Patience, do you have it? Will you even make it to the bottom of this article? Challenge yourself, because our attention spans are getting shorter. Chances are you might not even make it to the bottom of the next paragraph. However, when your brain is posed with the proverbial question. Do fish fart? It’s got to be worth reading to find out and what on earth the answer that has got to do with investigative journalism; surely?
Investigative journalism requires vast amounts of perseverance. Not only from the journalist, who has to dare click beyond the second page of the Google search results. But nowadays, the reader also needs to be enticed and immersed enough to scroll past the landing screen. Scroll being the crucial term, that all of journalism has to contend with in the information age.
Just this week new data reported by the BBC has shown that the ever-familiar trend in the Scottish media from print to online reading is continuing to chimes with worldwide trends. Research by Pew Internet Study seems to suggest, as our move from print to screen increases, our attention spans decrease. The wealth of content online means content providers and news organisations need to do more to attract their audiences, in order to try and revitalise their declining profits.
The trouble is, how to you increase profits by providing exciting and intriguing content with a smaller pot of money? Easy, by minimising the time journalists spend on stories by focusing them in on swift ‘churnalised’ re-hashes of news wires (Churnalism the term coined by Guardian journalist Nick Davies being the nature of, chopping and churning out already written copy in a slightly different way.)
To those in charge of the profit sheets it is a simple choice. 1000 words, written in two hours, by one journalist from a pre-prepared and free press release or the same amount, that take weeks of investigation. Clearly anyone in charge of the budget is most likely to opt for the first option.
Of course it isn’t quite as simple as that and for years exclusive investigative stories have sold papers. The Telegraph’s exposes on MP’s expenses, the annual Sunday Times Rich List and of course the investigation into bad practices of some investigative journalism in the phone hacking scandal, broke by Nick Davies at the Guardian. These are all recent examples of investigative journalism thriving. But all of these worked for the newspapers because, they were printed. In the instantaneous nature of the online world, people want information now not once a day, in the morning.
Time is a key aspect of journalism. Whether it’s the 24-hour news cycle, the time it takes to write a piece, and now, how much time readers have to give to each piece of journalism. The recent report by Pew Internet Study has suggested that while we almost certainly benefit from the wealth of content online, it is leading to a need for ‘instant gratification’. This quick fix culture, the study suggests is, leading to a loss of patience and lack of deep thought.
So how do investigative journalists who need to explain complicated and lengthy concepts when telling their stories gratify this need for a quick fix? One website Medium has attempted to retain readers by stating from the outright, just how much time you’ll need to invest before you start reading. The site, which was funded by a Kick-starter campaign, sets out the reading time of each article. The website has since expanded to a platform, Matter still hosts the investigative articles but the platform named Medium has articles on subjects from the Russian occupation of Crimea to ‘Life Hacking’.
The trouble with this concept, is I found myself picking the 2 minute articles over the 35 minute ones which essentially means, the Medium, set up to find a new home for lengthy investigative pieces, faced exactly the same problems. This is the trouble with the Internet we all to easily ‘Life Hack’, or for want of another word take shortcuts, wherever possible.
Take contracts, no one can be bothered to read a twenty page document if we can avoid it. However, would we consider signing a binding document without understanding it? Who knows what we could be signing our life away to? Here is the bit with the ironic double take; the last time you signed up to a website, did you read the terms and conditions, or just check the box to say you did? You can always read them later, no?
Let’s take the professional networking website LinkedIn as an example. After all its probably one of the more important social networking sites to understands the terms of, it could lead you into a job. I spoke to Nuala Watkins from Commercial Contract Law, a firm that specialises in website terms and conditions. She said she would charge me £400, for the four hours needed to consider the 8000 word LinkedIn terms of service. Add in the two to three day turn around that will take and it’s no wonder people just click accept. I certainly decided to just stick with my profile regardless.
So if we haven’t got time to check for important legal matters, what hope is there for investigative journalism? After all much of it relies on tip offs and whistle blowers. If disgruntled employees don’t even bother to understand what’s going on, how on earth are the journalists going to be able to hone in their work with their ever-diminishing budgets?
Maybe a more important legal question is whether journalists feel as if they can protect themselves. On a London Press Club panel discussing whether investigative journalism can survive, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger suggested that a public interest law would protect the practice. He said, “It’s not a case of can investigative journalism survive. Of course it can. Will it survive with us as a body of people depends on our editorial will, it depends on the law, and it depends on having the nerve to keep on doing it because that is the path to editorial and commercial success”
A YouGov poll released two days before the panel had shown that the British public were more optimistic about investigative journalism than those working in the industry. (With that in mind I hope I’m not coming across with to much pessimism, but it is my job to have at least a partially half empty cup.)
Perhaps we can learn from one brand that is thriving, by providing high-class journalism in a new format. For a premium cost, (of course) the Economist now offers its subscribers the opportunity to download an audio version of their articles. These Economist Podcasts, frantically recorded every Thursday at an independent production company in Shoreditch, ready to accompany the print copy Friday; can then be downloaded to your handheld device ready in time for that morning’s commute.
This ‘spoon feeding’ of information to its readers is a potential fix to the laziness quandary. We cannot be bothered to read long pieces, but there is some sort of agreement there is still public interest in them. So take away the effort of reading them, fight for a comfy seat on the commuter train and have someone read you the story. It’s the ultimate middle-aged, upper class, (nursery) story time. Are you sitting comfortably? Though chances are if you’re on the commute, you’re not exactly cosy and you’ll quite quickly switch on that downloaded episode of Eastenders on your iPlayer app instead. Or maybe you’ll escape with a documentary on aquatic creatures?
Then again, if you’ve just scrolled all the way down just to find out the answer to one of life’s great mysteries; then you’ve proved my point. Fish do fart, and our attention span stinks.