With the tagline “There’s an app for that,” Apple ushered in the Age of the App with its iPhone 3G commercial in 2009. Since then, an enormous amount of money has been invested in media and technology startups hoping to cash in on the next “killer app.” More recently, news organizations have started to develop more complex applications, integrating them within news stories. These have ranged from the “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk” language quiz, which was the most-viewed content on the The New York Times website in 2014, to ProPublica’s “Losing Ground,” a long-form multimedia story that users explore by zooming in and around maps of Louisiana.

These interactive applications take time, specialized knowledge and money to produce. In the Age of the App, when does it makes sense for news organizations to invest limited resources into creating applications, and if so, when does it pay off? To answer these questions, I am investigating how millennials engage with interactive applications built into news packages. This work is part of an audience analysis project I am undertaking with fellow RJI Research Scholars Jacqueline Marino and Robert Gutsche Jr. to investigate how and to what extent millennials respond to long-form multimedia news packages like The New York Times’ “Snow Fall” and The Guardian’s “Firestorm.”  Marino is using eye-tracking data to examine reader engagement with long-form multimedia projects on a tablet computer, and Gutsche is testing audience responses to long-form multimedia news packages on mobile devices.

Analyzing interactivity

I am interviewing about 25 people between the ages of 18 and 34 as they view six interactive applications built into news stories. The participants were encouraged to verbalize their thoughts and ideas while they viewed the news stories with an iPad, and I recorded their words and their on-screen actions. It’s not so easy to record an iPad screen, and we ended up hacking together a method of connecting the iPad to a VGA monitor, and then pointing a laptop at the VGA monitor and using QuickTime Player to record how the interview subjects navigated the screen.

We are learning quite a bit from the study, but three themes jumped out right from the beginning:

Make it mobile

All of the applications we asked our subjects to review were responsive — that is, they were able to scale to fit on a tablet screen — but they were not designed for use on a tablet, and our subjects knew this. One described these oversights as “little navigational annoyances” that interfere with reading and interacting with the story. (To our surprise, we had to eliminate some news applications from our study because they did not display properly on mobile.)

Make it meaningful

Our subjects were most likely to engage with and share applications they had a personal interest in. While this may seem obvious, given the resources it takes to produce these projects, news organizations need to be cognizant of the audience they plan to attract, what their needs are, and why. For example, while our subjects appreciated the beauty and complexity of “Losing Ground,” as Miami residents they did not understand the story about Louisiana’s disappearing coastline. They generally preferred Fusion’s “Miami Beach at 100: The Sea Is Rising and So Are the Condos”, because it used a simpler application and infographic to show the impact of sea level rise on South Florida. “I am very obviously intrigued by it just because of where we live,” said one respondent.

Make it visible

Many news organizations embed applications within the body of text of their story. While this makes sense from a contextual standpoint, some of the applications were not readily visible to our subjects, who scrolled right past them.

In one story the link to the application was placed in a square box on the right side of the page — exactly where many advertisements are sometimes placed — and more than one of our subjects thought it was an ad.

Moving forward, the results of this study will be combined with Marino’s and Gutsche’s and published in a white paper for the industry and one or more academic papers for news scholars.

Susan Jacobson  
Research scholar

Jacqueline Marino  
Research scholar

Robert Gutsche Jr.  
Research scholar


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