How can we help people focus when consuming news online, to improve engagement with journalism?

What is your journalism challenge? What problem are you working to solve?

The constant bombardment of distractions — emails, texts, Twitter, Facebook and the like — has turned news consumers into cursory readers, greatly limiting their ability to concentrate and absorb information. I am searching for a way to minimize cognitive overload, while enhancing a reader’s retention and engagement with journalism.

How would solving this problem help journalism?

Research has proven that being online — even on a limited basis — reshapes the neural pathways of the brain, making it more difficult for readers to hold their attention on a news story and retain its information. Once news organizations understand how content overload can impact a reader’s ability to lose focus and attention, we can start producing content in a more mindful manner. Journalism should not only be read, but remembered.

Who is tackling a similar problem and how is your approach different?

A wave of newsreaders, including Readability, InstaPaper, and Papyral are being developed in the hopes of creating an uncluttered, distraction-free format to help improve readers’ concentration. Additionally, new “reader” functions have been added to Safari and Chrome to also further that effort. My approach would seek to build on the use of these “readers,” and find other ways, including designing an optimized user experience, to further enhance readers’ ability to focus, be more engaged and be more mindful while reading.

What are the first questions you plan to pursue?

  • How does spending time online impact how we read and think?
  • What tools can be used to minimize distractions?
  • What do journalists need to consider about cognitive overload when designing a user interface?

What are the first steps you plan to take in working on your challenge?

I plan to interview neuroscientists and psychologists, UX/UI designers, mindfulness experts, as well as top researchers at companies that are developing readers and other functionalities to help minimize distractions while online.

Donna Borak’s bio. Have suggestions or questions about this challenge? Email dborak@stanford.edu.