You Must Read This!

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What has become of the words that we read?

There are many converging forces that could lead you to believe that the skilled craft of formulating words that raises the general public’s IQ, informs the world and inspires us to be more – on many levels – is all but fading. It turns out that we are a nation no longer interested in depth and discourse around the topics of the day, but would much prefer to share a meme that involves an obscure character from the cult classic film, The Princess Bride on Facebook than we are in sharing an article about the advancements in micro 3D printing that could lead to many massive implications in terms of both how we manufacture products and how we can improve healthcare. Sure, one of those ideas plays in the shallow end of the intellectual pool, while the other one is more for the deep-end, but it turns out that in a world of 140-characters (thank you, very much, Twitter), the vast majority of the population isn’t taking advantage of all of these published words… we’re much more interested in what gets a click, share, plus one, tweet, and more (and, that’s not the hefty stuff).

She’s so heavy.

Is it any surprise that flashy headlines and fake celebrity death memes on Twitter get so much attention? From the early days of blogging, the content that got the most clicks were the ones with the catchy headlines. Some might argue that Huffington Post banks on this type of content in a race for attention and search engine optimization. The truth is that Huffington Post is not alone. It’s not only competing with the regular slew of online publishers and traditional publishers trying to figure out how the digitization of media has forced their way to rethink publishing, but they are now competing with you and I – the new publishers of content. Can you stand back and be the consumer for just a moment? We used to live in a digital world where AOL or Yahoo acted as our homepage/gateway to the Internet. These pages were carefully crafted and edited to ensure that you would not only come back, but that you would make it your personal destination of choice. Now, we have shifted towards our own Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter profile pages as our gateway to the world.

Welcome to Digital Narcissism.

In this era of digital narcissism, where our gateway to content is through the lens of the people we like and admire most, traditional and digital publishers must now grasp for attention in an even flashier way. They are no longer just competing with one another for your attention, but they’re facing a most powerful adversary in the struggle for attention: your friends and acquaintances. Now, stories like, "The 10 People On Twitter You Must Follow" are competing alongside your best friend who tweets out, "you have got to check this out…" with a link to whatever it is that has caught their attention.

Who do you think wins?

It turns out that we have to be careful in these brave new times. Earlier this week, The Pew Research Center released a new report, The State of the News Media 2013 looking at the current state of American Journalism. Poynter has an excellent recap of the report with some additional insight in their news item, State of the News Media 2013 shows how industry is responding to ‘continued erosion’ of resources. Some key findings in the Pew Research Center are:

  • Digital advertising is growing very slowly at only three percent and is not able to compensate for the loss of print revenue. For every dollar gained in digital, print loses $16.
  • Print advertising continue to fall. It is down $1.5 billion in 2012.
  • The bleeding in print has transcended the losses in classified advertising. National advertising dropped nearly ten percent.

The silver lining.

The silver lining in these times of purgatory for traditional media may be the uptick and growth for smartphone and tablet users – which continues to grow in readership at a strong pace – but is struggling to find the advertising revenue that supports this model. Poynter calls the revenue for smartphones and tablets "largely a no-show." Ouch.

The bigger problem.

The idea that we’re consuming content in 140 characters and driven by wild headlines is not a divergent concept in relation to the state of news media in 2013 as Pew Research Center has laid out. In fact, if you combine these two thoughts, you may find yourself staring down the barrel of a very boring gun. From the Poynter article: "The toughest news comes in the digital chapter, where Pew researchers found that the big dogs — Google and Facebook — have staked out the growing ad segments of mobile and video. Google is now the leader is digital display advertising as well as search. And if, as analyst Gordon Borrell and others predict, the next big thing is local advertising targeted to preferences revealed by a person’s Internet choices, one has to believe Google and the others have awesome artillery in hand." For the record, Google nor Facebook employ journalists in a newsroom, do they?

Be careful of the content you consume.

If you record Charlie Rose on your DVR as a way to cleanse all that Dancing With The Stars that you’re watching, imagine what your digital consumption might say about you. We are all drowning in a sea of tweets, links, status updates and more that may keep us informed of our broader social graph, but is probably not making any of us that much smarter or expanding our world view beyond our own myopic borders. As traditional media outlets struggle to maintain a viable business model and the online publishers battle to compete for attention while generating income from the banner ads or sponsored content that they’re producing, we could well find ourselves in a world where the depth and breadth of text-based content gets drowned out by everything that was just mentioned above along with the massive growth of online video, audio and more. According to the MediaPost news item, Nearly 4 Billion Minutes Of Video Ads Streamed In February: "Continuing to break records, U.S. consumers spent 3.8 billion minutes streaming video advertising in February. Consumers viewed 9.9 billion video ads, last month, with Google sites (YouTube) serving an all-time high of 2.2 billion ads, comScore found." How long do you think the average video view is on YouTube? Further proof that we’re not getting too much depth? Perhaps all this fast, free and short form content has actually changed the news consumer. Perhaps we are no longer digging deeper into issues and have taken on the speed of information exchange as the the true value? Still, it feels like something is missing. As the discourse changes and everyone publishes more and more across multiple platforms in front of different screens, we could well be at the very beginning of the end of written content as we have known it to date. If you made it this far, you may be one of the last few who want to dig a little deeper and, it may well be a good skill to start instilling in others.

Content as we know it is radically changing and adapting to a new time. Will you miss a world of long-form text?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. Very well put. I’ve been trying to instill reading long-form or in-depth pieces in my teenage son, who (lo and behold) actually reads the newspaper (yes, the actual paper) in the mornings. But I fear the same things you do – that we’re not seeking depth and getting a little, well, dumber. Anyone who can blend patience, smarts – and keeping some of their private thoughts and acts private, will do very well in the future, especially if they’re surrounded by legions of shallow skimmers.

  2. This is an outstanding piece, thank you.
    By the way, about catching headlines… “you have to read this”… worked with me because I thought ” If MJ uses such a repelling headline it means it must be serious”.:-)
    I am afraid all this boils down to our shortening attention span. We become very quick and able at catching flies on the surface, and almost afraid at going any deeper..
    The question is how a 140 characters mind-tool prepares us to think and adress today’s complex problems? Complacency progressively makes most of us unfit for the complexity of the world we have created.

  3. This is definitely a wake up call. It’s easy to slip into the routine of consuming bits if shallow information. It’s also very hard to defend against this because, competing with the desire to consume deep and meaningful information is the feeling that you need to stay on top of things which seems to only be achieved through “efficient” consumption.
    Looking back, though, the information that has stuck with me and been valuable for me in my work has been the information that I’ve spent time immersing myself in, not that which I skim in order to give myself a false feeling of learning productivity.
    Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed the irony in the title and the comment about making it this far and being one of the ones looking to dig a little deeper.
    Great stuff.

  4. More than happy to play in the shallow end of the intellectual pool Mitch if it means I’m helping that obscure character find “the six fingered man”.
    When he utters “prepare to die” I am there by his side every time.

  5. Mitch,
    Great Post and yes your Headline pulled me right in.
    All I can think of is the movie Idiocracy, I’m afraid that’s where we’re headed, and fast!

  6. Directing our reading and content consumption based on what our friends are sharing is an extension of Jim Rohn’s ‘You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.’
    It’s time to evaluate our clicks the same way we evaluate the people we physically spend time with.

  7. Nicely said, Elizabeth! Interesting connection. I always stress the importance of really honing in on who you follow and connect with and weeding out those who add no value or affect you negatively. This sums it up nicely!

  8. Isn’t it that the way we want to dig deeper has changed? We dig deeper these days via conversation. The initial piece of content, written or not, is just a starter. The digging and fleshing out of the topic takes place in conversation with our social connections.
    Now I can see the inherent problem in that for people who have a small, closed network and are therefore are always hearing the same opinions. But I think what’s tough is to truly get the consumer to dig deeper today, you can’t just do it all in one feature article or long blog post. It takes ongoing participation in the conversation as a SME. Like brands are being expected to market more in real-time, content creators need to recognize a similar shift. Much easier said than done.

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