Online newspapers coddle their readers by giving them “reading times” for articles

October 11, 2022 • 9:15 am

Although this might have been going on for a long time, I just noticed it yesterday.  Two of the three “MSM” news paper sites to which I subscribe—the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—are providing “reading times” for most of their articles. See below; I’ve put arrows by the times:

The Wall Street Journal does it, too (for long pieces they just note “long read”):

These times presumably allow a reader to judge whether he or she wants to or has time to read a piece. I guess if the time is too long, you don’t read it.

Of course this raises a number of questions. First, how do they estimate the reading time? Presumably it’s based on the number of words in the piece, divided by a “standard” reading time of words/minute.

I consider myself a fairly fast reader (not always a good thing when I’m reading prose that needs to be savored), so I took one article from the NYT to test the reading time for me. It’s this one (click to read), estimated at 6 minutes reading time.

Excluding the ancillary material at the end, which are notices about other unrelated articles, it took me 2 minutes and 23 seconds.  Although I am a fast reader, I am not that fast, and so the timings must be directed at those who read fairly slowly.

The second question is also obvious: Why are the newspapers doing this?

I will try not to be curmudgeonly here (and will fail), but it seems to me that you should choose which pieces to read based on whether their title interests you. If the article engages you, you read on to the end. If it doesn’t, of you have other pressing issues to attend to, you stop reading and move on.

It appears, in an age when there are a gazillion online sites competing for your time, that this is the way some news sites have chosen to help harried readers decide what to read—a way based solely on the title and the reading time. Perhaps that’s better than the alternative of using only the title, but it may be worse than the alternative of reading based on the title and reading the whole article because it’s interesting and informative, or giving up if you’re bored.

But if you’re going to use these times to decide what to read, you have to know your reading speed. How many readers have matched the estimated reading time with their own reading time?  Would you choose what to read based on estimated reading times?

24 thoughts on “Online newspapers coddle their readers by giving them “reading times” for articles

  1. Oh my – that sounded to me entirely meaningless , so I spent no time pondering the … number – and clearly, it will only get worse – what a sad development.

    It is puzzling – to ignore material, to read it, or not, in favor of other things – a vicious information cycle leading to utter paralysis.

  2. Yes, I noticed this a bit ago, too; I’m not sure how long it’s been prevalent. Even Kindle does something like this, though it “estimates” you reading time (to the end of the chapter, say) based on how long it’s taken you to read what you’ve read so far.

    I really don’t grasp the point of it. I completely agree with PCC(E) that it should depend on whether the article is interesting whether you choose to start and then continue it. I suppose it might be considered a courtesy in a situation in which one cannot just look at the page of a newspaper or magazine (for instance) to see how long an article is, but must click on a link to go to it. But since they’re all within an order of magnitude (and single digits at that) in estimated reading time anyway, does that really make a difference? People confuse me so much.

  3. I’ve noticed this quite a while ago; perhaps in Quillette the first time.
    Honestly, I don’t see it as a big deal or even a negative thing, but rather informative. I think I’m usually a bit slower than the estimated times (I guess that makes me a very slow reader, although English is not my mother tongue, which probably plays a role).
    I use it to decide not whether I read something or not, but rather when to read it (e.g., if I’m just skimming for a few minutes during breakfast I might open a couple of 5 min pieces, whereas I would leave for the evening the 20 min ones).

    1. Yes José, I fully agree. You don’t want to start a 60 min piece if you have to do something else in 6 minutes, busy schedules and all that…
      I suppose it is caused by ‘on line reading’, which often does not give you a clue how long a piece is. In printed media you can actually see how many pages a piece or a chapter is, and hence nearly instinctively allows you to estimate the duration. Not so in ‘on line reading’, so an estimate of the reading time is very handy, I’d say.

  4. I’ve noticed it and it’s been going on for a while. Also, the Kindle app allows you to see estimated time remaining in a chapter or book. In the case of Kindle, it calculates this using your reading history—how long it has been taking you to read each page so far.

    I like it! Since I have a number of things to do each day, I like to know what kind of commitment a particular article or book will require. Sometimes, if the piece is long(ish), I’ll bookmark it for later, rather than read it now. Occasionally, I’ll decide that 38 minutes (or whatever) is simply too long to devote to the topic at hand and I’ll pass on the article. So, I find the estimated reading times very helpful. I evaluate the estimated reading time against my interest in the topic to decide whether to read this article or one of the zillion others that are out there.

    How do they estimate reading times? I don’t know, but I don’t much care about how accurate the absolute time is. Just knowing the relative times is good enough to be useful. I don’t really care if an article actually takes four minutes even if the estimate provided is five minutes. It gives me a ballpark figure I can use. Conceptually, this is nothing new. We all measure the heft of a printed book to evaluate the commitment we will need to put into it, so now we have the same for online content.

    Whatever the reason the companies have for providing estimated reading times, I find it helpful.

  5. I agree that it’s somewhat informative and not offensive. I’m not taking the times as anything more than a general length indicator. If don’t simply skip the linked article, this helps me decide whether to simply click the link and start reading now (letting it take over my screen), or click in some other manner to open in a new (and hidden) tab or window, to read later, while for now I finish my email list or whatever the main task had been.

  6. This wouldn’t be necessary if the articles were written in classic newspaper mode: put all the important info in the first paragraph or two and then flesh out the rest of the story with the details. That way readers could choose whether to invest more time.

  7. The addition of ‘reading time’ information is silly, but inoffensive. I think your inner curmudgeon may be showing, but then I’ve been noticing that in myself lately, too!

  8. The curmudgeon in me has looked at the issuance of these estimated times as catering to people whose self-important lives are soooo busy that they feel that they must productively schedule every minute…yes i have time for one 2-minute read, a 5-minute read, and two 3-minute reads before my next scheduled calendar event. Plan your day totally down to the minute!

    But after reading this morning’s comments, I take a more understanding view. Thanks, folks. And to tell the truth, though I do not do times mainly because as Jerry points out, we all read at different speeds and your mileage may vary depending on how many references you click on and read, I, as a courtesy to people, often do comment on the length of any article (such as from a substack column) that I send or forward to them…not in time to read but in page count or call it short (2-3 pages), longish (6-9 pages) or long (15 or more pages). With longer articles also come more references which sometimes can double the actual reading time.

    So thanks for straightening me out.

  9. The platform that hosts my blog does the same thing unless it is disabled by the author, which I have done. Displaying estimated “reading time” is yet another example of the epidemic of coddling people.

  10. I usually read the Washington Post on my iPad, as I live out in the boonies and even the local weekly is mailed. But we were visiting friends this past weekend, and I enjoyed getting to read the dead-tree WaPo. I started a story (can’t remember the topic) and turned inside to the jump. I glanced at the real estate taken up by the continuation of the story and decided it was more than I cared to read about the topic. I suppose the “reading time” allows people to make a similar decision.

  11. As opposed to physical media, digital copy gives no visual cues to the length of an article, chapter, etc. This is accentuated when being read on smaller screens like phones. The amount of pagination or scrolling makes it difficult to discern the length of a piece. I find some value in these estimates now that I rarely read “paper”.

    1. (This comment has a ~30 s reading time)

      I wanted to point out something similar. Years ago, when there were fewer ads plastered all over the internet, I was pretty good at estimating the amount of time it would take me to read a page based on the size of the scroll bar in my browser, and some level of familiarity with the site (i.e., how many pictures to expect). Personally, I never read long writing on my phone screen. Now, many sites have an ad or more per paragraph, and it’s even more common to plaster as many links as possible from the site’s own directory beneath the article (the Times, and most other news sites, being great examples). This makes it futile to attempt an at-a-glance estimate of the amount of time it’ll take to read something.

      I’m ambivalent. Providing a benchmark has some utility, but it also draws my attention to the bigger problem of being drowned in ads and superfluous content. They’re solving a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Of course the fault doesn’t lie with a specific outlet but is rather mass advertising and content-ification of the internet. In the spirit of compromise, I’d rather have something than nothing, but would vastly prefer a word count, as the host suggested.

  12. For those of us who prudently avoid paying a subscription for either the NYT or the WP or the WSJ, times spent at these troughs is zero. The fetish of specifying “reading time” with every headline probably represents horizontal meme transfer from YouTube, at which the length clips is specified, so one can judge the allocation of hours of one’s time on earth.

  13. It’s akin to calorie counts on menus. Interesting information, I guess, but unlikely many are using it to inform decisions of what they eat…or read.

  14. I personally see no use in it. As a harried reader, I just choose how far to read. If I don’t have time or lose interest, I start skipping over bits or just stop.

  15. Perhaps they also should include a “# of Brain Cells Required,” depending upon the fluffiness of the article.

  16. What is the estimated reading time for the Bible? It’s been sixty years since I began the begats. And the plot sickens!

    I like your idea, Larry.

    1. I wonder when the dust jackets of several hundred-page books will note the projected reading time. Court decisions? The Congressional Record? Political speeches? Multi-folded paper descriptions of pharmaceuticals? Advertisements via whatever medium? Sermons? Eulogies? Lectures from one’s spouse or mother-in-law? Naggings from one’s children?

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