A Bite-Sized Media Future

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

An Apple Store, San Francisco, California

Today's younger generation is under attack from an unlikely source: news it can't adequately process. According to an international study released Monday, people aged 18 to 34 are bombarded by news, facts and updates to the point where they now suffer from "newstritional disorder," according to anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff, who headed the study. Symptoms can include a diminished attention span, news fatigue, distraction, and even agitation, which can affect how people communicate in their personal and organizational relationships.

The study, commissioned by the Associated Press and carried out by the Baltimore-based Context-Based Research Group, tracked news consumption by young adults in Houston, Silicon Valley, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Brighton, U.K. and Hyderabad, India. Researchers found that a near-constant barrage of facts and updates makes it harder for younger people to access in-depth stories than it appears to be for older generations. Indeed, many of them might find it tough sledding to get through the study's findings, presented in a 71-page report.

Today's youth receive their news from far more sources than older people, consuming modern media from "online video, blogs, online social networks, mobile devices, RSS, word of mouth, Web portals and search engines," according to the study findings. This glut of technological news sources has led consumers to experience an "imbalance in their news diet," specifically trouble keeping up with news stories that went on too long or were too in-depth.

"There's tons of great content out there, but it's being overridden by the delivery system that gives you facts and updates," said Blinkoff. These "aren't satisfying and are light on the good stuff for you; it's quantity instead of quality."

If you're still reading this article — and chances are greater if you're older than 34 — you may be wondering whether there's a cure for newstritional disorder. The study's recommendation is, in essence, more of what's causing the problem in the first place: "quick delivery and quick-scan consumption," news that can be taken in at a glance. The new bite-size media model is to reduce the news fat, cut back on content, and create tasty treats that requires fewer mental calories to digest.

The media industry, suffering from declining newspaper and magazine readership, seems willing to test the theory. When presented with the study's initial findings last year, the Associated Press developed what it calls a "1-2-3 filing" system. A news-by-the-numbers approach, it starts with a news alert headline, followed by a short present-tense story, and finally padded with additional details and alternate formatting for different news platforms (the web, radio, TV, etc.). The AP also launched a mobile news service available on hand-held devices in May and increased its online interactive content to appeal to today's Facebook generation.

London's Telegraph Media Group, which previously saw a decline in circulation and advertising, adopted a similar approach to the AP's on its website and saw their numbers skyrocket. Telegraph.co.uk experienced a huge jump in web traffic, from 7.2 million users in March 2007 to 17 million users in March 2008, making it the third most-visited newspaper website in Britain, according to the study.

It may sound like we're destined for a future of sound bites and mentally stunted newsreaders, but according to Blinkoff, we shouldn't despair. The study's findings indicate that young adults still desire in-depth content and news awareness, but must sift through more data to find it. By making changes in the technological delivery system of the news, media readers both young and old will ideally be able to receive content in more practical and effective ways.

"Right now we're at the beginning of technological changes, but behavior takes so long to adapt," said Blinkoff. "It's going to take time to get it right." Hopefully, if and when we do, the news of that accomplishment will come in a format future generations will take the time to actually read.