The Short Attention Span News Generation, brought to you by Twitter

Two major news events in the past week have shown again why Twitter is a major player in the distribution of news. In the streets of Tehran, Twitter had a crucial role in getting out news and events pertaining to the questionable free elections. As their counterparts in China found out, the Iranian government can shut out the mainstream media, but is almost powerless in stopping the populace from sending out Tweets and pictures of the violent government crackdown on the street.

And in California, the news of the death of pop superstar Michael Jackson took life on Twitter even before the mainstream news outlets were able to get a handle on it. The celebrity web site TMZ, upon getting first notification that Jackson was transported to a hospital, immediately tweeted it out to its followers. Like a wildfire, those followers retweeted TMZ’s message to their followers, and so on, as so on. Just about everyone knew that Jackson had died by the time AP sent out its alert some two hours later.

The phenomenon was noted by an AP reporter in New York, who was on a bus when a passenger got on and announced that Jackson had just died. Immediately, the reporter said, everyone around her pulled out their smartphones to confirm what they heard and pass it along to their friends.

Media guru Jeff Jarvis compares Twitter’s power in breaking news to the power cable news had in its heyday. He points out it’s sad that a dead celebrity is capable of pushing out a cultural revolution. However, noting that Iran still trends on Twitter, he has hope.

What this is more indicative of, however, is the very issues that is killing newspapers and, in a sense, substantive journalism. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and social media in general are becoming the news source for the short-attention span news generation. The news is short, to the point and relevant. No ups, no extras.

What it lacks is substance. You get who, what, when, where … and possibly how. What is missing is why. But the SASN generation isn’t necessarily interested in why … especially if it goes beyond 140 characters.

As Jarvis points out, this is no different from what cable news has done for decades, the only difference now is that viewers lose their interest long before the cable outlets do. He is correct that folks today would rather discuss Jackson’s death with their friends than with Al Sharpton. Consumers have been experted to death by cable news…they’d rather analyze on their own terms with folks they know.

What does this mean for substantive news? It will continue, but will likely play a secondary role to immediacy in the coming years. That means news organizations must be prepared to do both in order to survive. They can no longer hang their hat on analysis and in-depth news. The audience will be there, but it will be smaller and those who grew up enjoying depth and breadth die off.

But the SASN generation … like the Headline News generation … is fed quickly and constantly. Once the essentials have been exhausted, they will move on to a new alert. Like Don Quixote, social news will slay a windmill until they grow weary, then travel along the plain to the next windmill.

They are the next audience news organizations will need to focus on. But the SASN generation won’t know it, because I lost them 6 paragraphs ago.

Can chicken dinners be a golden egg?

Back in the 1980s, Chicago Tribune editor Jim Squires, when asked about the stunning growth of suburban daily newspapers encroaching on his paper’s circulation, blithely responded “People love chicken-dinner news.”

Now, the Trib in the 80s was not known for spending time on “chicken dinner” news — a metaphor for the ultra-local news ranging from village board meetings to school play stories and Rotary Club dinners — but learned once suburban daily and weekly papers gnawed away their market dominance. This was the news that would wind up taped (or held by magnets)to refrigerator doors across the nation. A six-part series on official malfeasance is true journalism, but what fed readers’ appetite for news was the small picture of their neighbor’s kid in the school play, the listing on what is playing at the community theater, the notice on when should they be putting their trash out on the curb.

The beauty of the chicken dinner news was that you necessarily didn’t need a reporting staff to dig up the information and turn it over. People in the community are dying to give you this stuff. Sure, in many cases it’s poorly written and you need a someone to translate it into meaningful copy, but the news is there, coming in a stead stream.

Flash forward to today. Papers are cutting back on staff and coverage because they can’t afford to produce a product like they did in the 80s. So thinner papers that are publishing less frequently are going out to readers.

But, in the community, the chicken dinner news still exists! And they still want to get noticed.

So why haven’t local papers taken advantage of that on the web? Taking the term community to mean “those with similar interests,” why aren’t more papers forming community portals for that information?

Why aren’t they providing social-media-like sites that allow posting of the uber-local information. Why don’t these portals provide virtual “refrigerator doors,” which allow users to post stories and photos generated from other sites, and allows them to share with friends and family — like a local-level version of Facebook.

These portals could draw readership and interest to local advertisers, who could also tout their own businesses and share with these communities.

Chicken dinner news could be a golden egg for readership and potential revenues.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to it?

Flotsam for today

* I’ve read a lot of positive things about the newspaper industry over the past several weeks.

And then I read this.

The Newport, R.I., Daily News will charge readers for access to news online.

A lot.

In fact, the Daily News is charging $345 a year for online only access … more than the $245 online and home delivery charge, and considerably more than the $145 home delivery only.

“Our goal was to get people back into the printed product,” publisher Albert K. Sherman, Jr. tell the Nieman Foundation. He said some readers, when hearing about the plan, asked “why would they pay for it on the Internet when they can go buy the printed paper? And that’s perfect — that’s what we want.”

So this small-town daily is taking the sheepherder’s approach to regain readership, without regard to readers’ wants. Sheep can’t think for themselves, but I have a feeling the people in Newport are much, much smarter than sheep.

They’ll figure out where to get their online news for less, even if the Daily News is the only information source in the market.

At those prices, it won’t be for long.

* I fear for the Boston Globe’s future after the Newspaper Guild rejected a 10 percent staff pay cut earlier this week. The newspaper’s owner, New York Times Inc., afterwards declared the talks at an impasse and instituted a 23 percent pay cut across the board. Now NYT is looking at the possibility of selling the Globe .

The union’s effort to shield its members from the economic realities of the industry, where a 10 percent pay cut would be welcomed in lieu of layoffs and pay cuts that, in some cases, have accumulated beyond 30 percent. As a result, NYT’s effort to shed the newspaper from its umbrella could put the Globe with a even more stingy boss.

Newspapers are not a popular investment nowadays. The Miami Herald, Chicago Sun-Times and San Francisco Chronicle have been on the lot for years without attracting a single bidder. The Globe could also sit for a long time without finding a buyer.

On top of it, what shrewd investor would want to buy a company whose union won’t give an inch to help make it solvent again?

The union’s hard-headedness is ill timed. They could be the reason another great newspaper becomes dust.

* A follow-up to the meeting of newspaper executives a couple of weeks ago, where it was hinted they were planning business models for charging for online content.

They Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds notes that American Press Institute offered a second strategy that should also be considered — going after Craigslist to regain classified revenues lost to the popular, free classified site.

While many claim it’s too little, too late, there is some merit to the suggestion. While Craigslist is still highly popular and free, it is at a vulnerable state now which newspapers could use to leverage folks back to local brands (or a “unified national brand, as API put it).

In addition to the highly-publicized use of Craigslist by the sex trade, numerous smaller frauds and user issues have frustrated novice and casual users of the service. These are audiences that a solid local brand … like a newspaper … could take advantage of Craigslist’s shortcomings and ethical issues to build a trusted, secure network to sell items online and in print.

It won’t solve the industry’s woes, but it could help flatten or reverse the revenue problems at local newspapers.

* As a journalist and a frequent Twitter user, I love this piece of advice from writer Ann Handley, “Everything I need to know about Twitter I learned in journalism school.”
Great words of advice for any Twitter user!