April 04, 2013

Horse 1457 - Einstein's Unfluffy Idea

I have found a use for the free newspaper Mx. Near the back of the paper is a TV guide, so my total reading of the paper usually amounts to that and possibly the letters section; all done in the time that it takes me to walk from an entrance and down the pedestrian ramps, before returning it back to a rack closer to the railway station. In total, Mx can't spend any more than about 90 seconds in my hands before I'm done with it.
Mx as a newspaper just doesn't sell itself to me. As a reader I want to "purchase" harder and grittier ideas than the gooey marshmallow fluff that Mx has to offer. To wit, the most recent books I have read on the train have been by Hayek, Keynes (both economists), Spurgeon (a theologian), a biography on the life of Lewis Carroll and one of Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels.
"Einstein's" letter of 3rd April, then, I found a little interesting. The lament about the sorts of dross in Mx is not without merit but I fear completely misplaced.

Mx is a commercial newspaper with a cover price of zero. This means that unlike the Tele or the Herald, the overhead costs to print it aren't even covered at all by the purchase price. It must be conceded therefore, that the product on sale is not the newspaper but the time spent in the hands of the readers. Since their time is obviously valuable enough to be purchased by people who put adverts in the newspaper, then the editors will try to ensure that the newspaper spends as much time in people's hands as possible.
What then does the readership look like? How do you keep the newspaper in their hands as long as possible?

My basic conceit here is that the vast majority of people are either disinterested in thinking at worst or very easily distracted at best. This is evidenced elsewhere by the sorts of television shows which are popular and by the most popular things on the internet.
Apart from people's need for food, clothing and shelter, people as highly social creatures have a need for validation and acceptance. Things like Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter feed this need quite admirably.
A newspaper by virtue of being a hard copy and printed, doesn't quite satisfy this need. It can print celebrity gossip and sporting results which I suppose add to people's sense of community but messages on social media do this instantly.
The other thing I find interesting, is that although our trains and buses are awash with smart phones, tablets and laptops, people aren't necessarily using this great computing power to access stores of information or news services. No, they're firing Angry Birds into makeshift towers which green pigs have built, or trying to create words of no more than four letters with friends, or trying to match sets of jewels.

There is a reference book in the library near where I work called "The Art Of The Sermon" by Horace Milton; published in 1857. He writes that when preaching, you need to "shout to the bottom of people's souls"; adding that "parishioners tend to nod off after nine minutes, you need to put fire under their pews, lest they be cast into the fires of hell". People in 1857 had an attention span of nine minutes it seems. A half-hour television program will be interspersed with three sets of adverts, cutting a television show into eight minute blocks. Cartoon shorts in the cinemas were seven minutes long. Clearly there's something going on here which has been known about for at least 156 years.
The portable computer revolution has for the most part, been a method where tired people who have worked seven or more hours that day, are able to disengage their brains and dissociate themselves from their fellow travelers.
The bottom line is that people want cheap and instant gratification. If they have an attention span of no more than about ten minutes at most, then a newspaper needs to engage with them quickly or else its message and point if existence is missed entirely.

Herein lies the reason why a publication like Mx is so devoid of anything resembling an interesting idea.
The people on public transport are probably the same people who a decade or more ago, didn't know what an element was in a high school science class. These people probably wouldn't be interested in the vibrating Germanium crystals or Silicon powering the devices that they currently paw at. Nor would they care about time dilation with respect to gravity, which is essential to the function of mobile telephony and GPS systems.
If even basic science is beyond the scope of interest or care of most people travelling on public transport, then Mx quite rightly isn't going to include such a section in their publication because it doesn't sell advertising space. It probably goes without saying that people need to be spurred on intellectually but simple economics dictates otherwise.

It probably also goes without saying that "Einstein's" time isn't the commodity which Mx is trying to sell. If Einstein would prefer to be reading something more intellectually stimulating, then why don't they? Public libraries are massive stores of books which can be borrowed for free. You don't have to have your precious time sold to advertisers. If enough people started doing that, then Mx circulations would drop and they might have to reconsider what their market looked like.
As it is, people continue to pick it up and so Mx continue to print gooey marshmallow fluff instead of anything which would spur people on intellectually and/or bring about change. It pays to print fluff.

No comments: