20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
3
2050
T   I   O   N
4
2040
S   F   O   R   J
5
2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
6
2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

Pay more attention to attention

“Focusing on exposure only tells half the story: Without knowing what a person pays attention to, we know only that a person clicked, not that they learned.”

Critics often blame the attention economy for elevating content that appeals to our baser instincts. The argument goes like this: Media outlets, eager to increase their market share of attention in a fragmented media environment, use digital metrics like pageviews to better understand what consumers want. That data then informs content decisions, resulting in more cats-playing-piano-type stories and fewer stories about policy. The more pageviews that cats playing piano get, the more incentivized outlets are to produce such content. As a result, traffic analytics become both the method and the objective.

In monetizing our gaze, the media environment responds to market forces that demand traffic as proof of consumer attention. The implication is that these analytics tell us what people pay attention to. But that assumption about attention is not supported by empirical evidence.

Metrics can tell reporters and editors that the audience for a story is, for instance, disproportionately mobile and driven by Twitter. It can even tell them how much time people spent on the page. But they don’t tell us how many people actually read the story.

What these metrics capture is exposure: a necessary but insufficient requirement for attention.

Attention is elusive, often cursory, difficult to measure, and it is essential to understanding news consumption. In a forthcoming book project, my co-author Johanna Dunaway and I use eye tracking to show the ways that attention conditions learning in a mobile news environment. Another recent study found that mobile app users learn less from news consumption than do people getting news from other sources, despite spending more time with news. This research shows us that focusing on exposure only tells half the story: Without knowing what a person pays attention to, we know only that a person clicked, not that they learned.

This distinction between attention and exposure is vitally important for the news industry because, unlike other products, the news is a consumption good — meaning people have to consume a story in order to appraise its value.

Instead of taking these characteristics into account, traffic-driven news decisions are motivated by exposure rather than attention, elevating proliferation and retention over comprehension. That may be a suitable strategy for platforms like Facebook, which are advantaged by time-in-app, regardless of whether users are just habitually scrolling. Such an information structure belies the attention required to lend news its value — and yet news judgements often draw on similar metrics like time-on-page.

In other words, cats-playing-piano may get the initial exposure, pageviews that can be reported back to advertisers — but did it garner enough attention to create value for the reader? Cat lovers though we may be (I actually prefer dogs), a story that merits only minimal attention is more likely to be forgotten and thus warrants little value-added for the source beyond that click. A story that earns attention, on the other hand, elicits more thoughtful engagement with the information and increases recall, likely motivating other desirable attitudes and behaviors like trust and return visits.

Though there are certainly circumstances under which traffic is the goal, the news industry cannot be both motivated and sustained by exposure alone. Long-term success requires attention as well. In other words, we need to start thinking about what happens after the click to truly leverage the greatest economic value of digital news. Mistaking clicks for attention distorts consumer demand to the detriment of the news industry and the public.

Kathleen Searles is an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.

Critics often blame the attention economy for elevating content that appeals to our baser instincts. The argument goes like this: Media outlets, eager to increase their market share of attention in a fragmented media environment, use digital metrics like pageviews to better understand what consumers want. That data then informs content decisions, resulting in more cats-playing-piano-type stories and fewer stories about policy. The more pageviews that cats playing piano get, the more incentivized outlets are to produce such content. As a result, traffic analytics become both the method and the objective.

In monetizing our gaze, the media environment responds to market forces that demand traffic as proof of consumer attention. The implication is that these analytics tell us what people pay attention to. But that assumption about attention is not supported by empirical evidence.

Metrics can tell reporters and editors that the audience for a story is, for instance, disproportionately mobile and driven by Twitter. It can even tell them how much time people spent on the page. But they don’t tell us how many people actually read the story.

What these metrics capture is exposure: a necessary but insufficient requirement for attention.

Attention is elusive, often cursory, difficult to measure, and it is essential to understanding news consumption. In a forthcoming book project, my co-author Johanna Dunaway and I use eye tracking to show the ways that attention conditions learning in a mobile news environment. Another recent study found that mobile app users learn less from news consumption than do people getting news from other sources, despite spending more time with news. This research shows us that focusing on exposure only tells half the story: Without knowing what a person pays attention to, we know only that a person clicked, not that they learned.

This distinction between attention and exposure is vitally important for the news industry because, unlike other products, the news is a consumption good — meaning people have to consume a story in order to appraise its value.

Instead of taking these characteristics into account, traffic-driven news decisions are motivated by exposure rather than attention, elevating proliferation and retention over comprehension. That may be a suitable strategy for platforms like Facebook, which are advantaged by time-in-app, regardless of whether users are just habitually scrolling. Such an information structure belies the attention required to lend news its value — and yet news judgements often draw on similar metrics like time-on-page.

In other words, cats-playing-piano may get the initial exposure, pageviews that can be reported back to advertisers — but did it garner enough attention to create value for the reader? Cat lovers though we may be (I actually prefer dogs), a story that merits only minimal attention is more likely to be forgotten and thus warrants little value-added for the source beyond that click. A story that earns attention, on the other hand, elicits more thoughtful engagement with the information and increases recall, likely motivating other desirable attitudes and behaviors like trust and return visits.

Though there are certainly circumstances under which traffic is the goal, the news industry cannot be both motivated and sustained by exposure alone. Long-term success requires attention as well. In other words, we need to start thinking about what happens after the click to truly leverage the greatest economic value of digital news. Mistaking clicks for attention distorts consumer demand to the detriment of the news industry and the public.

Kathleen Searles is an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University.

Knight Foundation   Five generations of journalists, learning from each other

Fiona Spruill   The climate crisis gets the coverage it deserves

Emily Withrow   The year we kill the news article

Mariana Moura Santos   The future of journalism is collaborative

Jake Shapiro   Podcasting gets listener relationship management

Lauren Duca   The rise of the journalistic influencer

Kourtney Bitterly   Transparency isn’t just a desire, it’s an expectation

Jeff Kofman   Speed through technology

Logan Jaffe   You don’t need fancy tools to listen

Joshua Darr   All that campaign cash will make the media’s problems worse

Tom Glaisyer   Journalism can emerge newly vibrant and powerful

Jeremy Olshan   All journalism should be service journalism

Peter Bale   Lies get further normalized

Jeremy Gilbert and Jarrod Dicker   A call for collaboration between storytelling and tech

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists get left behind in the industry’s decline

Richard J. Tofel   A constraint of the reader-revenue model emerges

Linda Solomon Wood   Everyone in your organization, moving toward a common goal

Greg Emerson   News apps fall further behind

james Wahutu   Western journalists, learn from your African peers

Julia B. Chan   We 👏 take 👏 breaks 👏

Nathalie Malinarich   Betting on loyalty

Cristina Kim   Public media stops trying to serve “everybody”

Steve Henn   The dawning audio web

Monica Drake   A renewed focus on misinformation

Colleen Shalby   Journalists become media literacy teachers

Logan Molyneux and Shannon McGregor   Think twice before turning to Twitter

Anthony Nadler   Clash of Clans: Election Edition

Jennifer Brandel   A love letter from the year 2073

Ståle Grut   OSINT journalism goes mainstream

Mary Walter-Brown and Tristan Loper   Power to the people (on your audience team)

Tamar Charney   From broadcast to bespoke

Barbara Gray   Join local libraries on the frontlines of civic engagement

Kathleen Searles   Pay more attention to attention

Elizabeth Dunbar   Frank talk, and then action

Carrie Brown-Smith   Engaged journalism: It’s finally happening

Adam Thomas   The silver bullet

S. Mitra Kalita   The race to 2021

Madelyn Sanfilippo and Yafit Lev-Aretz   News coverage gets geo-fragmented

Sarah Schmalbach   Journalist, quantify thyself

Laura E. Davis   Know the context your journalism is operating within

Sonali Prasad   Climate change storytelling gets multidimensional

Nushin Rashidian   Are platforms a bridge or a lifeline?

Cindy Royal   Prepare media students for skills, not job titles

Ernie Smith   The death of the industry fad

Marie Gilot   This is fine

John Garrett   It’s the best time in a century to start a local news organization

Talia Stroud   The work of reconnecting starts November 4

A.J. Bauer   A fork in the road for conservative media

Joanne McNeil   A return to blogs (finally? sort of?)

Brian Moritz   The end of “stick to sports”

Helen Havlak   Platforms shine a light on original reporting

Matthew Pressman   News consumers divide into haves and have-nots

Geneva Overholser   Death to bothsidesism

Cory Haik   We’re already consuming the future of news — now we have to produce it

Millie Tran   Wicked

Doris Truong   The year of radical salary transparency

Sarah Marshall   The year to learn about news moments

Nicholas Jackson   What’s left of local gets comfortable with reader support

Heather Bryant   Some kinds of journalism aren’t worth saving

John Keefe   Journalism gets hacked

Don Day   Respect the non-paying audience

Josh Schwartz   Publishers move beyond the metered paywall

Rachel Schallom   The value of push alerts goes beyond open rates

Alfred Hermida and Mary Lynn Young   The promise of nonprofit journalism

Hossein Derakhshan   AI can’t conjure up an Errol Morris

Whitney Phillips   A time to question core beliefs

Sarah Alvarez   I’m ready for post-news

Nico Gendron   Make better products if you want to reach Gen Z

Bill Adair   A Nobel Prize, a Brad Pitt film, and a Taylor Swift song

Catalina Albeanu   Rebuilding journalism, together

Monique Judge   The year to organize, unionize, and fight

Kerri Hoffman   Opening closed systems

Imaeyen Ibanga   Let’s take it slow

Mira Lowe   The year of student-powered journalism

Mike Caulfield   Native verification tools for the blue checkmark crowd

Irving Washington   Leadership isn’t something you learn on the job

Sara K. Baranowski   A big year for little newspapers

Raney Aronson-Rath   News deserts will proliferate — but so will new solutions

Tanya Cordrey   Saying no to more good ideas

Simon Galperin   Journalism becomes more democratic

Craig Newmark   Formalizing newsrooms’ battle against disinformation

Tonya Mosley   The neutrality vs. objectivity game ends

Jim Brady   We’ll complain about other people living in bubbles while ignoring our own

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The business we want, not the business we had

Annie Rudd   The expanded ambiguity of the news photograph

Alana Levinson   Brand-backed media gets another look

Beena Raghavendran   The year of the local engagement reporter

Masuma Ahuja   Slower, quieter, more measured and thoughtful

Jasmine McNealy   A call for context

Francesco Zaffarano   TikTok without generational prejudice

Elizabeth Hansen and Jesse Holcomb   Local news initiatives run into a capital shortage

Victor Pickard   We reclaim a public good

M. Scott Havens   First-party data becomes media’s most important currency

Mario García   Think small (screen)

Margarita Noriega   The platforms try to figure out what to do with single-subject newsrooms

Lucas Graves   A smarter conversation about how (and why) fact-checking matters

Bill Grueskin   Our ethics codes get an overhaul

Carl Bialik   Journalists will try running the whole shop

Alice Antheaume   Trade “politics” for “power”

Kevin D. Grant   The free press stands against authoritarians’ attacks on truth

Zizi Papacharissi   A president leads, the press follows, reality fades

Sue Robinson   Campaign coverage as test bed for engagement experiments

Jonas Kaiser   Russian bots are just today’s slacktivists

Meredith Artley   Stronger solidarity among news organizations

Christa Scharfenberg   It’s time to make journalism a field that supports and respects women

Sarah Stonbely   More people start caring about news inequality

Heidi Tworek   The year of positive pushback

Dannagal G. Young   Let’s disrupt the logic that’s driving Americans apart

Nikki Usher   All systems down

Meg Marco   Everything happens somewhere

Jakob Moll   A slow-moving tech backlash among young people

Dan Shanoff   Sports media enters the Bronny era

Alexandra Borchardt   Get out of the office and talk to people

Pablo Boczkowski   The day after November 4

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, collaboration in a time of state attacks

Michael W. Wagner   Increasingly fractured, but little bit deliberative

Joni Deutsch   Podcasting unsilences the silent

Joe Amditis   Collaborative journalism takes its rightful place at the table

Brenda P. Salinas   Treating MP3 files like text

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting finally creates another mega-hit show

Seth C. Lewis   20 questions for 2020

Errin Haines   Race and gender aren’t a 2020 story — they’re the story

Kristen Muller   The year we operationalize community engagement

Matt DeRienzo   Local broadcasters begin to fill the gaps left by newspapers

Felix Salmon   Spotify launches a news channel

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   A changing industry amps up podcasters’ ambitions

Rachel Davis Mersey   The business of local TV news will enter its downward slide

Candis Callison   Taking a cue from Indigenous journalists on climate change

An Xiao Mina   The Forum we wanted, the forum we got

Ben Werdmuller   Use the tools of journalism to save it

L. Gordon Crovitz   Fighting misinformation requires journalism, not secret algorithms

Stefanie Murray   Charitable giving goes collaborative

Rick Berke   Incoming fire from both left and right