With the film Spotlight debuting last September, depicting the Boston Globe’s 2002 unveiling of the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse coverup, the work done by those journalists has come to be formally recognized on a broad national level as the reason for major reform in the church. The film itself won this year’s Oscar for best picture — whether it was for the way it told the story or for the actual story itself isn’t completely clear. And with Spotlight came discussion about the role of newspapers in providing the checks and balances for society. Those tasked to uncover malfeasance in organizations, from government to the church to private businesses, and the media outlets that publish their work serve as part of a solid foundation of a civilized society. And the work to create and build credibility is at the very helm of any formal news outlet. But the value of reliable information is being diminished by the average American’s decreasing attention span, overwhelming entertainment options and lack of understanding that it’s not just a headline that matters.
This week, shareholders of Journal Media Group, owner of the Ventura County Star and various other dailies, approved the sale of the company to Gannett Co. Inc., owner of USA Today, for $280 million. In April 2015, the Star announced it was under new ownership of Journal Media Group Inc. after splitting with its longtime owner, E.W. Scripps, which had turned its focus to radio rather than print publications. The Ventura County Star is just one of many print daily and weekly newspapers that have undergone major restructuring, new ownership, downsizing and pay cuts in order to stay viable as readers choose other forms of media options. While the average person sees these changes in the day of the information and technology age as a normal adjustment, the fact remains, newspapers are hurting. And with that pain comes an unprecedented amount of bad information primarily on the Internet from unreliable sources, information that is produced off hunches rather than actual research, information that may even be fact-free because credibility seems to have such little importance these days. And while technology has played such a critical role in the dissemination of information, it is also killing our ability to consume information.
With the rise of smartphones and tablets, our attention spans have begun to shrink. According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, in 2000, our attention span clocked in at an average of 12 seconds. By 2015, it was about 8.25 seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish: 9 seconds. Currently, if you have read this far in this editorial, you are part of a small minority of people. Data provided by the Institute shows that Internet users only read about half of the words on pages with 111 words or less. That percentage gets smaller with more words on a page.
Looking at newspaper circulation, according to the Pew Research Center, newspaper print circulation dropped rapidly from 2004 to 2010 but then saw a surge in 2014, followed by a quick decline by the end of the year. Also, from 2004 to 2014, there was rapid decline in print ad revenue while digital ad revenue never made up for those losses. There seems to be a direct correlation between, on one hand, our decreasing attention spans and the reduced consumption of long-form journalism and, on the other hand, the decline of newspapers circulation and ad revenue.
While so many praise the Boston Globe (and consequently Spotlight) for its groundbreaking research and for challenging the Roman Catholic Church, the fact that so few are paying real attention to the work being done by journalists in their own areas and across the globe puts civilized society in jeopardy. While no journalist wants to go hungry, the question is, should a society starve itself of credible information because technology has delivered so many distractions? Regardless of our vested interests, we see this as a detriment to American society as a whole.
Ignorance should not be bliss.