Journalism: Winning the battle for attention

Last week, I had the honour to return to Sydney Australia for Digital Directions 11, a digital media conference sponsored by Fairfax Media and organised by the ever-wonderful XMediaLab team. I focused on the theme of the attention economy. It’s not a new idea. Umair Haque was talking about it in 2005, but if anything, the issue is more acute now than 6 years ago. Most media business models are based on scarcity. Across the English-speaking world, all but the largest cities are served by only one newspaper. Until cable and satellite, we had the choice of only a few television channels, and in those businesses, high capital costs usually led to monopolies. Digital media of all kinds has ended scarcity, and as Clay Shirky says:

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does

One of the troubling things has been is that news organisations have responded by creating ever more content. The thinking has been in digital media to create more content to hopefully attract a larger audience and have more content to put ads against. It hasn’t led to increased revenue. If anything, the excess inventory actually depressed digital returns during the recession.

The Associated Press also found in a study (A New Model for News PDF) that young audiences were turning off to news because they were overwhelmed with incremental updates:

The subjects were overloaded with facts and updates and were having trouble moving more deeply into the background and resolution of news stories.

Yet the response by news organisations has been to produce more content even as they have had to reduce staffing due to their economic problems. It’s like trying to save a drowning man by giving him a glass of water.

I argued that relationship and relevance are key to news organisations winning the battle for attention. Engaging audiences directly through social media journalism is one way that news organisations can increase loyalty. I also think that helping audiences discover content that is relevant and interesting to them is key to the future success of news organisations, and I think that they can do this both with semantic and location-based technologies. Success will come with smart, sharp content and real engagement by journalists.

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