Audience, attention, and engagement: is it the portal, or is content still key?

So the publishing industry is in turmoil? So media outlets are floundering while they try to fashion new business models for the digital age? Really? Who knew?

Shaul Olmert takes a sobering look at this in a trenchant article in SocialMediaToday. Perhaps fittingly, or perhaps sardonically, the article’s title exhorts publishers to “Make The Internet Great Again.”

Olmert cites executives at the New York Times and the Financial Times, who allow, in essence, that Winter Is Coming. He ticks off several of the factors:

  • disengaged users who spend less than 15 seconds on a page;
  • artificially inflated traffic counts based on dubious data;
  • poor market research;
  • revenue streams built on ineffective and annoying advertising.

Rather than blaming Facebook, ad blockers, and demographics, Olmert argues, publishers need to realize that serving content in long-form formats won’t reach users whose attention spans have been truncated by Snapchat. They can’t depend on ineffective advertising models, and they can’t measure their success by key performance indicators that don’t truly reflect engagement. As he observes:

“Publishers now face a new reality: create content that fits the medium, or face extinction.”

Well. It’s neat, it’s concise, and it sounds like an aphorism, but whatever the validity of Olmert’s observations, it’s probably safe to suggest that publishers already know they’re in trouble. Moreover, if it’s so obvious, why is it escaping so many traditional media outlets? Or is there more to it?

Let’s start with the fundamental premise of Olmert’s argument. People want to consume content in short 20-second bursts, not via 1500-word essays. He backs this up with a visual comparison of Snapchat’s portal and a traditionally presented news story in the New York Times. He further argues that it’s misguided to blame readers for being too lazy to consume what he calls “deep” content. In fact, he argues, this is the golden age of content consumption: people check for new content every few minutes, spend more than 20 hours a week reading and sharing content on their phones, and watch almost an hour and a half of online video every day. The key to capturing attention, he argues, is content that’s short and focused.

Another aphorism. On reflection, though, it may not support the conclusions Olmert seems to draw. Many important topics — current affairs, for instance — don’t really lend themselves to Snapchat-like presentation. Shallow experience can’t deliver anything but shallow understanding. It doesn’t encourage reflection, genuine engagement, or critical thought. Don’t media outlets aspiring to credibility, to gravitas, have a responsibility to inform and educate their readers, and not just deliver eyeballs to advertisers? Especially if, as Olmert argues, they’re doing a lamentable job of the latter?

Critical thought and civic engagement go both ways. They’re mutually dependent. Failing to cultivate either one undermines the other. The logical extension of this is an uninformed, attention-deficit-disordered populace that’s easily distracted by shiny things, but can’t engage with weighty issues in a meaningful way.

And the unsettling implications of this aren’t just theoretical. Numerous observers have noted, with alarm, the levels of dangerous ignorance among American citizens; a poll cited in Business Insider showed that only 36% of Americans could name all three branches of government, while 35% could not name any. When the public level of knowledge, civic literacy, and capacity for critical thought gets this degraded, people become that much easier to manipulate. And they become more susceptible to empty slogans and atavistic extremism. Two words: Donald Trump.

People who care about citizenship, and feel that media outlets have a responsibility to provide quality content that prompts thoughtful, critical reflection, rather than 20-second videos with funny filters that disappear after 24 hours, can’t help but look beyond debates that focus strictly on the business model.

Yes, content is king. And you just can’t deliver quality content through channels that only engage users for 20 seconds at a time.

This post originally appeared on Linkedin.

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