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  News Online Seems to Have Long Shelf Life

NY Times | July 17, 2006
By NOAM COHEN

A new research paper seeks to answer a riddle for publishers, editors and even readers: when does new news become old news?

In the case of a news article on the Internet, the answer is surprisingly long: 36 hours on average, according to the paper, “The Dynamics of Information Access on the Web,” which appeared in the June issue of Physical Review E, the journal of the American Physical Society.

More precisely, 36 hours is the amount of time it takes for half of the total readership of an article to have read it, the paper found. The physicist who led the research, Albert-László Barabási of the University of Notre Dame, said that the paper’s conclusion should give journalists hope, even in the era of instant news. Dr. Barabási said that traditional ideas about the way people use the Internet would have led researchers to expect a much shorter half-life, more like two to four hours.

“You can spin it two ways,” said Dr. Barabási, a specialist on complex networks. “Gee, only 36 hours is the typical half-life of an article. Or gee, I would have expected it to be shorter.”

Editors of online news sites said the results confirmed what they experience day to day.

“It’s remarkable to watch how the readers find their way to what they’re interested in,” said Jennifer Sizemore, managing editor of the news portal MSNBC.com, which is owned by the Microsoft Corporation and the NBC Universal division of the General Electric Company. “Sure, the top news story always gets a ton of traffic. But sometimes that second-to-last headline near the bottom of the page won’t be far behind. And there are features that will draw strongly for a week or more. Even once they’re no longer featured on the front, they are prominent throughout the site.”

Neil F. Budde, general manager of Yahoo News, said his site must balance a variety of competing interests: frequent visitors who get bored by even slightly stale news, less frequent visitors who won’t know what has happened in the last few hours or even days, and the editors’ own news judgment.

“What would be ideal would be to keep track of when you were last on our site and present a package of news that would be different than what others see,” said Mr. Budde.

He said that the site had so much traffic that it was hard to conduct detailed research along the lines of Dr. Barabási’s study. But, he added, “we do have real-time statistics for the headlines that appear on the front page,” and “you can see that click rates go down after a couple of hours.”

Dr. Barabási said that one of the main insights from his research was that Internet users did not read news articles evenly throughout the day. Instead, they read in bursts. So while a story will seem old to some users, others who have been away from the Internet for a while will be intrigued to catch up and begin reading.

The researcher says that he has found the same “burst” pattern of activity in other areas, whether in phone usage or in the correspondence habits of famous scientists like Einstein and Darwin.

The research paper was based on a month of tracking every click of each visitor to a prominent Hungarian news and entertainment site, origo.hu. (To protect the privacy of the 250,000 or so unique visitors to the site, researchers were given numbers rather than the Internet addresses of the visitors.)

“What we find when we look at one particular individual is not uniform in time,” Dr. Barabási said. “There are short periods of lots of clicks and then long periods of nothing.”

This pattern is considered the reason that readership rates don’t drop off precipitously for particular articles after a few hours.

This policy of promoting articles on a Web site even after they have lost their “news value” is the one concrete suggestion Dr. Barabási offered to editors, because searches won’t help readers who don’t know what they have been missing.

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