Bite-Sized News

For years now, folks have been bemoaning the death of the attention span. One of the most famous of these pronouncements came all the way back in 2008, published in the Atlantic:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

And in the interim, social media and technology have just sped things up:

The study by Lloyds TSB insurance showed that the average attention span had fallen to just 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes 10 years ago.

But the over-50s are able to concentrate for longer periods than young people, suggesting that busy lifestyles and intrusive modern technology rather than old age are to blame for our mental decline.

This shorter attention span has evolved how people digest information, especially news. There have been lots of studies to investigate what news should look like, especially as the mass media struggles to figure out where they live in today”s world. This study from the Guardian seems to confirm that:

People are checking the news more frequently and for shorter amounts of time.
Forget news reading. Today, it”s all about “news snacking,” meaning people are checking the news more often and typically on mobile devices. 75 percent of readers with smartphones and 70 percent with tablets check the news more than once a day.

It”s all about aggregators.
According to the study, 73 percent of those surveyed said they use aggregators intensively, up from 33 percent a year ago. Use of branded news applications (such as leading national dailies), on the other hand, decreased from 60 percent to 40 percent in the same period.

Social media is on the rise for checking news.
The report also indicates that people are increasingly checking sites like Facebook and Twitter for news updates; 43 percent of readers now use Facebook to check news, an increase of seven percent from last year.

Gerald Baron has been an absolute leader in examining this field of “nano news,” as he calls it. He”s defined it a couple of times, “Defining Nano News,” and “NanoNews—understanding the new news environment. “

But my reason for posting these links is to implore our government communication friends to rethink how we talk. Looking at yesterday”s post on using images, made me wonder why images were so important. I think it has something to do with this idea of snackable content, or nano-news. The old saying is that pictures are worth 1,000 words. Are images how people are more quickly digesting information?

Thinking about information that my Department puts out, I wonder, is it truly snackable? Can someone stop by on their phone and digest the information in less than five minutes? Or do our fact sheets require an in-depth reading of inches and inches of text? Are they snackable? Now what about your fact sheets?

A Moment Of Silence

One of the very best conferences in the land started yesterday. And it started off with a bang. In one of the very first pre-conference workshops, Dr. Cynthia Baur of the CDC (she”s one of the world”s preeminent thinkers AND doers in the field of health literacy), said the quote above.

Now, I”ve said just this for a long time: there is no general public. The general public has voluntarily carved themselves up into tiny little fractions of groups, each self-identified by some demographic that can change over time, isn”t necessarily exclusive from other demographic identifications and allows people to adopt multiple identifications all at once.

Think about me and all of my unique interests as an example. I”m interested in public health, emergency management, horror movies, punk rock, Philly happenings, social media, running, tattoos and video games. Name me one other person you know that does all of those things (no, really, I want to meet them). Outside of work duties, I don”t follow the national or local news at all. Am I in the general public? What about you? What interests do you use to define yourself?

That information you”re putting out? The one written for the “general public?” Does it fit into my interest spectrum? Probably not. And it probably doesn”t fit into lots of other interest spectrums, either. But why do we keep writing for the “general public”?

Like most things, there”s a rational reason why we started messaging this way. It has to do with the history of our information dissemination pathways. Government communication to the wide public really took off as mass media was reaching the height of it”s popularity and utility. If you wanted to talk to the public in any widespread fashion, you could knock on doors, or send a release to the mass media. And the media made no bones that they were the way to reach everyone. There”s no need to develop specific messages when you”re just talking into a great big, fat pipe.

Things have changed a bit, though, if you haven”t noticed. People have diversified where they get their news from:


People have found that big, fat pipe no longer satisfies their need for relevant information. And they”ve since moved on to targeted, specific, interesting information and news. And yet, we still write like the mass media is the only way we can get information out. The general public only existed when there was one way to get information. With a plethora of ways to get information today the punk rock, zombie movie fan, public health professional set has chosen to ignore your messages designed to appeal to everyone from eighteen-year-olds, grandparents and mothers of young children.

So let”s bow our heads for a minute and put this out-of-date idea to rest, finally.

Nothing’s Happened

One of the great exhortations, one of the absolute must to-do’s given during emergency public information classes today is that you have to let the media know when your next update is coming. Lots of folks even go so far as to say, “when I know something, you’ll know something.” (And between me and you, I’m a big fan of that.) But when you do those pretend little exercises in the afternoon of the class, the instructor always tilts her head at the end of your “press conference” and asks, “When will we know more?” And before high-fiving his newly-roped-into-this teammates our spokesman dismissively says, “We’ll have another press conference in four hours.”

Nobody asks what do you do when nothing’s happened. Almost without fail, these exercises are quickly developing scenarios that will have updates in a few hours. But what about when the situation is slowly developing. So slowly that, like a drop of pitch, updates are few and far between? I’m looking at you public health. How do you tamp down expectations and tell people, “Nothing’s happened,” and reasonably expect them to not believe you’re hiding something. I mean, people are dying here, man!

Well, Kevin Jump, on the other side of the pond, says we need to make updating about nothing the norm:

And this is the problem – as it turns out (because I had to go), B&Q [ed. note: a sort of Home Depot] is open normal hours on the bank holiday, but their site doesn’t tell me that, because nothing has changed so they have ‘nothing’ to tell me.

A simple “we are open as normal on bank holiday Monday” would have answered all my questions

This reminded me of my little election experiment last week, when I looked at a few random councils to see how they had done elections. Once or twice in the process I went to a county council website, and found nothing about elections at all. That’s because counties run elections on a four year cycle, and this year was (for these councils) not one of those years – so no elections. The districts had elections, but the county sites didn’t tell me that (quite a few county sites don’t acknowledge the existence of the districts).

We’re too much focused on making sure that the media knows what’s going on. Hence the exhortation to make sure they know when things have changed. They’re not interested in what’s not changed. Non-changes don’t bleed, so they don’t lead, so to speak.

Instead, we need to focus on our publics. We need to let them know the information that is relevant to them, not just interesting to the media. No less a blogger than Greg Licamele has said something very similar in a great post recently:

The whole public affairs enterprise needs a different focus if we want to remain relevant to the people we serve rather than becoming more irrelevant to journalists who have a different purpose.

What do you do when nothing’s happened? Make sure that everyone knows, not just the people who increasingly don’t care.