Pay attention to distraction

“There’s a big question I think we need to ask ourselves as an industry: Where does this constant shift in attention and loyalty leave news organizations in five or 10 years?”

As most people with children in their lives probably do, I worry about the world my nieces, ages 4 and 7, will face in the future and how they’ll navigate it. I worry about it for some of the obvious reasons: the consequences of climate change, the economy, war, and violence. But another cause of my concern is less common: I’m concerned that news about those all-important topics will not be readily available or even obvious to them and their peers as they grow into adults who, in a previous generation, would be almost predestined to be heavy news consumers.

sasha-korenIf this sounds alarmist and hyperbolic, it’s intentionally so. Sure, I’m concerned about the shrinking of the industry from the lack of a viable long-term business model. But in addition to all the monetary challenges to the survival of even the biggest news organizations, I think there’s an additional one looming in the distance: our future audiences — those that value news enough to consume it regularly and to value its place in their lives — may be distracted away from us.

Gaining attention to the work our organizations produce has become a vital step in the way we produce and disseminate news. Where once audience development may have amounted to little more than the availability of a physical paper on a breakfast table, at a cafe, or in a library, we now have entire teams devoted to it. It’s no longer a radical notion that we need to go out and get audiences rather than wait for them to come to us. What’s more, our competitors are no longer just other news organizations of like size and areas of coverage, but every single form of media and interactivity available: every piece of content, notification, game, streaming video, and so on. Not an easy landscape in which to build traffic, increase attention time, and develop loyalty, and my hat is off to those fighting that good fight.

Audience development and persistent work to build brand presence within new platforms is a necessary step for news organizations, yes. But simultaneously, we should pay increasing attention to how much (or little) ever-younger audiences and potential audiences know about and value what we professionals are working so hard to offer them. And when what we’re offering is, with any luck, available in the same viewing space as any other signal asking for a user’s attention, it may not be so obvious as I think we assume.

My teacher friends at both the college and high school levels tell me that what their students consider to be news is more what they catch from various platforms, including things like YouTube and Instagram, than what news outlets are offering them. One acquaintance, a parent of three aged 6 through 12, mentioned that each chooses to interact with different media. These examples are far from scientific, they signal to me that we’re missing something.

There’s a big question I think we need to ask ourselves as an industry: Where does this constant shift in attention and loyalty leave news organizations in five or 10 years? With the breakfast-table mode all but gone, the pulls at attention ever greater, and familiarity with sources in decline, how will we still get the attention of those who need us?

I’m not arguing that we aim to restore old habits and put a paper on every doorstep (impossible) or launch a mass campaign to get parents to force-feed their kids a news diet of apps and push notifications. We should still keep our eyes on Facebook’s user stats and how some lucky organizations are reaching a particular demographic in Snapchat’s Discover feature. We need to work hard to keep innovating now and be relevant today, even as we look ahead.

But to have any chance at making the news a major factor in everyday life for future generations, I believe we need to work harder to understand younger audiences in a variety of age ranges, and keep working over time as they shift and change. We need to understand how their brains are developing, what speaks to them, and how they adopt new technologies. Then we need to keep aiming to deliver news to them in contexts and formats they can relate to, without diluting the quality of what we produce. Without some serious research into the users of the future, we’re creating a blind spot that will make the relevance as sources less obvious. Let’s diminish the worry, and do some serious forward-looking user research. Maybe with 10-year-olds. Maybe even with the preschool set.