The Basics of Digital Journalism: Attention and Atomisation

There are two fundamental concepts needed to understand digital journalism. Here's a primer.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

1. Attention

greyscale photo of sitting woman using smartphone
Photo by Zoran Zonde Stojanovski / Unsplash

If there's one word that doesn't come up nearly enough in most newsrooms it's the word "attention" - and that's a crying shame, because it's the defining concept of the digital age. We live in what some people call the attention economy, and it's simple to see why.

Way back in 1971, a cognitive psychologist by the name of Herbert Simon wrote the following:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

How perfectly that captures the modern age. Let me give you an example:

In the late 90s, I was a business journalist. A large part of my work was to travel to regional cities in the UK and profile the economy there. I would head to, say, King's Cross and catch a train north, stopping off at WH Smiths to buy a newspaper and a magazine. What did I do if I finished them before I reached my destination?

Well, my mobile phone was no use, because all it did was make calls and send texts. I did have a laptop, but the battery only lasted about 90 minutes, and I was saving it for the journey home. I could get most of the feature written in that time. Oh, and WiFi wasn't readily available yet, so there was no actual chance of connecting to the internet.

So, I stared out of the window.

Yes, it used to be possible to run out of things to read. When was the last time that happened to you? I live in fear of airport wifi destroying all my open tabs with login pages…

We are no longer in an information poor publishing ecosystem, wwe are in an attention poor one. And that changes everything.

Attention failures

Two really instructive failures of attention planning in journalism crossed my radar in recent weeks. The first was the effective collapse of Timeline, an interesting journalism startup. Jim Giles, its CEO, wrote its effective obituary on Medium, talking about his determination to differentiate the publication by having high-quality journalism.

But that wasn’t enough, because the internet is awash with content. More importantly, it’s awash with good content. Sure, there’s a lot of crap out there and our filter systems still don’t work. But there’s also a ton of high-quality material. Pick almost any topic and you’ll likely find smart work from dedicated writers available for free.

This is quite simply an attention problem. Just being "good" isn't enough to draw attention to you, and Giles has — belatedly — realised that:

This content glut has profound consequences for media startups. To cut through, new media companies need to be highly focused. My advice to anyone planning a new publication is this: Take your big plan and throw half of it away. Whittle it down some more. Keep going until you’ve isolated the kernel of your idea. Then build a tightly focused product around that idea. Something that your audience will quickly come to recognize because it stands out amidst the river of articles and videos that flows across screens daily.

It's good advice — and one another struggling journalism startup would do well to heed. One response of readers to the glut in content is the "flight to niche" — the (often subconscious) choice to focus your attention down to the subjects that interest them the most - that matches with Giles's whittling metaphor above.  Mathew Ingram, writing about The Outline's struggles:

Even those who express admiration for Topolsky and his vision say The Outline’s launch was too ambitious by far, and that the company raised too much money too early in its life cycle, and made promises it couldn’t keep. Instead of trying to build an audience and a business slowly and then look for funding to expand, the site came out of the gate with dozens of staff and lofty (and correspondingly expensive) ambitions. It was a mistake borne of the expectations of outside money.

While all of this is clealry true, and VC-backing for journalism startups is a difficult path, there isn't a clear and simple answer for readers as to "why does The Outline exist?" Without a clear defininstion — like Vox's "we'll explain the news to you" — it will always struggle to find an audeince.

The Time Balance

There are two time-based limiting factors on all digital journalism:

  • Your target readers' available attention
  • You time as a journalist. No longer bounded by paper, you can produce as much as you have time to do.

The art of digital journalism is using your limited available time in best service of your readers' limited attention.

2.Content Atomisation

red light ball illustration
Photo by Zoltan Tasi / Unsplash

The web was born for a reason. Sir Tim Berners-Lee created it at Cern, he did it for a reason:

Why did he create the web? To solve communications problems at CERN. All their computers had their own operating systems and their own documentation systems. There was a huge heterogeneity of systems, and to find information you had to go from computer to computer. He thought it would be neat to build something that his team could use to share information – and which a student could use when they came in, and solved a problem, they could leave that solution woven into the web. When they went away the information would stay.

The idea of linking was borrowed from academic publishing's referencing — and its integral to the way the web works. It has profound consequences for the way we organise content, because the idea of a site structure is, at some level, a lie. Almost all reader acquisition techniques drive people to individual articles rather than the home page.

Death of the homepage?

“Only a third of our readers ever visit it. And those who do visit are spending less time: page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages last year.”
New York Times internal innovation report

The phrase "death of the homepage" is terribly useful, because anyone who uses it seriously has just betrayed their own surface level understanding of digital publishing. The home page's role has changed fundamentally, but it hasn't disappeared. It's often the second page people visit on the site, for instance, and those sites that organise their homepages like menus of content, rather than a traditional newspaper front page tend to see way higher visits to the homepage.

It's another example of misapplying print thinking to a digital environment. The homepage serves as a navigation environment, rather than solely as an indicator of our view of what is most important.

Selling the atoms

A more profound version of that is understanding that we never really sold news in the print-only days. We sold a package with varying amounts of news, information and entertainment depending on the style, market and business model of the title. That package explodes online into atomised stories.

Once you start digging into the major audience acquisition vectors, you can see atomisation at work:

  1. Search
  2. Social Media
  3. Links (internal and external)
  4. Newletters
  5. Direct (unknown) traffic
  6. Apps

All of these will tend to drive traffic directly to articles.  Readers are often more loyal to the referral method (ie Facebook) than they are to the title (although one core goal of audience engagement is to reverse that process). They're also extremely varied in their reading - very few see any need to restrict themselves to a handful of sites.

This means you can no longer rely on the package to deliver readers to you. You have to think about the way you will acquire readers for every single article on your site. All too often, if you don't have a reader engagement strategy for an article, you don't have any traffic. Journalism is not an abstract art, it is performed for the reader, and an article without readers is a waste of your time.

That means that, contrary to popular misconception, each individual digital article you publish is probably more important than many you publish in print. There is no real good digital equivalent of the news in brief nib at the bottom of page seven online. Those nibs are too small to pick up search traffic, too lacking in details to pick up viral shares — they will often languish unread on your site. They can be a waste of your efforts.

In short, everything you choose to publish should have:

  • A clear sense of who the article is for
  • A clear sense of how you are getting that story to them

These two concepts underlie pretty much everything that happens in online journalism. Get a firm grip on them, and your way forward becomes clearer.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.