Last weekend I bought half a dozen old Canadian editions of Time magazines at a yard sale – and also picked up a reminder of how audiences have changed.

One issue was from May 1967, exactly 50 years ago, with the cover story on Canada’s coming centennial. Another was from July 1969, the issue covering the first moon landing. An issue from June 1967 had a piece on the NHL going from 6 teams to 12, doubling the number of jobs that averaged $18,226 in salary.

For a couple of bucks each, it was great to flip through these slices of history.

A few things jumped out.

Many articles, far from seeming of a totally different era, could have been written today: Europe seeking unity, Russia and the U.S. at odds, and the chummy nature of the financial establishment.

The ads were quirky. Long distance calls overseas for $6 to $12 per three minutes. Cheese from an aerosol can. And pitches, yet to be banned, for umpteen brands of tobacco and alcohol.

Yet what was most jarring was the layout for editorial. Three full columns on a page, with small print and maybe one black-and-white photo to break it up. No colour, no sidebars, no bullets, no infographics, no charts, no pull quotes, no boxes. Just blocks of dense copy that readers were expected to, you know, read.

It’s a concept as quaint as those cigarette ads.

That’s not a shot at current attention spans, mine included. You know what, the old layouts were dull. Not at all inviting. They sure wouldn’t cut it given how today’s audiences absorb online or print copy.

F shapes

People read only 20% of the content on a web page, because they scan in an F shape. Eye-tracking studies have shown that we look horizontally across the first paragraph, vertically down the left side, and horizontally a bit further down (though not as far across the copy as with the initial scan).


An American survey by the Media Insight Project asked whether people tried to get news in-depth on any given subject in the previous week. Only 41% of respondents said that they read (or watched or listened) beyond the headlines. To be honest, think of how you scroll through your Twitter feed. The entire model, essentially, is built on headlines.

15-second scans

One study by the data analytics firm Chartbeat looked at user behaviour across 2 billion web visits over a month. Most people who click don’t read. Over half of the audience, 55%, spend fewer than 15 seconds actively on a web page. For article pages the results are better, but not by a whole lot; one in three visitors spend less than 15 seconds reading articles they land on.

Going through the old Time issues was fascinating, and it also reinforced the importance of writing for scanners and skimmers. Because we all are. Which means:

Tell as much as you can in the headings and sub-headings.

Highlight key words or points.

Create more white space by using short sentences and paragraphs. Like this.

Start each line or chunk with the most important information.

Like those 50-year old magazines told me, we’re always dealing with time. Grab it.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

May 31, 2017

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