“Ask audiences what they want, and they’ll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they’ll mostly eat candy.
Audiences are liars, and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America, shared survey data suggesting that 40 to 50 million people were desperate for in-depth and original TV journalism. Nine months later, it averaged 10,000 viewers per hour—1.08 percent of Fox News’ audience and 3.7 percent of CNN. AJAM, built for an audience of vegetarians, is stuck with a broccoli stand in a candy shop.
The culprit isn’t Millennials, or Facebook, or analytics software like Chartbeat. The problem is our brains. The more attention-starved we feel, the more we thirst for stimuli that are familiar. We like ice cream when we’re sad, old songs when we’re tired, and easy listicles when we’re busy and ego-depleted. The Internet shorthand for this fact is “cat pictures.” Psychologists prefer the term fluency. Fluency isn’t how we think: It’s how we feel while we’re thinking. We prefer thoughts that come easily: Faces that are symmetrical, colors that are clear, and sentences with parallelisms. In this light, there are two problems with hard news: It’s hard and it’s new. (Parallelism!)”