Informing and Entertaining Despite Shortened Attention Spans: The Guardian’s NSA Files Decoded

People’s attention spans have shortened. Wait – are you still with me?

I said, people’s attention spans have shortened. For instance, I am no longer able to recite Sophocles from memory. And if I could, who would listen?

A few years ago, when I was writing more frequently about the “future of journalism”, the struggles and growing pains of traditional news outlets were mostly based around a) funding and b) competing for audiences believed to be no longer able to concentrate for long periods thanks to technological changes.

Well, journalism funding models are still primarily stuck in a pay-wall / subscription paradigm, but an interesting shift has happened around content. And you can see it in pieces like the Guardian’s NSA Files Decoded.

Rather than simply chunking content down to shorter, frankly dumber, blocks spread across wire services and re-posted through chain outlets, more news media organizations are looking at making rich, nuanced experiences for audiences who get rewarded for their time with greater amounts of information delivered in a more interesting package.

The Guardian’s piece on the NSA and Edward Snowden’s leaks (screenshot above) is a good example. Combining a long-form essay with seamlessly-integrated video, mouse-over infographics, interactive sliders and motion graphics (all with pretty-flawless social media integration) the piece makes for an experience that is more than interesting — it’s fascinating. Also, like the thorny issues it seeks to investigate, the piece is multi-sided and acts as an accurate metaphor for the digital integrity issues at the heart of Snowden’s leaks.

It’s a very toothy read. And while a piece of this sort is not necessarily easy reading, it is as easy as it can be — it remains a suitably intelligent way to investigate the facets of a complex story that evolved behind closed doors.

The story touches on national secrets, ethics, espionage, reportage, personal identity and a number of other topics that have vague theoretical overtures and concrete, real-life, and very personal implications, and the Guardian’s NSA Files Decoded takes a layered look at them all.

If pieces like this (and others) are an indication of where news media is going, not only will audiences start returning, I think funding models will too. Because for all the talk of how digital audiences demand entertainment, they also want to be informed.

That is ultimately the core of the internet, and it’s the central rule that content companies should remember.

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