Back in the day, no American breakfast table was complete without a pot of coffee and a hefty printed newspaper. It might sound primitive to a generation brought up looking at screens, but inky sheets of paper were once a key source of news for many Americans.
Over the last century, TV and the internet have changed the way we consume news. Online news websites and social media are the go-to resources for 43% of Americans, and only 16% opt for a print newspaper today. But as the circulation of print newspapers has dwindled, clickbait articles and fears about fake news have flourished.
So has good old-fashioned reporting been simplified for the benefit of today's digital junkies? And are traditional news outlets chasing "likes" rather than facts?
To find out, we analyzed 100 years of The New York Times articles and nearly a decade of other online news sources. Read on to discover how the reading difficulty of news articles has changed over the last century as technology changes the way we consume media.
Calculating an Average Reading Difficulty
A lot can happen in a century of news reporting. To see just how much news has changed as we've moved from print and TV to digital, we ran thousands of articles through the Gunning Fog Index analysis system. The main factor in determining reading difficulty level in this system is sentence length and word complexity. This means that a higher grade level does not necessarily denote better reporting, but more complexity.
For instance, the ideal level for widely read publications and written works should be around a score of 7 or 8. As we discovered in our analysis, the average news article today is much higher than that at 13. Has it always been this way, however? And are all publications across the political spectrum created equally? That's what we'll dive into next.
Rise of Online News
Over 4 million blog posts are published online every day. Perhaps as a consequence of having so much information available and no extra time to read it, the average human attention span dropped from 12 to eight seconds between the years 2000 and 2013.
Given these trends, you might assume that publishers have simplified their content for the digital age. However, the average reading level of an online article has increased since 2011, rising from around a 12th-grade (U.S.) standard to just above college sophomore.
As you'll see next, some publications have gotten much harder to read. On the other hand, some sources like more mainstream networks that rely on visual content have gotten a tad easier to digest in recent years.
Return of In-Depth Reporting
Simple news may be associated with the rise of online publications and clickbait headlines. However, we found that some news outlets have opted for more in-depth reporting, not less.
Politico, for example, shifted its focus to long-form political analysis in 2013. It now takes the average reader around 5.1 minutes to read a single article – 3.4 minutes longer than it did in 2011. Breitbart News, which favors long sentences, showed the greatest increase in reading difficulty.
The HuffPost decreased its content length the most, with the average article taking less than two minutes to read in 2019.
With that being said, an increase or decrease in reading difficulty level doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of reporting. CNN is read by over 100 million unique visitors every month; a lower reading difficulty level could simply reflect its plainspoken and accessible style.
Who's to Blame for Fake News?
In today's divided climate – where elections are fought and won on social media – misinformation spreads like wildfire. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans now consider fake news to be a bigger problem than terrorism, climate change, and racism. But which end of the political spectrum is responsible for the most influenced news?
According to our findings, there is no clear correlation between a publication's political bias and its average reading difficulty. Whether liberal or conservative, our research indicates that everyone enjoys a healthy diet of long- and short-form articles.
While left-leaning publication Politico and right-leaning publication Breitbart News ranked as among the most difficult to read, liberal publications featured slightly longer content than their middle- or right-leaning competitors. In short, when it comes to difficulty, publications across the political spectrum have more in common than you might imagine.
For both sides of the story, check out The Wall Street Journal's Blue Feed, Red Feed tool. It displays, side by side, Facebook posts from liberal and conservative news sources.
Print Media in the Digital Age
The New York Times was founded in 1851, has won more Pulitzer Prizes than any other newspaper, and enjoys an upscale readership. But as more and more people ditch print for online, has The NYT dispensed with heavyweight articles to compete with 24-hour news channels and Twitter?
According to our analysis, the average reading difficulty level of an NYT article peaked in the 1940s, almost reaching postgraduate level. Fast forward to 2019, and we can see that The New York Time's reading difficulty has declined slightly – but still ranks at a college sophomore level.
This is proof, perhaps, that illustrious print titles can move online and keep pace with new media, without having to sacrifice their standards. In 2018, for example, The NYT generated $709 million in digital revenue and is on track to transition to a majority digital subscriber base by 2025.
Nostalgia Ain't What It Used to Be
In 1897, the owner of The New York Times created the famous slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print" – a declaration of quality. It made sense because all of the news for the day had to fit onto sheets of paper. If a story wasn't exciting or newsworthy enough, it was cut out.
The NYT has been publishing an online edition since 1996. Has its content gotten longer as a result now that there is unlimited space to write and publish online?
When we turn back the clock to 1919, we can see that The New York Times articles averaged 592 words, taking around 2.3 minutes to read. In 2019, the average length of an NYT article was 944 words, taking about 3.8 minutes to read.
According to the Pew Research Center, more Americans consume news on a mobile device than a desktop, which likely means many are getting the day's news on the go. Without the constraints of print, the NYT can write wordier articles that engage online readers for longer.
Smart Ways to Stay Connected
It's easy to think that the digital world is no place for journalistic excellence. While the average reading difficulty of a news article has dipped slightly over the last century, today's news outlets offer a more diverse mix of snappy video content, fast-breaking reports, and high-quality long reads.
Still prefer the thud of a newspaper hitting the front porch over the soft click of a mouse? Today's news may be increasingly reliant on video, but print isn't dead – it's just evolving. No matter how you choose to consume your news, you can still find excellent reporting in every medium.
For this analysis, we relied on The New York Times API and Media Cloud's online news archive to examine the reading difficulty and word count of news articles. For The New York Times analysis, we gathered 6.4 million articles from 1919 to the present day.
We gathered 23,323 articles from Media Cloud, dating back to 2011. The amount from each publication is as follows:
- Vox - 1478
- Politico - 1370
- FiveThirtyEight - 383
- Slate - 1066
- The Washington Post - 1301
- USA Today - 1509
- CNN - 1382
- CBS News - 928
- HuffPost - 2585
- Breitbart News - 2226
- Business Insider - 2449
- BuzzFeed - 1290
- Fox News - 1551
- The New York Times - 889
- IJR - 893
- NBC News - 1012
- Quartz - 850
- Mic - 718
- The Daily Beast - 813
We accessed The New York Times archive and Media Cloud archive in June of 2019.
We analyzed reading difficulty based on the first paragraph of the text of each article using Textstat. By applying the Gunning Fog Index, we found the average reading difficulty level of articles included in our analysis.
For the "Median Reading Difficulty of Online News Articles," we averaged the reading difficulty levels of the following publications only:
- Breitbart News
- Business Insider
- CBS News
- Fox News
- NBC News
- The New York Times
- USA Today
- The Washington Post
The Gunning Fog Index analyzes the sentence and word length for text. These ratings are not indicative of the quality of reporting or complexity of analysis and should not reflect negatively on any publications.
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