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The content explosion

Published January 16. 2010 09:00AM


Special to The TIMES NEWS

We may be living in the golden age of information, but we are just snacking on the news.

On top of that, we are losing our focus and faced with countless distractions that make previous enjoyment such as reading a much more challenging task.

Whether it's an incoming cell phone call, an e-mail message on your Blackberry or the sudden thought that you haven't listened to voice messages on your home answering machine, we are constantly on high alert for checking on available information.

We can contact millions of people worldwide; OK, so why then is it so difficult to schedule a family supper? How did we get to this point?

Newspaper and magazine publishers and editors are frantically trying to answer this question, and, regrettably, they are dumbing down content on the theory that this works best with a diminished attention span.

Briefs, "talk" pieces, "gee-whiz" stories, big photographs and flashy layout and typography dominate newspapers and magazines. Still, circulation and revenue are plummeting, buyouts and layoffs are the order of the day, and costs are being slashed through reductions that are wreaking havoc on the news content - smaller newsholes, narrower-width products, all leading to a by-product of less information.

Maggie Jackson's book "Distracted" (June 2008) says attention is the building block of intimacy, wisdom and cultural progress. "If we squander our powers of attention, our technological age could ultimately slip into cultural decline," Jackson says.

The distraction theme shows up in a provocative Atlantic Monthly piece by Nicholas Carr - Is Google Making Us Stoopid? He asks whether the Internet might be rewiring us, luring us with its limitless data, then shattering our attention span into a hundred tiny shards and turning us from readers into gleaners.

David Rubin, who retired last spring as dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University, broached the subject when he spoke to graduates at their annual convocation. "We're overwhelmed with content," Rubin says. Comparing his address to one he gave the class of 1994, Rubin says we live in a much more fragmented media community than we did then. "The media now cater to specific niches with parochial interests," he explains. There's even a magazine for ferret-lovers, he says.

Rubin, however, says the content explosion has been good for society. It's easier to be informed. "We are not hostage to a handful of television networks or a single daily newspaper; we can even create our own content and send it around the world," he says.

While all of this technology has dramatically transformed the media, Rubin believes that this new content has not changed society for the better; even more ominously, despite the challenges, news magazines and newspapers are struggling to hold audiences.

"Reporting staffs are being cut back, foreign bureaus have been closed, reporters have been abandoning Iraq, ratings for most news shows continue to decline," he says.

Even after the 9/11 attacks, Rubin says the public signaled its desire for a return to the entertainment culture, and the media were only too happy to oblige.

On top of this, digital media have broken the old economic model that supported traditional media. They have siphoned classified advertising, a mainstay of newspaper revenues. With free content on the World Wide Web, newspaper and magazine circulation declines precipitously, and with it another major source of income. In some cases, these declines trigger price increases which further erode circulation numbers - a veritable Catch 22.

In this environment, Rubin says, it becomes a risk to take the high road and give the public what it needs and not necessarily what it wants. Holding on to their audience encourages pandering and appealing to the lowest common denominator, Rubin believes.

Economics isn't the whole story, Rubin emphasizes. The media have not distinguished themselves in serving the public interest. "And the public knows it," Rubin says.

He cited the 2008 presidential campaign coverage. While the volume of coverage and commentary was impressive, the coverage is often "repetitive, shallow, trivial or sensational in nature," Rubin says. "A real missed opportunity."

With the many forces at work changing the way we get our news, researchers are trying to determine whether authors Maggie Jackson and Nicholas Carr have hit upon a key consideration. Have we lost the ability to focus? Have we become a nation of scanners rather than serious readers? Have we lost our ability to separate the chaff from the wheat, and are we on a diet of chaff?

"The Internet may be changing the way we think in a way that seems like a loss of something important - our capacity for contemplation," Carr says.

(Bruce Frassinelli, a native of Summit Hill, lives in Schnecksville and teaches Political Science courses at Lehigh Carbon Community College. This article received the best column-writing award in the 2009 Golden Quotes Award sponsored by the Professional Journalists and Communicators of Oswego County, N.Y. Frassinelli is senior columnist for Oswego County Business Magazine.)

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