Reading a book is a luxury for me these days.
I love my books, but have to divvy up my available daily reading time to catch up on what my real and online-only friends on Facebook are up to.
I rely on social media for science and technology news and articles, where content is often about advancements and discoveries that – in spite of the daily deluge of doom, gloom and ideological mudslinging – remind me there are still a lot of people doing something positive in our world.
So how is reading ink and paper a luxury? With books and magazines I can immerse my mind in the subject matter and savour the content without flashing pop-up ads or sidebars of who-did-whats and who-commented-on-whose posts scrolling down the page, clamouring for attention, while I scan an abbreviated, quick-read article.
Facebook and other online producers know users’ time and attention spans are short and, I’d argue, trim content to facilitate and perpetuate that.
As a reporter it’s discouraging at times to see stories important to our community, well-researched and written by our staff and our competitors, published online and get barely a passing nod, while a photo of a car crash or fire might get thousands of views and dozens of comments, shares and retweets.
Our readers aren’t lazy or stupid. They respond – often passionately – to what they care about and have time to absorb and express their thoughts about.
Like one big scrolling headline, social media uses the sound bite and fleeting image, promotes a hefty portion of the world’s news content and corporate media do what they can to siphon users to websites offering in-depth information and, of course, more advertising. High page view numbers draw advertisers.
Facebook has learned how to tap into that response. An online article by The Atlantic in April cited a Pew poll taken in 2014 showing nearly half of all adults who use the Internet get their news from Facebook, most of it on their smartphones and tablets. Facebook has specialized in providing content to mobile devices.
There’s some irony in this. At a time when newspapers that once relied heavily on skills specialization among employees – writers wrote, photographers photographed, copy editors edited copy and so on – the average newsroom staffer now must be writer, researcher, photographer, editor and videographer and also have the skills to prepare and file all that content on print and online formats, back at the office or from the field. Juggling skills and technologies is part of tapping into user/viewer/reader demographics dispersed among multiple formats, but targeting specific demographics now requires specialists.
In 2013 the Chicago Sun-Times fired its entire staff of 28 photographers – some of the best photojournalists in the world. The reasoning, in part, was writers could produce adequate images with their smartphones. But good writers aren’t always good photographers and vice versa. A year later the paper rehired four of its former photographers as ‘multimedia journalists.’
Yahoo News, CNN, National Geographic and other major news agencies are now hiring specialists to produce content for Snapchat’s Discover section introduced in January. Snapchat isn’t just for teenagers anymore. Discover delivers content from different channels with equal weight, allowing users to choose content rather than relying on algorithms to promote trending content and, as with Facebook, tell users what to read. An exciting development, for sure.
But by the time you read this I’ll be camped out next to my bicycle, near a beach with a book in my hand. I figure I’ll pack along my old copy of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India that I put down and never finished back in the early ’90s, right about when all this Internet stuff got going.