So Much for Journalism

In the last couple of months, I’ve had three chances to hear Clay Johnson speak about the ideas behind his recent book, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. Johnson introduces his ideas something like this:

“We’re all battling a storm of distractions, buffeted with notifications and tempted by tasty tidbits of information. And just as too much junk food can lead to obesity, too much junk information can lead to cluelessness.”

Both in his book and in his presentations, Johnson talks about how our need to be told “we are right” guides what we are given as news and information consumers. We’re not challenged with original sources or unbiased reports because, in fact, we’d really prefer to be validated.

It’s a sobering message sadly verified in a study that Time Inc., publisher of Time, Sports Illustrated, People and Entertainment Weekly, among other titles, conducted with Innerscope Research.

The study followed a small sample (30 people) whose media habits were measured over the course of a day. Biometric sensors collected data about emotional responses to various media platforms.

The results: so-called digital natives, defined as those 20-somethings “who grew up with mobile and digital technology as part of their everyday lives”, switched their attention among media alternatives an average of 27 times an hour.

Interviewed by Bill Mickey at Folio:, Betsy Frank, Time Inc.’s chief research and insights officer, noted:

“It’s not the most satisfying thing for us to learn that they’re changing platforms 27 times an hour. That seems almost impossible to fathom. But it tells us as content producers and advertisers what we need to be thinking about … engaging them quickly and not taking too long to get to the point and doing something emotionally immediate.”

In the same article, Time Inc.’s executive director of consumer research and insights, Barry Martin, underscores Johnson’s assessment of most media:

“We’re in the relaxation business. We’ve heard time and again that women and men talk about magazines as a great time to relax. And to see that in the biometrics is compelling because the emotional engagement with magazines is much higher than any other media form when it was used solo.”

The first time I heard Clay Johnson speak, I hesitated a bit because he is fighting on the consumer side of the equation. After reading his book and listening a couple of more times, I have to say I was wrong. There’s no saving media companies whose management is relieved to be in “the relaxation business”. It’s time to look elsewhere for change.

Two notes: My first several roles in publishing all took place at Time Inc. in the 1980s and early 1990s. I’ve not worked with anyone interviewed for these two articles.  And, I tried to find the source document that generated this coverage.  I’m still looking, and if I am able to provide access, I will update the post.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.