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Sept. 15, 2020, 1:36 p.m.

Who’s interested in “slow journalism”? Turns out, mostly the same people who are into regular ol’ fast journalism

Slow news has been pitched as a way to break through the noise and reach audiences exhausted by the daily headlines. But it’s still fast-news junkies who are most attracted to it, this new research finds.

Slow food, slow travel, slow cinema, slow fashion, slow gardening: There are so many slow movements that you might think homo sapiens as a species was in an irreversible entropic downshift into the pace of slugs and snails. But of course, slow movements exist mostly to be a counterpoint to the ever-increasing speed technology seems to have brought into our lives.

It wasn’t that long ago that news was mostly something you consumed once or twice a day — a newspaper in the morning, perhaps, and Walter Cronkite at night. The frequent buzzes in your pocket, though, make it clear how far away that era feels in a time of mobile phones and constant connection.

So there’s been a movement the past decade or so in favor of slow journalism — a purposeful stepping back from the news cycle to consume news at a slower but deeper pace. (If it’s really “news” at that point — perhaps “external information” might be better.) You can find it at publications with names like Delayed Gratification (“we take time to do things properly…we pick up the pieces after the dust has settled”) and Tortoise (“slower, wiser news…calm, clear journalism you can trust”), or at ones that say they’re “unbreaking news.” And part of its pitch has been that slow journalism might appeal to people who have otherwise stepped away from news consumption — people whose exhausted response to the unending river of headlines has been to avoid news altogether.

That theory is tested in a new paper in Journalism Practice by Kim Andersen, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Denmark. (An academic institution we last covered a decade ago, regarding the “Gutenberg Parenthesis.”) Andersen sets out to see whether, in fact, slow journalism was more appealing to those who feel exhausted by the news. Here’s the abstract:

Slow news can be seen as a potential solution to one of the central problems currently pertaining to journalism, news fatigue. By publishing fewer stories and providing news curation, slow news media offer an alternative to the overwhelming supply of fast news in today’s media environment.

However, we lack knowledge about the antecedents and consequences of slow news consumption: who are willing to use this type of journalism and, if they are, how will it affect their news fatigue? In order to examine these questions, this study presents a longitudinal field experiment with two survey waves and tracking data of the respondents’ consumption of a free membership to a Danish slow news media.

Results show that slow news is most likely to attract consumers already engaged with news and that consumption to some extent is increasing their news fatigue. Thereby, the study illustrates how the good intentions of the slow journalism movement are not easily fulfilled.

In other words, if I may extrapolate a bit: People who like to consume news…like to consume news. There isn’t a necessary contradiction between scanning headlines on Twitter and sinking into a long New Yorker piece — between top-of-the-hour news headlines and a 10-hour documentary series. Niche formats like slow journalism are more likely to be add-on sources for people who already have an established news diet — rather than a liferaft for people who’d otherwise be checked out.

Andersen’s study used the Danish slow-journalism site Zetland, about which we’ve written a number of times before. Its pitch: It’s the site for “Danes who would rather have insight than breaking news.” It’s “a digital newspaper writing about contexts rather than sensations.” Zetland has around 14,000 member-subscribers.

A group of Danish residents had Zetland’s philosophy explained to them (mirroring Zetland’s own marketing) and was then offered a free two-month subscription. If they said yes, they were told, the number of stories they consumed on the site would be tracked. About a third said yes to the offer; about half of those who actually used their membership to log on the site. Everyone was surveyed before and after the sampling period.

Of the more than 2,000 people in the sample, in the end, only 180 accepted and then used their free Zetland subscription. About a quarter of those consumed only 1 or 2 articles during the two months, but the average in the group was about 11 articles. (One person consumed over 100; I very much hope they signed up for a paid subscription when the study was over.) Zetland publishes a lot of long, in-depth stories, so that’s not terrible engagement, but you can see it follows the by-now-familiar power-law curve so much Internet activity does.

The surveys included items asking about how and how frequently people consume news, as well as how much they experience news fatigue. (Examples: “I feel overwhelmed by the amount of news available,” “I feel exhausted by too much news,” “I am tired of news filled with negativity.”) Andersen wanted to see if news fatigue or news use affected slow-news consumption, as well as how slow-news consumption affected news fatigue or news use.

The results: People who felt more news fatigue were less likely to use Zetland’s slow news. But people who were already consuming more news on a regular basis were more likely to use their Zetland subscription.

In other words, Zetland was more attractive to people who were already consuming a lot of news than to those who weren’t. And it was less attractive to people feeling a lot of news fatigue than to those who weren’t.

That…makes a lot of sense. People who already consume a lot of news are probably people who enjoy getting a lot of news, and they’re more likely to be interested in trying out a new news source. And people who feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of headlines aren’t likely candidates to become big consumers of something new. But Andersen’s findings do go against one of slow journalism’s strongest pitches — that it could draw in new and different kinds of audiences than other, faster news sources already do. Emphases mine:

Slow news has been suggested as a way to (re)engage people who are turning their backs to the news media due to news fatigue. By presenting the news in a slow manner with a few longer, in-depth stories and news overviews, this journalistic approach aims at helping those feeling overwhelmed by the endless amount of available information in today’s news environment. This study has examined whether it is possible for the slow journalism movement to realize this good intention…

Keeping in mind that this is a single case study, the results have shown that slow news is most likely to attract those who already use a lot of news and are not feeling news fatigue. In other words, slow news is most likely to attract those who may benefit the least. This possibility has previously been highlighted as a potential obstacle for the slow journalism movement and is now empirically confirmed by this study.

In addition, the results have also shown that when people consume slow news, they become more tired of news.

Thus, slow news, at least in the case of Zetland, ends up having the opposite effect than what the slow journalism movement aims for. These findings underline that the slow journalism movement needs to think carefully about how slow it should be to succeed in practice…

One additional explanation for why people end up experiencing more news fatigue when consuming slow news is that they are not adjusting their general news use accordingly. As shown in the results, those in the treatment group did in general not use less news compared to those in the control group. In other words, the slow news media complemented rather than displaced their existing news consumption. As a consequence, the slow news media became one additional media they had to cope with in their daily life…

This is important knowledge not only for the slow journalism movement specifically, but also for the news media industry in general searching for solutions to increasing information overload and news fatigue, ultimately leading to news avoidance. As this study has shown, slow news might not be as promising a way to (re)engage news avoiders as one could hope for, as slow news is most likely to attract those already engaged with news but furthermore to some extent even increases their feeling of news fatigue. This conclusion does not entail that this type of journalism has no relevance. Slow journalism still holds a potential for providing high-quality, in-depth stories with value for both the audience and society at large.

Here’s a link to the full study.

Illustration of “Le Lièvre et la Tortue” — a.k.a. “The Hare and the Tortoise” — from La Fontaine: Fables Choisies Pour Les Enfants (1888) by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Sept. 15, 2020, 1:36 p.m.
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