The average reader spends 25 minutes a day reading the newspaper, while the average online user spends 70 seconds a day on a news site, according to data from Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist. (JD Lasica has more on this presentation.)

As a journalist, I’m not satisfied when people just scan my headline and then move on. As a citizen who also wants to discuss certain developments in the world, I would like to participate in online venues where people have an attention span longer than 70 seconds.

Of course, enticing people to hang out longer on your site or blog has financial value, as advertisers value that kind of engagement. In this post, I’ll suggest a few ways to encourage people to interact for a longer duration and with a higher level of engagement. I’ll start out with a few fairly traditional ways to achieve this, and end with a new approach: immersive journalism.

Five Ways to Increase Engagement

1. Provide context. One interesting experiment is Google’s Living Stories. This model helps provide context to news articles, which increases how much people understand the topic and better engages them. Matt Thompson, one of the participants in the Future of Context panel at this year’s South by Southwest interactive conference expressed the importance of context this way:

Hundreds of headlines wash over us every day. And part of why many of us engage in this flow is because we have faith that over time, this torrent of episodic knowledge is going to cohere into something more significant: a framework for genuinely understanding an issue. And we live with it ‘cause it sort of works. Eventually you hear enough buzzwords like “single-payer” and “public option” and you start to feel like you can play along.

But mounting evidence indicates that this approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn’t require much understanding — crime, traffic, weather — or we turn off the news altogether.

It doesn’t require any new kind of design or technology to provide context — giving background information or providing links to relevant material is a good start.

2. Ask people for their take. In other words, don’t just write another article; try to create and foster a conversation. People are more likely to be engaged if they have an opportunity to become part of the process, to share their views and knowledge.

3. Live-stream your newsroom. I covered this idea in a previous post for MediaShift. This is a way to open up and let people get an inside look at how things work. It could spark their interest.

4. Use video. Video-sharing services are a great resource, and video itself is hugely popular online. Don’t be afraid to use smartphones, Flip cameras and other quick-and-dirty ways of shooting video. Do it as long as it helps to tell your story and moves people to interact. Also invite people to send in their video footage.

5. Use video collaboratively. Have a look at Stroome, a collaborative video editing platform with great potential for community journalism projects.

The Future

This may prove to be the more controversial part of my post. It’s about how journalists and bloggers can use the rapidly growing ecosystem of virtual objects, casual games, games on social networks and virtual environments to increase engagement.
This is what some call “immersive journalism.” I also think that augmented reality presents many opportunities for increasing engagement.

Nonny de la Peña

Nonny de la Peña, a senior research fellow focused on immersive journalism at USC Annenberg, is one of the people leading the way in this field. In this context, immersive journalism is a novel way to utilize gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news and non-fiction stories.

It’s a bit hard to explain, so let me show it in action using a video. The below video is about the Cap & Trade immersive journalism project, a collaboration with the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and the Center For Investigative Reporting, and is based on the PBS Frontline World story Carbon Watch. This machinima showcases the proof-of-concept Second Life experience:

De la Peña uses other techniques for immersive journalism. There was a game about Darfur and a PC game about John Kerry’s Swiftboat battles, all of which are showcased on It’s a great place to learn more about this concept, and to see what’s possible with it.

In terms of augmented reality, a company such as Layar provides a platform where you can build layers of digital information and then superimpose them on a physical reality using a mobile phone. It can also be combined with location-based social networks such as Foursquare and Gowalla.

Using this kind of platform, you could superimpose facts and narratives on structures and places within a neighborhood, and invite your community to add their own comments and notations. You could create location-based games using reporting and other information. You can even have your layer behind a pay wall (for those who find that of interest).

Challenges and Opportunities

The possibilities are seemingly limitless, but it’s difficult to know where to start, and what to watch out for. As much as I’m thrilled by augmented reality, gaming applications and virtual environments, I’m also aware of the dangers. Here are ten points to reflect upon before and while engaging in these new media from a news perspective.

  1. Keep a close eye on costs and benefits. Realize that virtual environments are, at least for adults, a niche activity. People in general don’t like to download stuff and to go through technical hassles.
  2. Ask and answer some basic questions. Who are your community members? Is access to wireless broadband Internet ubiquitous? Do they have sophisticated smartphones? Your strategy will depend on the answers to these and other questions.
  3. Choose your game format wisely. Developing even a simple game is time-consuming, and not every game will be appreciated by your community. An article by Nora Paul and Kathleen A. Hansen in Nieman Reports about news-focused game playing reports on the results of their tests of different approaches. This is essential reading for anyone thinking of building a news game.
  4. Look for collaborative platforms. Try to get help from educational institutions, for example, or others in the community. It’s not just about you and your organization.
  5. Don’t forget that the developers of your new media experiment need guidance. You have to provide facts and you should be able to help create storyboards and deliver a philosophy and goals for the project.
  6. Don’t hesitate to use relatively low-tech solutions. Developing a full-fledged game can be expensive. Maybe a Flash-based game is okay as well (sorry Steve Jobs!). Or even organizing a quiz or a scavenger-hunt related to the kind of news you’re covering could be an interesting way to animate your community.
  7. If you’re not a gamer, familiarize yourself with games and virtual environments. There are lessons to be learned. For instance, did you ever think about the use of audio in the context of a game?
  8. If you start exploring games and virtual environments, you will soon find out that there are very different approaches. In some games participants follow a relatively set rule structure. Other games or environments offer a framework, a theme, and people are encouraged to respond by telling their own stories.
  9. Capture your experiments on video so you have something to show the people who chose not to participate. (And those who did participate should of course be asked for feedback.)
  10. Don’t forget your ethics and best practices. These should be part of your development and execution.


If you’re already trying any of these strategies to increase the attention span and the engagement of your community, I’d love to hear about it. What challenges and opportunities do you see? How can we practice “affordable immersive journalism”?

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.