Workplace Attention Spans vs Leisure-Time Reading

New York Times 2013

In The Rise of Curiosity Journalism Ian Bogost explores the odd news that the most-viewed story published online by The New York Times in 2013 wasn’t a story at all; it was an interactive widget that quizzed and then mapped American regional dialects. “It’s certainly startling. But is it really surprising? Perhaps not, once we consider the dominant patterns of online attention.”

Those dominant patterns include the fact that so many of us fill our media diets by following links shared by our friends on Facebook and Twitter, the more “curious” the better. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the story’s timing — it published in the work-free window between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and still landed in the Number One spot among popular NY Times stories for the whole year:

On the one hand, the week of Christmas and New Year’s seems like a terrible time to publish anything; readers are often traveling or visiting with family. But on the other hand, this downtime also offers a great opportunity to play with distractions like a dialect quiz.

Maybe downtime — if that’s the opposite of work time — isn’t just the best time to publish regional-dialect curiosities and listicles. Perhaps all media longer than a Vine requires a the kind of attention we reserve for leisure time.

Take news, for instance. People who still get newspapers tend to read them over breakfast before work, and that kind of news reader spends 27 minutes with the paper. When we read news on our laptops — a context where news is competing with work activities like email, instant messaging, and the meeting we’re late for — we spend, on average, only one minute per day with a newspaper website. On Sunday, the most downtime day of the week, readers of print newspapers spend 57 minutes, more than twice the time they carve out for the weekday paper. (Stats and further insights at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism’s site.)

Hal Varian News Consumption Graph

There’s nothing magical about paper as a format, either. People who read digital news on tablets (instead of on phones or laptops) spend print-like chunks of time with their newspapers. According to Google chief economist Hal Varian (from his September 2013 speech at the E Giornalismo awards ceremony in Italy):

If you look at the time-of-day pattern of online news readership across devices you see that searches for news are concentrated during the working day. On mobile phones, news reading is spread out across the day. Tablet use, on the other hand. peaks in the morning and evening hours. This is because tablets, unlike phones and computers, are primary used for leisure-time reading.

And phone reading isn’t just for short-form workday snacking anymore either. A recent viral hit at Buzzfeed, a 6000-word piece called Why I Bought a House in Detriot for $500, got phone readers to spend more than 25 minutes reading it, which was twice the time spent reading by its tablet readers.

Maybe the crisis of modern publishing isn’t that we just can’t pay attention any more (although some sources say our attention spans have shrunk by fifty percent in the past decade), or that bits are inherently less monetize-able than atoms. Maybe it’s simply that we push our wonderful, engaging media out to consumers in the wrong context, when bosses and workplace distractions prevent them from giving us the time of day.

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