Reader at the Helm: The Active Engagement of Online Reading

Publishers have long struggled with translating print content onto the web. The perception that digital platforms should be consistent with that of the passive print format has been a persistent obstacle to gaining and keeping online readers’ attention. Token attempts to incorporate digital functions have missed the true scale of the web’s potential for content. What the web can offer, and what is seen through a few enterprising websites, is a more integrated effort to build an online community through engagement with readers in a structure designed to embrace the openness of the online world, rather than one shaped by the limiting capacity of print. Publishers need to think beyond the scope of a typical print container, and consider how their content can  best utilize the various options offered by digital technology (O’Leary, 2014).

An article within a print magazine or journal can be read and shared with others, but sharing is restricted by the number of physical copies available to pass around. A digital article can also be read and shared, but the openness of the web and the lack of tangibility associated with the article means that it can be shared and accessed by an infinite number of people. No one is impeded from reading the article online (barring Internet access) by another’s access to it.

Though publishers are aware of this, they still fail to take full advantage of the shareability of digital content. The double-edged sword of openness–that content can be made more readily accessible to a larger audience, but in ways that don’t always monetarily benefit the content providers, ie. pirated material–has instilled a strong concern in publishers. Because they fear theft in an industry that already struggles to earn sufficient profit, their option is to restrict the accessibility of digital content through paywalls and data lock-ins that result in a fixed format made more inhibitive than the one typically used for print content.

However, what publishers need to realize is that protection through restriction prevents the potential for a web audience. Rather than inhibit readers, publishers need to make their content more open. Yet considering the abundance of content online, availability is only one step to gaining a readership (O’Leary, 2012). Digital content has to provide more benefits to the readers in order to keep them. Long form digital reading has not become as common as long form print reading, which may be due to readers being accustomed to the tactile experience of print content (Jabr, 2013). Because readers respond differently to screens, a digital article needs to be designed to accommodate the needs and wants of the reader (Chimero, 2013) rather than follow the same  format as that of a static print article. Digital content is not limited in the same way as print, and so it should not be designed in the same way.

Some websites have begun addressing these differences in reading experiences. The New York Times published an online article, “Snow Fall,”  about the 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche (Branch, 2012). The article incorporated a mix of text, imagery, and flash videos that prompted an overwhelming response:  3.5 million page views in a week; over 1,100 comments; and a Pulitzer Prize (Bennet, 2013). What worked for the article was that it focused on a compelling subject that used multimedia content not as flashy gimmickry but as supplementary material to strengthen its online appeal. Such a format would not necessarily work for every digital article; depending on the topic, another article could make use of audio, but may not require video or an abundance of imagery.

Many blogs as well as online magazines and newspapers also include comments sections and social media share buttons in acknowledgement of the digital advantage to disseminate content on a larger scale than that of print. But that alone is not enough. Medium, a site for both professional and amateur writers to share stories, uses an annotation system in place of a conventional discussion board. Instead of readers being forced to scroll to the bottom of the story to submit their comments, they can respond directly to a specific passage. Comments appear (and disappear) beside the passage when the speech icon is clicked. What’s more, authors have responded to readers’ comments, allowing for a more interactive level of discourse that is also much more organized than the traditional online commenting system. The issue with many commenting systems is that those in charge disregard it, allowing readers to comment haphazardly. The lack of moderation creates a sense that those who published the content possess little respect for it, and the perception of reader interactivity is an illusion if publishers (and authors) choose not to participate.

Medium has also enabled other forms of active engagement for the reader. Readers can become “editors” by creating collections, which feature stories that have been curated by the editor; writers can submit their stories for consideration, but ultimately, the editor of a collection determines what stories will be included (Ingram, 2013). That level of control also provides a convenient way to keep track of articles, which is a form of organization not afforded by the print platform.

The static nature of print has been the standard format for publishers and readers for decades. Yet the open access of the web has shown that content needs to be treated differently depending on the platform. Some sites have successfully taken advantage of the web’s extensibility to create an established online audience by providing them with more options (content in different forms other than text, ie. videos and images relevant to the topic) and more control (in the form of curation and commentary). There needs to be a move from consolidation of control to openness of content (Chimero, 2013). Providing readers with more opportunities for active engagement leads to more investment from the readers, and requires a level of investment on the part of the publishers as well, which many of them have failed to understand.


O’Leary, B. (2012, November 8). Community Organizers. Magellan Media Consulting Partners. Retrieved from

Branch, J. (2012, December 12). Snow Fall. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Jabr, F. (2013, April 11). The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. The Scientific American. Retrieved from

Chimero, F. (2013 November). What Screens Want. Retrieved from

Ingram, M. (2013, December 4). Medium beefs up its design and also expands on editorial curation features. Gigaom. Retrieved from

Bennet, J. (2013, December 12). Against ‘Long-Form Journalism’. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

O’Leary, B. (2014, February 20). Publishing Has Entered a New and Different Era. Futurebook. Retrieved from