Janneke Aerssens, Spriha Dhanuka, Katharina Beck, Rosanna Fanni, Ana Sofia Madrid Vargas, Sameer Padania, Giordano Zambelli, Mehmet Solmaz
Attention has always been a finite resource, even more so in an era of superabundance of information. Having the power to attract and manage it has been a struggle from the moment citizens had a say in what happens in society. Attention merchants were already there, before the internet and the so-called information society. Why then is attention now such a hot topic? Has the attention economy trapped the news industry? Is there a fire exit?
The Downfall of the Attention Economy
In 2011 Eli Pariser published his famous book The Filter Bubble, warning the world about the risk of an increasingly partisan information environment where the new gold was, more than ever before, attention. Shortly after, in March 2012, he launched Upworthy with the clear intent “of getting attention for important stories and activating and unlocking human potential.” If the attention merchants wanted to keep us looped in echo chambers, Upworthy was there to exploit the mechanism and turn it into a beneficial tool to spread ‘good stories’, with the help of some catchy clickbait headlines. The idea seemed to have worked well in the beginning. Upworthy passed 80 million unique visitors per month already in 2012, mostly thanks to Facebook referrals. The party, though, was pretty short.
By the end of 2013, Facebook announced changes in the news feed algorithm with the official intention to favor “high quality content.” Basically Facebook narrowed down the market for publishers, making it harder for a brand to reach its audience with organic posts (as opposed to paid posts) on users’ timelines.
Upworthy plummeted down to 20 million unique visitors per month in only one year. The entire business model of the company had to be rebuilt and, following Facebook’s suggestion, they pivoted to video, like many similar brands. The strategy didn’t turn out well: users usually don’t go to the publisher’s website to watch a video, they stay on Facebook. Publishers have to trust the platforms on which they distribute their content but strive for the same piece of the ad dollars cake. Not really an ideal position to secure a living.
It’s not only Upworthy that has been struggling. Many other companies functioning as “viral content factories” are not doing very well: Mic recently shut down, Buzzfeed missed its revenues target last year by 20% and recently announced massive layoffs. The same goes for Vice, while Mashable was sold in 2017 for a fifth of its estimated value. And this is just the situation for the biggest websites born and raised on internet logic that are producing stories for mass-audiences, meant to go viral on social media. Publishers who focus on public-interest, investigative journalism through in-depth stories are in an even more precarious position in trying to grow an audience on social media.
Quality journalism has to face competition with content designed to go viral by relying on platforms’ obscure and changing algorithms: resulting usually in lowering the quality of production. Many legacy outlets have played the game, hoping to attract more readers on their websites. However, this hasn’t cemented their chances of staying afloat, resulting in a lose-lose situation, as Katharine Viner, editor in-chief of The Guardian, warned in 2016: “In the last few years, many news organizations have steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward junk-food news, chasing page views in the vain hope of attracting clicks and advertising (or investment) – but like junk food, you hate yourself when you’ve gorged on it.”
Different kinds of solutions
Focusing solely on attention is not the solution to stay afloat after all as the case of Upworthy, amongst others, shows. Merja Myllylathi found that companies want to be visible on Facebook to get attention, but being on Facebook and getting attention hardly increase revenues. Facebook made it even harder to get attention by changing the way content was placed on personal timelines. A strategy journalists implement to try to get attention online is keeping an eye on trending topics e.g. via Google Trends. They then dive into these topics, writing explanatory articles to meet consumers’ demands.
The question then is: How do you prevent the attention economy compromising media independence, diversity and plurality? The dynamics of the attention economy fundamentally oppose diversity of voices, which contributes to making the public better informed. It’s really hard for media companies of all sizes to break free from platform logic and to survive outside the attention economy. If media are captured in this way, and operate at the whims of the platforms, rather than according to the needs of society at large, this presents a risk to democratic accountability. Could regulating Facebook and other major players improve the situation, leveling the playing field, giving other media players a chance?
Aside from big picture issues like regulation of big tech, the bedrock of the journalism industry remains quality content. Good content creates value, according to Kevin Kelly, a cultural digital expert. Metrics and analytics still play a big role in telling which content is most trending, but isn’t the main aim any more. Newspapers use this data to optimise the amount of readers but the main focus is informing the public as the research of Nicole Blanchett Neheli shows. This strategy is actually working well. The New York Times implemented it and because of this they have the opportunity to engage with readers.
Apart from building a brand name, journalism organisations seek to rebuild trust turning to other forms of engagement, like membership models, focused both on building community and providing revenue. In order to know what audiences want and need, journalism organisations need – as De Correspondent has shown – to engage with them. This betters the brand of the newspaper and incentivises brand loyalty. Combining content and attention provides a new opportunity for newspapers to attract readers.
Another solution might be audience development. Some publishers that already use this approach as a cross-department solution that can help the newsroom and sales areas in a news media company to better understand how they are working at an editorial level and what kind of content has sold the most. The main goal is to understand who are the audiences that visit the news website in order to improve and deepen the existing connections instead of going after a large amount of new visitors every day. The idea is to convert this group of recurring visitors into engaged users who are eager to subscribe to newsletters or pay for premium content.
These dynamics are affecting media of all sizes in most if not all markets. While mega media like the New York Times and Guardian seem to be viable models the real test will be how we protect and support the much wider range of other media, local and regional level, where attention is smaller and funding is even more scarce. The examples we’ve given show some emerging development with governments and founders are waking up to the fact that they have to support innovation and to help media transition these choppy waters. Otherwise people willing to pay will have access to the “true content” while the rest will be left fighting against a deep sea of “fake news” and dreadful content.
Is focusing on content and engagement with users the path, or just a stepping stone, forward? We don’t know for certain, but we believe that it may allow news media organizations to win back at least some of the trust and independence they have been looking for, by building a more balanced relationship with audiences that listen to and understand their information needs, and start to reinvent journalism to meet them.