The Five-Minute News Break

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For an industry in trouble, we think surprisingly little about how people actually read what we write.

Facebook is perfectly optimized for a nicely distracting two-minute browsing session during work. We open up a browser to research something for work, but, ah… why not check how our friends’ day is going first.

News websites work similarly: a homepage with a smorgasbord of content, all stories a mere click away, and each story can be skimmed in one or two minutes. And then shared through twitter just as quickly.

When we think about how to monetize news, we hardly ever account for the fact that over half of all news consumption happens in short five-minute breaks in between work, studying or waiting for the bus. But these short breaks change everything.

You will never ever be able to ask money from somebody who’s surfing during work time. It’s embarassing enough that we’re getting distracted while we ought to be productive. Actively investing money into making those sneaky distractions more pleasant wouldn’t feel right, would be a bit seedy even.

In The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism, one newspaper after another reports not being able to properly monetize online video even though the advertising rates for pre-rolls are very attractive to publishers. Well duh, I don’t even have a headset near my work computer, and I’d rather die than have anyone see me watching what for all they know could be cat videos on YouTube.

But it’s not just that paying for more enjoyable work breaks would feel wrong (or that work breaks are wrong!), there’s just no need for quality journalism during the daytime. When I’m working, I want to be distracted. Maybe something to clear my mind. Short updates about what’s going on in the nation fit the bill. Celebrity news does too. Cat pictures too. And news from friends on Facebook too. An investigation into how methamphetamine destroys lives… eh, not so much. Cheap content is actually the most satisfying when we’re just snacking for news.

In fact, we actively save up the really good stuff for when we’re not at work, using Instapaper, Read It Later, Klip.me, Spool and the Safari Reading List feature. But we encounter the good stuff when our frame of mind is one of uncritical consumption and aversion to paid content, which is really bad luck for publishers. By the time we get home, we, true news omnivores, have already saved up our evening reading. By the time we as a reader would be inclined to maybe pay for media, we don’t have to because you as a publisher gave it to us for free earlier. And if you wouldn’t have made it free, we’d have just skipped it. Because skipping and skimming is what we do during a five-minute break. Now that’s a Catch-22 if I ever saw one.

You can’t ask people to pay for your content at the time they’re least invested in it. You can’t sell engaged users to advertisers during the daytime, because they’re not engaged, they’re surfing and hopping.

Despite the Catch-22 that affects the news fiends among our audience (who save up during the day to read at night), can we take advantage of the smaller visitor peak from 9 to 10 P.M. and traffic during the weekends? Most news sites see a big reduction in visitors on Saturday and Sunday, in vacation periods and during the summer months. But while there’s less consumption, especially online, it’s also more relaxed and people’s tastes are a bit more refined. People still take time to savour a Sunday edition. People pay to get more out of their weekends. We should try to work with that audience, both online and in print.

Keep our daytime coverage short and sweet, and make kick-ass video, features and enterprise reporting for the evenings and weekends, when advertisers pay more and people may at the very least pay something.

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The Five-Minute News Break debrouwere.org/4g by @stdbrouw


writes about computer code and the future of journalism. He used to work at the Guardian and until recently at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Stijn is @stdbrouw on Twitter.