Editor’s note: This guest blog is the first of many that we hope to publish in the future. We thank Ethos Laboratorio de Políticas Publicas for this submission.
Written by José Luis Chicoma & Eugenia Sepúlveda, Ethos Laboratorio de Políticas Públicas
At Ethos Laboratorio de Políticas Públicas, the Mexican think tank where we work, there are two primary age groups: Millennials and Generation X. Normally, when we ask the Millennials how they stay informed on current events, the response is that they mostly read the articles that their friends and contacts post on social networks. This is generally the same for the members of Generation X, who have significantly decreased their consumption of entire newspapers as a principal source of information.
Statistics don’t lie. Technology has changed and evolved, and the arrival of smartphones has caused particularly intense changes to how we access information. The average millennial checks her smartphone 43 times and spends 5.4 hours on social media per day.
These statistics show that we now pay significantly less attention to what we are reading. With so many interruptions to check our phones, the wide variety of texts, audio recordings, and videos available to us, and so many social networks to follow, the articles and news that we read must be short and entertaining. In fact, thanks to an increasingly digitalized lifestyle, the average attention span is now only eight seconds. Even while reading this article, you were probably tempted to check the text message that just arrived from your friend and that generated an immediate need to respond even though the message itself is not urgent. It is worst with the overabundance of information available on Twitter, not to mention on Facebook or the extremely entertaining Instagram.
Unfortunately, this also means that the information that we read is likely to be more limited: we read what our contacts post on social networks, but we generally select these contacts based on similar interests and shared social circles. It is increasingly rare for someone to read a newspaper from front to back in an attempt to inform themselves on a variety of different topics. Additionally, according to the 2015 National Reading and Writing Survey, Mexicans read an average of only 5.3 books per year.
This has impacted the way newspapers present information, and also represents a significant challenge for think tanks and the way we produce and present content. Think tanks must evolve and adapt ourselves to the new trends if we want our products to reach their target audience. The World Bank, an organization that produces content similar to that produced by think tanks, although on a much larger scale, published a study in 2014 with some truly frightening statistics. According to the study, more than 31% of World Bank policy reports are never downloaded, despite the fact that the organization invests about one-quarter of its budget for country services in knowledge products.
Perhaps one of the primary takeaways in the battle to reach readers is that size DOES matter. A front-page article in the Sunday Times has approximately 39,000 characters, a length that would take an educated adult about 25 minutes to read. In contrast, a complete report published by Ethos has almost half a million characters, which, working under the same assumptions, would take an educated adult an estimated four and a half hours to read.
We don’t expect this report to compete with the five books that Mexicans read per year. Rather, the complete report is meant to serve as a reference document for experts and officials that are looking to inform themselves on the organization’s technical public policy proposals. And this forms the foundation of think tanks contribution to knowledge. But we must also produce a set of knowledge products that are significantly shorter and more informative, that seek to simplify the information for the general public, as well as for the legislators and decision makers overwhelmed by information overload on the topics they focus on.
And this brings us to the point that style ALSO matters. Despite drastically shorter summaries of our research, we are still competing with The New York Times and its more reader-focused writing style. Or even more difficult, competing with digital media outlets that have successfully implemented an updated news model that is immediate, entertaining, and designed to capture the reader’s attention. The Huffington Post’s aggregator/blog model, which just moments ago attracted my attention with “12 Women Who Ran For President Before Hillary”, is now omnipresent, from Slate in the US, to Animal Político in Mexico, to Utero in Peru. Some outlets are more politically focused, others mix popular culture with more serious subjects, but each one attracts an audience with attention-grabbing headlines and short, concise information.
For think tanks, this means that we need to build a more multidisciplinary team that includes journalists, storytellers, and graphic designers, we must involve creative professionals in our communication processes, change our writing style (for summaries and overviews), and focus on incorporating new media, including videos, podcasts, infographics, interactive webpages, live transmissions via smartphones (e.g. Facebook Live), etc. If we don’t, we run the risk that practically no one, including extremely busy decision makers and stakeholders, will pay attention.