A storm of information, and an opportunity of a generation.
Does it feel like you’re reading, watching, and listening to more information than ever before? Or alternatively, after spending the last few years too overwhelmed in the digital age, have you turned off Twitter, put away your devices, maybe even started to read some print papers and magazines again, on a newfound quest to find some sense of calm amidst the flurry of information? You’re not alone. But I’m sure you knew that already…from social media, of course.
Major studies from reputable sources have noted that people are consuming more news than ever before, thanks to the proliferation of new digital products and of mobile devices in general. But, people are also spending an average of 20 minutes each day on services like Instagram (which, though they’ve started to work on public content and news, is still mainly a photo sharing platform). Much of our attention has gone from the analog world to the digital world. Often times, it can feel like an assault on our emotional and intellectual state, being wed to our devices, our social networks, and especially our email, messaging apps, and SMS.
Guess who also feels this way? Newsroom writers and their editors. The people that seem to be causing you to feel overwhelmed are also overwhelmed (after all, “they’re just like us”). Walk into a newsroom today, and team after team is optimizing the rapidity at which they create content in addition to focusing on creating the catchiest headline and most powerful ways to share the piece across all networks. Sometimes, editorial teams are even changing the headline to the same piece over time to increase its reach. It’s a race for attention, and even though it should be a marathon, it feels like a set of multiple sprints in real time, let alone each day.
And when these talented (most of the time) content creators are done with their days, they aren’t really ever done…they’re responding to emails and Slack chats through the evening, planning for the next day, and the next, and the weekend edition, and the monthly edition, or the quarterly journal…and it’s a never-ending story.
Liz Plank, or as many on the Internet know her, “feministabulous” is the host of “Flip The Script,” a thoughtful, funny, real video series for Mic.com, and one of the more recognizable millennial news voices. Though many might expect her to thrive in today’s newsroom culture, here’s how she actually feels (as she told me over email yesterday for this piece):
“I have had to develop rituals and habits to cope with the sense of constantly feeling overwhelmed. I sleep with my phone on airplane mode and don’t turn it back on until I’ve looked outside first. My most important rule: never look at my screen before I’ve looked at the clouds first. I get my news from the radio in the morning instead of twitter. The pace is slower and more intimate. It’s also finite. Once the newscast is done, I know everything I need to know. I buy the New York Times paper every Sunday. I try to stay away from social media and just look through an actual newspaper, something that I don’t do any other day of the week.”
Kelly Berold, previously journalist and editorial consultant in Cape Town, South Africa says:
“A large amount of journalists are dealing with a feeling of purposelessness…I can’t tell you how many times I had to write 500 words of mindless crap that looked suspiciously like the other 20,000 online variations of the same news story. It’s demoralizing, and it makes you feel that your contribution is completely dispensable. The need for speedy delivery is the culprit.”
Like I said before, they’re Just. Like. Us. (If you don’t understand this irreverent reference, here’s your relevant Google search.)
But, many of these folks are also planning on how they’ll one day escape the din of today’s newsroom in high drive. Maybe they’ll achieve upper management. Or social media director, no longer having to send the tweets, but simply delegating to their new version of their previous selves. Or they’ll go to (gasp) an agency! Or they’ll go back into academia (how much longer will students be paying for that journalism degree though?). Or they’ll start new companies like I did with Catchpool, and build their own schedule and culture, while still running into a whole new set of complications.
Or maybe, they’ll write a book. Or make a movie. Or let’s get modern and real — maybe they’ll start to create content for YouTube and SnapChat, or launch their own podcast. Not that those things bring in gobs of money, but they allow for time; time to create, time to let simmer, time to actually formulate something meaningful. Time for their attention to get softly, gently, lovingly focused, so as to remind them of why they ever started writing, or shooting or recording stories in the first place. And we need these types of people, the people that don’t want to become the boss, but want to fuel their creativity everyday, and create the kind of stuff that has a lasting impact on us and society. Thank you to those of you who do this. I see you, WE see you.
SO while the everyday newsroom is churning out the stuff that helps us understand what’s happening in our world (and sometimes, if we’re lucky, why it’s happening too), it’s more often than not that the creator behind the scenes is suffering from a lack of time, and is on a race to the top (or the bottom). Yikes.
Now that you’ve got some context on what it’s like to be a writer or a news creator these days, let’s talk about what’s happening in the industry, and why it’s COMPLETELY unsustainable..
We’ve reached “Peak Content.” That sounds familiar — is she referencing something? Yes. I’m referencing the contested theory of “Peak Oil” originated by M. King Hubbert, that supposes we will reach a time where we’ve achieved the maximum rate of petroleum extraction, and will have a subsequent decline (based on the fact that oil is a non-renewable resource because it takes a heck of a long time to make it). In other words, I’m saying that we’ve reached a point of maximum content production. And I’m talking to you in oil terms not because it’s trendy, but because before I got into news and tech, I worked in and studied energy and the environment. We should make more analogies about our digital world from the natural world, but that’s a whole separate idea.
If you google search the term Peak Content, all you’ll see are content marketers talking about it…but why aren’t newsrooms talking about it? Probably because content, like oil to oil companies, is the basis of their business. Guess who doesn’t really like “peak oil?” Oil companies. They figured out how to frack, and it helped proved Hubbert’s projections for the end of the golden oil age premature. But let’s explore whether there will be a frack, or a hack, for newsrooms to avoid the current state of maximum content production.
Basically, we’ve created an atmosphere in newsrooms where editorial literally cannot create more content with the teams they have now. So, you’re thinking, well they could hire more people, right?
Wrong. Let’s look at advertising for a moment, that annoying thing that happens to actually allow for the news to exist when we don’t want to pay the cost it requires to support the news ad-free. And actually, when an ad is thoughtful and artful, we appreciate it just as much as great content. Take a look at a campaign like these:
So. Good. Right?! Thanks Oreo, Apple, and Thinx.
But back to the point: ad sales are changing, and quickly. Traditional ad spend in the U.S. dropped 3.9% in Q2 of 2015, which equates to about a $1.5 billion drop. Much of that money has moved to mobile. But, there’s a saying in the industry, “print dollars have turned into digital dimes, which are turning into mobile pennies.” Basically, even as we consume more news than ever, thanks to mobile’s proliferation, the revenue streams are actually diminishing. Even if you feel like you’re supporting the news that matters by consuming more of it, you’re swimming upstream. It’s not your fault, it’s the business model’s fault.
Speaking of business models, that’s why everyone makes such a big deal about The New York Times hitting over 1 million digital subscribers — for a publication that historically operated as advertising supported, to shift to a blended model with digital circulation higher than ever, where digital subscriptions literally pay for almost all of the newsroom…now, you see.
Where’s the money going to then, you ask? To Facebook, Google, and Twitter, the winners on mobile. And it doesn’t seem to be coming back. As publishers turn more and more to serving their content through Facebook (see targeted audience, and serving people where they already are), they’re actually giving up much of their ad revenue to the platform hosting their content. They’ve gambled on audience development and reach, over driving traffic to their own platforms, where they own the advertising relationships. And it makes some sense — Facebook is better than any other platform at targeting specific groups of people, and serving them consistently well. They have better demographic information and knowledge about our behavior than any other platform. And, in the age of ad blockers, and the fight between Google and Apple, Facebook might just come out on top…or our new version of tv will, according to The Verge.
Back to the advertising point I was making: ad sales executives are freaking out, as their clients go to other places, and as their news teams start distributing in said places, and as ad blockers proliferate. The money they are bringing in is going down (remember, mobile pennies), and so…even if they could sell as they were a few years ago, the money isn’t enough to warrant hiring more editorial staffers.
And we must not forget to address the model where Venture Capital funds editorial (Buzzfeed, Vox, Mail Online, Huffington Post, this very platform you’re reading at the moment, etc) based on the premise that the money will get the publications to an audience and scale, and ultimately, the platforms will monetize through display advertising and sometimes, sponsored content. That can work, but more often, it does not. We haven’t even touched on the issue of control and editorial influence…
To sum this up, the ecosystem we’re in right now is at highest editorial capacity for content, coupled with a shifting revenue stream away from publishers and to networks and large tech companies. There’s no hack that I or many smart people can see. That’s why we’ve reached “Peak Content.”
It means that we’re at the top of the bell curve, probably exposed to more information and content than ever before. But it also means this to my optimistic self: we might just be at the worst of it, and we’re going to have to come down. Hey! You! Reader! Take a deep breath. Sigh out. Make an audible noise if that feels good. Fist pump on a dragon. This is FANTASTIC.
As we come down from our peak, we’ll get the chance to reimagine how we should be creating and distributing the news and content that matters, as well as the stuff that inspires, delights, and even distracts us (distractions are important, folks, it’s how we come up with new ideas, get out of our stress, yada yada yada, just choose them more intentionally). It’s an opportunity to innovate, making the newsroom of the digital age a better place to live and work, and making the consumer experience more personalized, relevant, and enjoyable. It’s an opportunity to innovate in our business model, and to be transparent — to tell our audiences what we need in order to serve them their best experience with content and with ads.
It’s why you’re seeing a trend in shorter form news apps that allow the consumer to “finish” the content. Tom Standage, Deputy Editor of The Economist (and my previous colleague) states,
“There’s a clear trend towards providing an antidote to the overload. The Economist has *always* done this — our proposition is that you can finish The Economist; we are a trusted filter on world news. Espresso is our daily ‘finishable’ product; it says “That’s it” when you get to the end of its seven pages. You’ll also have noticed that the BuzzFeed app says “you’re all caught up” at the end of its (finite) scroll of content, and Twitter Moments does the same. So does Yahoo News Digest. What all these things do is give you permission to stop worrying about the overload and do something else.”
If The New York Times can pay for their newsroom through a digital only subscription and growing their subscriber numbers… if The Atlantic can save itself by building a robust digital site and hiring fantastic, edgy talent…if NPR can make listening to podcasts and radio more popular than ever by focusing on loyalty and engagement, and by building award winning apps …then other publishers, and especially more agile ones, can figure it out too.
As Michael Oreskes, the SVP News and Editorial Director at NPR told me recently, while waxing poetic about his decades of working in the news,
“ There is a possibility that the value of COMMODITY content will just so collapse such that only really distinctive content will actually have value.”
That would be really interesting. Is it probable? A big question will be: will the quality, traditional publishers win, will the headline driven, clickbait publishers win, will the branded content win, or will it be a mix of all of the above? That, dear reader, will depend on YOU— the consumer.
Your clicks are your votes. Your clicks are what allows great content to thrive, and newsrooms that deserve to do the news keep on keeping on. Your clicks support the independent creators and curators. Your clicks on silly content, on content on new, creative platforms, and on content that you don’t need to know but feel good after consuming are worthwhile too. Your clicks help brands grow. And your clicks help you grow, becoming a more engaged, balanced, inspired, curious, and dare I say happy individual.
The retreat from “Peak Content” then becomes about intentionality, and dare I say grace. How do we come down from our overdrive with intention, and with grace? How do we fix how overwhelmed our audiences are, help them better center their attention on that which matters AND that which inspires them too, and all the while, figure out a sustainable business model for the news (and the other content worth our time)? How do we help badass, smart, fierce folks like Liz (and future generations) not have to remember to look at the clouds before she looks at her screen?
There are products that are already trying to help solve our curation and discovery problem in the sea of content that is the internet, (my own company Catchpool included). It’s going to take a village, not just one cool product. But it’s not just startups that are going to figure it out; the onus is on the publisher to be better about creating the good stuff, personalize the experience for their audience, delivering it cross-platform (our doorsteps are on multiple devices, multiple times a day now), and measure both the quantitative and qualitative metrics. The onus is also on the consumer to be better about choosing what they want, why they want it, and being self-aware over time. The onus is on the consumer to cultivate a better media diet, being more thoughtful about what they click on, how it makes them feel, and editing their experience over time. It’s going to take work from both sides of the table.
And in regards to advertising, it’s time for a creative revolution. It’s time to be as good as some brands are on the street and in video and in real time during a black out at a giant sports event, but all of the time. It’s time for audiences to understand that good advertising can help make the publishing world go around, and that engaging with good advertising forwards an ecosystem of better ads and better content.
As a friend and ex-colleague Steven Kotok (previously CEO of The Week and Mental Floss, and currently heading up revenue at The Wirecutter) so aptly states, “My personal belief is that digital media, especially in the high-volume-content social world, is too new to have figured out yet what the long game is. I do believe that brands with reader and audience connection and loyalty are the evolutionarily fit cockroaches.” He made a nature reference! What a homie.
And as one of our favorite media theorists and entrepreneurs, Rafat, writes, “Creating media value has always been a game for the long haul, not for the weak of heart.” It may be sexy, but it’s not easy. Seriously.
But yeah — we haven’t figured it all out yet. Most industries haven’t — look at music! Look at the climate talks this and next week in Paris (actually, those are more positive than ever before, this is me making sure to remind you it’s happening). It’s okay, it’s called work for a reason. But, NOW is a good time to think more about the effects of our behavior, both as journalists, as people working in media, and as the audience consuming media. It’s time to be more self-aware when it comes to our content creation, monetization, and consumption.
What I’ll leave you with is this: what if we were to take a moment (or a minute) after everything we ate, every person we spent time with, and every piece of content we clicked on and consumed to think about and feel how it made us feel. If we did this over a day, or a week, or a month, how might it change our behavior? I’m guessing it would shift our level of happiness and health and inspiration a tad in a different direction. It would shift us down from top of the bell curve at “Peak Content,” and to the part of the curve that feels like a smoother sailing adventure.
Let’s move over the hump of the bell curve together, and come down from “Peak Content” with intention, grace, balance, and style while we’re at it too. Let’s find the calm after the storm (at least this storm). Let’s make this an opportunity of a generation to change the way we learn about and engage with the world…for the better. Take that moment after you’ve made it through this piece and feel how it feels, then let me know.
Special shout outs for the edits and additions to Liz Plank, Kelly Berold, Tom Standage, Mike Orestes, (disclaimer, I’m on NPR’s young advisory board NPR Generation Listen),Steven Kotok, @cschweitz Callie Schweitzer, Editorial Director of Audience Strategy at TIME Inc., and Yasir Salem, Marketing Director at Business Insider.