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Jan. 17, 2012, 2:30 p.m.

Surprise! The news shows up in the least expected places

More consumers are getting news incidentally — that is, in the middle of other, non-news activities. And, according to new research, readers often find joy in the serendipity.

You’re flicking through tweets, reading email, Googling recipes, or watching dogs sticking their heads out of car windows in slow motion when a headline catches your eye. Before you know it, you’re reading the news, even though you didn’t mean to. Maybe you didn’t even want to.

A lot of readers get their news just like this — incidentally — according to a growing body of research. That is, they don’t turn to the web seeking news. The news finds them. And that has implications for how that news gets produced and distributed.

Borchuluun Yadamsuren, a post-doctoral fellow at Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, studies how people get information and how it makes them feel. In 2009, she surveyed 148 adults, mostly highly educated, in the college town of Columbia, Mo., then followed up with 20 one-on-one interviews. Some respondents said they don’t trust the news, some were ambivalent, but most said they get informed one way or another — often by accident.

Yadamsuren quotes a respondent who exemplifies the incidental news reader:

She finds news when she is searching for something else on the Internet or she finds links to news stories from her e-mail. She said ‘it feels more legitimate and less like wasting time’ if she has gone to news from her e-mail. She thinks her husband is wasting his time as he constantly looks at all of the regional newspapers as part of his daily routine.

Yadamsuren draws on a lot of previous research about information behavior, most notably the work of Denis McQuail, et al., on the “uses and gratifications” theory from the 1960s and ’70s. (She cites other work heavily, if you want to dive in.)

She identified four types of consumers: avid news readers, news avoiders, news encounterers, and crowd surfers.

Avid news readers are perhaps the most familiar to a typical Nieman Lab reader: They visit news sites multiple times a day. They include traditional news sources in their media diet. They have higher trust in media. “They continue monitoring for news to feel empowered, to be informed, to get over boredom, and to have a break from their work,” Yadamsuren wrote.

News avoiders deliberately choose not to visit news sites. They are more sensitive to negative stories. They tend to distrust the mainstream press. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get news. Yadamsuren quotes a respondent in her study:

Sometimes those who are sensitive to negative news may use incidental exposure to online news as their main way to get informed about news events. R14 said she does not search for news because she thinks the mainstream media cover too many depressing stories. She mostly runs across news at the Yahoo! portal.

News encounterers are more ambivalent about news. They neither search for nor avoid it. They don’t have established habits. They know that important news will find them one way or another.

Crowd surfers rely on friends and online communities for news. They tend not to trust the mainstream “filter.” They start at Reddit or Digg. “They like reading ‘newsworthy’ stories voted on by visitors to the site rather than relying on the stories selected by news media,” Yadamsuren said. “They trust the ‘wisdom of crowd’ rather than the viewpoints of journalists.”

Yadamsuren has also found the route to discovery — not just the content of the news itself — provokes emotional reaction in readers. For instance, unexpected positive news feels better and more awesome than expected positive news.

“It seemed that the incidental element of discovering the news story strengthened the respondents’ reaction to the news item,” she writes in recently published research. “The respondents described the encounters as finding a treasure, unexpectedly learning something new, or unexpectedly encountering something that evoked their curiosity. All these reactions may also occur during general news reading, but the chance element is likely to make these reactions stronger.”

Again, Yadamsuren quoting respondents in her report:

R1 explains: ‘I’m not looking for something in particular, but sometimes it’s there right in front of my eyes, and it makes me happy and like you know it’s perfect for me, let’s explore further’. R2 compared incidental exposure to online news to the feeling of discovery of treasure: ‘I guess it’s kind of the thrill of the chase, like you really discovered a treasure or something’…

One respondent (R19) says she feels lucky to find stories to read that she might have missed. ‘I usually feel pretty lucky when I find something that I would have otherwise missed…makes me want to search more’. Another respondent (R12) agrees: ‘many times it will be something that either I haven’t heard or it jogs my memory, oh yeah, I want to read more about that’. (R12)

Discoveries are not always joyous: Stumbling upon bad news can amplify the feelings associated with bad news. And some readers reacted negatively to incidental exposure regardless of the content, because it wound up being a distraction or a waste of time. That induced feelings of guilt.

Regardless of how they feel, surprised readers are more engaged readers. Yadamsuren did not study how people feel about the brands they encountered; we don’t know if the joy of surprise translates to more positive associations with The Washington Post, for example.

Yadamsuren suggests news organizations syndicate their content and advertise in unlikely places. Maybe that axiom, “go where your users are,” should be revised: “Go where your users least expect to find you.”

POSTED     Jan. 17, 2012, 2:30 p.m.
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