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.

In psychology, passivity resulting from a lack of control is referred to as “learned helplessness.” Though logic would suggest that an increase in available news would give consumers more control, this is not actually the case. As Barry Schwartz, the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, argues in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, too many choices can be burdensome. “Instead of feeling in control, we feel unable to cope,” he writes. “Freedom of choice eventually becomes a tyranny of choice.”

A recent study by Northwestern University’s Media Management Center supports this phenomenon. It found that despite their interest in the 2008 election, young adults avoid political news online “because they feel too much information is coming at them all at once and too many different things are competing for their attention.” The study participants said they wanted news organizations to display less content in order to highlight the essential information. “Young people want the site design to signal to them what’s really important . . . instead of being confronted by a bewildering array of choices,” write the researchers in their final report, From “Too Much” to “Just Right”: Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web.

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.