Give readers visuals every 250 words

How much text will your audience read between visuals?

I found myself wondering this recently, as I perused some of the award winners from the Online News Association’s last annual contest. It seemed like every link I opened had a long story broken up by some visual element, either a photo with caption, video, ad or infographic.

So I ran an experiment to test my hypothesis, and my hunch was about right. Across award-winning stories, there were generally only 180-300 words between visuals, with the average being about 250. This might sound like a lot, but it’s only about as much text as could fit on my screen before scrolling. That makes perfect sense.

Just when I look at the big chunk of text in front of me and think, “I don’t have time to read this,” I’m pulled back in with a compelling image or a quick video. In his iconic guide “The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook,” Tim Harrower offers designers a guideline he calls the “dollar bill rule,” which suggests you shouldn’t be able to place a dollar bill anywhere on the printed page without touching a design element (i.e. no big gray blocks of text).

This is about where your reader is starting to lose interest. Does this visual break in the text help?

So web designers have adapted this philosophy in the “scroll test,” where I give you something to break up the text each time you’re forced to scroll.

I know from looking through lots of high school news websites many of our student journalists’ online stories would definitely not pass the “scroll test.” In fact, the vast majority of stories include only a single image at the top. I’d suggest they would probably have greater success getting readers to the end of their stories if they followed this simple story design rule.

Not a lot of images? Here are some other ways to break up your story:

  • Use subheadings
  • Create infographics or alternative story forms
  • Use pull quotes (block quotes)
  • Insert referrals to other stories
  • Create a list, like this one

Want to see a few of the examples I analyzed? Here’s a short list of inspiration:

Michelle Balmeo

Michelle Balmeo, MJE, is the adviser of The Whirlwind newsmagazine and online news publication at West Albany High School in Albany, Ore. She's done some print stuff, some video stuff, and some web stuff over the past 16 years as a student media adviser.

Michelle Balmeo has 66 posts and counting. See all posts by Michelle Balmeo

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