If Everyone's Talking, Who Will Listen?

By Dusty Horwitt
Sunday, August 24, 2008

Everybody jokes about "TMI" these days: "Too much information," we say laughingly, when someone tells a story full of embarrassing detail about some personal foible or intimate relationship. But in our information-overloaded society, the concept of TMI is no joke. The information avalanche coming from all sides -- the Internet, PDAs, hundreds of television channels -- is burying us in extraneous data that prevent important facts and knowledge from reaching a broad audience.

Lawyers are familiar with this phenomenon. In fact, they use it to their advantage: They know that if you want to hide damaging information about a case, there's nothing like a document dump to do the trick. You make the facts freely available -- along with so much irrelevant data that no one will ever find them.

But the implications for our democracy are troubling. To achieve their goals, political movements need to reach and influence tens of millions of citizens. Despite conventional thinking that the Internet helps spread information, such reach is actually impossible online.

Consider: In August 2007, there were about 100 million blogs. Of those that reached 100,000 people or more in a month, only about 20 focused on news or politics, according to ComScore Media Metrix, a company that measures Internet traffic. The most popular was, with only 1.1 million unique visitors, or 0.4 percent of the 228 million U.S. adults 18 and older.

Moreover, visitors to blogs and Web sites probably don't see most of the information on them. According to Nielsen Online, the average visitor to newspaper Web sites stops by for just 1.5 minutes per day on average. By contrast, the average print newspaper reader spends 40 minutes with each day's edition, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "When you think about the amount of information published to the Web, it's a physical impossibility for the vast majority of that stuff to spread virally," Derek Gordon, marketing director for the blog-tracking firm Technorati, told me in 2006.

For this article, I got newspaper Internet readership statistics from the Web site of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). But if there hadn't been prior newspaper coverage of the NAA, I might never have found its site. And if I had simply posted the information online, few people would have seen it. By contrast, The Washington Post's print edition reaches about 2 million readers on Sunday, more than 35 percent of whom are likely to read the editorial page, according to a Mediamark Research study.

Which highlights the larger problem: The overload siphons audiences and revenue from newspapers such as The Post and other outlets that can spread important information, forcing these media to shrink and to rely increasingly on advertising to stay afloat. These trends predate the Internet era, but they've gotten worse.

"It's much more difficult [to reach people] today -- and much more expensive," said Steve Eichenbaum, creative director of a Milwaukee-based marketing firm that helped engineer Russell Feingold's upset U.S. Senate victory in 1992. Among Eichenbaum's innovations was an ad that ran only once in every TV market in Wisconsin -- yet helped Feingold win the Democratic primary. Eichenbaum doubts that Feingold's underfunded, underdog victory "could ever happen again."

Although the Internet has helped some candidates raise more money, media fragmentation has driven up TV advertising costs as candidates compete for the shrinking number of time slots that can reach voters, says Ken Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin. Moreover, viewers seem more distracted, and it takes more ads before pollsters can see any effect in tracking polls, says David Hill, a Houston-based Republican pollster. "The cost of media is accelerating and the ineffectiveness of media is accelerating," he said. "I'm getting hit twice."

The opportunity to educate millions of citizens, so essential to significant movements of the past, has dwindled. In the early New Deal era, the Roman Catholic "radio priest" Father Charles Coughlin promoted ideas for economic reform to a weekly audience estimated at 40 million, which helped pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact Social Security, the Works Progress Administration and other programs. Today's top talk-radio host, Rush Limbaugh, reaches only about 14 million people per week.

Without broad media coverage, the civil rights movement might never have succeeded. In 1965, front-page newspaper coverage of the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., helped push Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, write journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in their 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Race Beat." Even the Fairbanks Alaska News-Miner carried the story on the front page for 10 straight days.

In 1965, weekday newspaper circulation was more than 60 million copies, or roughly one paper for every two adults. By this year, it was down to about 50 million, or one paper for every 4.5 adults, and newspapers are slashing reporting jobs and, inevitably, news coverage.

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