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.

Digital Directions 11: Josh Hatch of Sunlight Foundation

Josh Hatch, until recently an interactive director at and now with the Sunlight Foundation, talked about how the organisation loves data. The transparency organisation uses data to show context and relationships. He highlighted how much money Google gave to candidates. Sunlight’s Influence Explorer showed that contributions from the organisation’s employees, their family members, and its political action committee went overwhelmingly to Barack Obama.

Sunlight Foundation Influence Explorer Google

The Influence Explorer is also part of another tool that Sunlight has, Poligraft. It is an astoundingly interesting tool in terms of surfacing information about political contributions in the US. You can enter the URL of any political story or just the text, and Poligraft will analyse the story and show you the donors for every member of Congress mentioned in the story. They will highlight details about the donors, donations from organisations and US government agencies. It’s an amazingly powerful application, and I think that it points the way to easily add context to stories. It does rely on the gigabytes of data that the US government publishes, but it’s a great argument for government data publishing and a demonstration for how to use that data. Poligraft is powerful and it scales well.

Josh showed a huge range of data visualisations, and he’ll post the presentation online. I’ll link to it once he’s done.

Digital Directions 11: Fairfax’s digital business

I’m in Sydney to speak at Digital Directions 11. I’ll post my talk to Slide Share in a bit. The conference is hosted by Fairfax, and yesterday, we got a look at their digital business. There are a lot of news and media organisations that have built credible digital offerings over the last decade without building sustainable digital businesses. Fairfax is one of the exceptions. Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood said that digital is its third largest division by revenue and soon to take over the number two spot. Yesterday, we were told that transactions were 60% of digital revenue. Transactions? They have businesses such as a dating service called RSVP and a holiday home rental service, They are seeing phenomenal growth in that business. Many of these businesses have been acquisitions, not businesses built in house.

Moreover, the revenue being generated by digital is now driving the ascendancy of digital in the organisation. Recently, Jack Matthews, who had been the CEO of digital, was made the CEO of their metro division overseeing both print and digital. He will drive integration. They are going to integrate their print and digital editorial operations, but the current thinking (and this might change) is that while journalism resources will become a common pool, digital will retain its own editorial independence, Matthews told me. Fairfax has found that print and digital offerings don’t share the same audience. Market research has found that their digital audience is slightly more upmarket than their print audience, and they have decided that they need to maintain digital and print independence to best serve those audiences.

They were ready to admit that integration has often meant print divisions taking over digital. If digital didn’t have such a strong revenue position, I doubt, actually, I’m almost certain, that digital wouldn’t be driving integration at Fairfax. That is not to say that it hasn’t been a battle at Fairfax. I know there has been a battle, and Matthews admitted as much. It’s not to say that the battle is over. However, when digital brings revenue, instead of being pushed aside during print and digital integration, they can actually be in the driver’s seat.