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March 13, 2014, 2:56 p.m.
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The Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin has a new report out today called Interactive Features in Online News. In order to get a sense of how features like polls and various share buttons are being treated by newsroom developers, Professor Talia Stroud, the project’s lead researcher, surveyed over 950 web pages and 155 websites.

Stroud frames her study by going back to the earliest days of web journalism, when content was merely being shoveled online.

Why the focus on and excitement about interactivity? The arrival of these news features suggested that the “filter first, publish second” model was transforming. The traditional system was evolving due to the possibility of “mass self-communication” by lay audiences. Site visitors could not only interact with reporters through electronic means, but they could also change and personalize news content for themselves and others, leaving a news website different than how it looked before they visited by, for example, commenting on a story.

Features were taken up scattershot, Stroud writes:

The imbalance also has been seen across different media channels. A recent study looking at online polls and hyperlinks found that more than 30% of U.S. newspaper sites had online polls, but less than 24% of television news sites had polls. Conversely, articles on television news sites had more hyperlinks than newspapers (29% for TV compared to 15% for newspapers). Other studies have shown similar patterns of unequal feature adoption.

The differences between television and newspaper websites make up some of the study’s most interesting tidbits. For example, almost all sites have comments, and almost all allow for comment interaction like replies and up or down voting. Similarly, the majority have mechanisms for reporting abuse, except for top TV sites, only 67 percent of which have such a system. Meanwhile, 74 percent of top newspapers have written codes of conduct, while only 33 percent of the top TV websites have comments behavior guidelines. Another interesting point of comparison is that publishing interactive polls is significantly more common for newspapers than it is for TV.

Two other parts of the study stand out. One, there seems to be surprisingly disparate promotion of news brand apps on mobile sites compared to desktop websites. “Although 70 percent of local television news sites advertise a mobile app on the homepage, only 38 percent advertise the app when accessing the site via mobile. Similarly, although 76 percent of top newspapers advertise a mobile app on their homepages, only 40 percent advertise it when accessing the site via mobile,” Stroud writes.

Finally, Stroud gathers some interesting information about news sites’ internal content recommendation features. The most popular by far is “related/recommended content,” which is used widely, and often powered by algorithm. Between 72 and 88 percent of newspapers use “Most Popular” features; slightly fewer use “Most Discussed” lists. The least used is “Most Emailed,” which is never used on TV sites, and appears on less than 25 percent of newspaper sites.

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