therefore people like to read and share more "safe" and sometimes humorous content, than serious boring stuff. This is absolutely borne out by the recent #SamanthaBrick episode, which spread like wildfire across the web, despite the actual content being utterly ridiculous.

"Because of the social norms of the workplace usually it's well seen to be discussing culturally sensitive or political issues," as Boczkowski puts it. Celebrity, sports and animals, however, aren't as much of a problem. If that doesn't sound like your office, it's worth pointing out at this juncture that TheMediaBriefing readers are not representative of the populace at large.

Business media online has a clear AM attention window

If you run a B2B news website, publish most of your stuff in the morning. It's that simple. I've always thought people tend to view business sites as giving them tools to do their job - rather than simply reading about other people doing their jobs, via re-processed news - and Bradshaw adds weight to this.

News site TheBusinessDesk (incidentally one of the UK's most successful small-to-medium web publishing startups and well worth watching) generates 80 percent of its daily traffic in a vital two-hour window each morning, while readers are travelling to work and digesting its all-important daily news emails.

Readers are promiscuous

One more thing to consider: readers go wherever the action is and they are led by communities. As Bradshaw points out, a 2010 study in the US found that 65 percent of news consumers don't have a favourite website. With talk of brand loyalty and trust still filling up media packs these days, that should give web editors pause for thought.

In the end, this is about measurement and evidence. The way to understand and adapt to these changes is to watch and learn from audience behaviour: analytics isn't just for the sales team and a couple of web producers, it is a core editorial tool that should shape and inform publishing strategy, from what to write to when to publish it.

(Slight disclosure: I worked with Paul as a part-time lecturer in City University's journalism department until I stepped down last month and have contributed to his research before).

Image via Zoenet on flickr via a Creative Commons licence.

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