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 Breitbart.com, 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.

Other outlets aren't picking up the slack. In 1970-71, Nielsen reported that 35 percent of households watched the three network news shows. That figure was down to just 16 percent in 2007-08. In November 1980, ABC, CBS and NBC news broadcasts reached 52.1 million Americans nightly, or about 32 percent of the adult population. In 2007, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox combined reached fewer than 30 million Americans each day, or 12 percent of the adult population.

The challenge is to find ways to strengthen democracy in the era of TMI. It won't be easy, but the situation may not be irreversible, either.

Rather than call for government regulation of technology itself, perhaps the best way to limit the avalanche is to make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread. It could be done via a progressive energy tax designed to keep energy prices at a consistently high level (while providing assistance to lower- and middle-income Americans).

This solution may sound radical and unlikely, but as an environmental analyst, I've spent long hours studying energy consumption. Two years ago, I wrote an article speculating that the real problem behind America's loss of manufacturing jobs was low energy costs that made shipping so cheap that employers had overwhelming incentive to send jobs overseas. My argument that higher energy prices could reverse 50 years of outsourcing was met with skepticism. Yet that's exactly what has begun to happen this year as the high cost of oil has brought some manufacturing jobs back to such cities as Bowling Green, Ky., and Danville, Va.

It's not too far-fetched to imagine that something similar could happen in the information world. Like long-distance shipping, modern information technologies are highly energy-intensive. According to Arizona State University engineering professor Eric Williams, a desktop computer "is probably the most energy-intensive of home devices, aside from furnaces and boilers." The Internet is built on about a billion such computers, in addition to data centers that, says the Wall Street Journal, "can consume enough juice to power a small city of 30,000."

It's possible that over time, an energy tax, by making some computers, Web sites, blogs and perhaps cable TV channels too costly to maintain, could reduce the supply of information. If Americans are finally giving up SUVs because of high oil prices, might we not eventually do the same with some information technologies that only seem to fragment our society, not unite it? A reduced supply of information technology might at least gradually cause us to gravitate toward community-centered media such as local newspapers instead of the hyper-individualistic outlets we have now.

If the thought of more expensive information technologies makes you flinch, consider economist Alan Blinder's warning that the Internet could lead to the outsourcing of 40 million American service jobs over the next 10 to 20 years, including such jobs as financial analysts, lawyers and computer programmers. So newspapers aren't the only ones to be hit by cheap information technologies.

Change will no doubt be difficult, and it won't happen overnight. But it's time for some creative solutions for digging our democracy out of the information avalanche that threatens to smother it.


Dusty Horwitt is a lawyer who works for a nonprofit environmental group in Washington.

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