The dynamics of the attention economy have created a complicated and hypercompetitive arena for news production and consumption. News media must not only compete with one another, as well as with an ever-increasing assortment of information and entertainment options, but also with the very thing that supports their endeavors—advertising. In fact, the advertising industry has been struggling with the dynamics of the attention economy for a couple of decades now. As the advertising landscape becomes more saturated, advertisers must work harder to get their messages to the consumer. But as Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media ecology at New York University, notes in the Frontline documentary The Persuaders:

Every effort to break through the clutter is just more clutter. Ultimately, if you don’t have clean, plain borders and backdrops for your ads, if you don’t have that blank space, that commons, that virgin territory, you have a very hard time making yourself heard. The most obvious metaphor is a room full of people, all screaming to be heard. What this really means, finally, is that advertising is asphyxiating itself.

The news media also run the risk of self-asphyxiation in an information landscape crowded with headlines, updates, and news feeds. In order to garner audience attention and maintain financial viability, media outlets are increasingly concerned with the “stickiness” of their content. According to Douglas Rushkoff, host of The Persuaders and author of the forthcoming book Life Incorporated, the question for these organizations has become, “How do we stick the eyeballs onto our content and ultimately deliver the eyeballs to our sponsors?” As he dryly points out, “That’s a very different mandate than how do we make information—real information—available to people. The information economy, then, is a competitive space. So as more people who are information providers think of themselves as competing for eyeballs rather than competing for a good story, then journalism’s backwards.” The rise of sound bites, headlines, snippets, infotainment, and celebrity gossip are all outgrowths of this attempt to grab audience attention—and advertising money. Visit a cable-news Web site most any day for an example along the lines of police: Woman in Cow Suit Chased Kids (CNN); or Man Beats Teen Girl Waiting in McDonald’s Line (Fox News). As Northwestern’s Boczkowski points out, “Unlike when most of the media were organized in monopolistic or oligopolistic markets, now they are far more competitive; the cost of ignoring customer preferences is much higher.”

Meanwhile, the massive increase in information production and the negligible cost of distributing and storing information online have caused it to lose value. Eli Noam, director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, explains that this price deflation is only partly offset by an increase in demand in the digital age, since the time we have to consume information is finite. “On the whole—on the per-minute, per-line, per-word basis—information has continuously declined in price,” says Noam. “The deflation makes it very difficult for many companies to stay in business for a long time.”

Thus, we come to the heart of journalism’s challenge in an attention economy: in order to preserve their vital public-service function—not to mention survive—news organizations need to reevaluate their role in the information landscape and reinvent themselves to better serve their consumers. They need to raise the value of the information they present, rather than diminish it. As it stands now, they often do the opposite.

More-Faster-Better

“Living and working in the midst of information resources like the Internet and the World Wide Web can resemble watching a firefighter attempt to extinguish a fire with napalm,” write Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown, information scientists, in The Social Life of Information. “If your Web page is hard to understand, link to another. If a ‘help’ system gets overburdened, add a ‘help on using help.’ If your answer isn’t here, then click on through another 1,000 pages. Problems with information? Add more.”

Like many businesses in the information age, news outlets have been steadily increasing the volume and speed of their output. As the proliferation of information sources on the Web continues at a breakneck pace, news media compete for attention by adding content and features—blogs, live chat sessions with journalists, video and audio streams, and slideshows. Much of this is of excellent quality. But taken together, these features present a quandary: Do we persevere or retreat in the face of too much information? And as the AP study showed, even young news consumers get fatigued.

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.