Unlearn what you know

Three misconceptions about the audience are leading journalists to produce vapid journalism for the Web, says Robert Niles in the Online Journalism Review. Do you think today’s audience suffers from too-short attention spans, can’t handle details and hates numbers? Wrong, wrong, wrong, says Niles.

Attention spans are not the issue. Competition for time is. People will drop everything to read 800 pages, if it offers a thrilling narrative like Harry Potter. But they won’t waste a moment on garbage…If your content is not grabbing an audience, don’t blame attention spans. Blame your inability to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

As for detail, Niles points out that people crave minutiae on subjects that interest them. A site that “dumbs down” reporting for the uninitiated risks losing loyal readers, he says, so Niles suggests using hyperlinks to provide explanations for people who need them. And numbers? “If you put math (or anything else) in a context that readers can understand, well, they’ll understand it.”

I don’t think that means you should use lots of numbers or acronyms when you write for a general audience–quite the contrary. But don’t be afraid to tackle difficult stories and explain their significance. Make it compelling, and the audience will come.