How 'Information Addiction' Will Impact Publishers

By: Steve Outing

If a new research report is to be believed, those of us in the information and news businesses are creating a generation of addicts. While seemingly more benign than drugs, sex, cigarettes or gambling, "information" is the newest potentially addictive substance.

I will attest to the temptation. Like many of you, I suspect, I find myself spending more and more time searching for -- and having delivered to me -- information on the Internet. Yes, I check my e-mail many times a day. (Uh-oh! That may be "compulsive" checking of e-mail, one of the addiction "top ten warning signs" listed in the report.) Yes, I develop withdrawal symptons when I haven't been online in several days. (Another warning sign.) Is my next step a 12-Step recovery program?

A problem for publishers

Information addiction is a serious concern not just to individuals, but also to businesses -- especially those whose livelihood is pumping out news and information.

The new report documenting the problem is titled "Glued to the Screen: An investigation into information addiction worldwide," and was commissioned by Reuters, a news and business information company that produces more data and news for its customers than any individual could possibly process. If "information addiction" is a legitimate behavior malady, Reuters has been one of the companies responsible for its spread worldwide.

Reuters commissioned the study, done by London-based research firm Ronin Corporation, in order to gauge the problem and point to ways that Reuters can work to alleviate it. According to Patricia Bridges, director of marketing for Reuters' Business Information Services group, the report was designed to help the company figure out what it needs to do to make its information services managable by the individual user in an era of information gluttony.

The report shows that information addiction is growing fast among business people, and that the information overload caused largely by computers and the Internet is making the workplace more stressful and inefficient. The report documents the feelings of business executives in several countries (the UK, USA, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore and Ireland), who were asked how they and their colleagues felt and reacted to the demands of keeping up with an ever-growing stream of information required to survive in the business world. The picture it paints is of employees and managers becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the information monster, as it eats away at their personal lives, and managers ignoring information when the sheer quantity of it threatens to drown them. This is not good news for news publishers, because it demonstrates how the information explosion is causing their product to have less impact on their customers.

Bridges says that the report clearly points out that news organizations need to work at creating better tools that permit consumers to find the information they need quickly and efficiently. The report quotes business users who go online to look for a specific piece of information, but then end up spending hours. Said one telecommunications executive quoted in the report, "Time passes me by when I get connected (to the Internet), and what seems like minutes spent searching can often turn into hours."

Managing more

The key lesson of the report to publishers is: Don't just create more and more massive quantities of information, but also put some corporate resources into creating tools to let customers find what they want as quickly and efficiently as possible. The growth of information is not going to stop, so the solution is to develop ways for consumers to better deal with it.

The problem is particularly accute for Web consumers when they try to use a search engine. We've all had the experience of getting 1,000 search query results, and having the information that we really want buried somewhere in the long queue. Bridges says that the Reuters approach, which can be mimmicked by other publishers, is to include considerable "meta-information" into a document header, which describes what the document is about and categorizes it to facilitate efficient searches. Simply dumping a piece of content into a database and expecting users to find it through keyword searching is what causes the 1,000-result problem. Of course, this approach requires some human labor, typically, to include the header information -- although some sophisticated systems can analyze a document and generate meta information automatically.

Systems such as Reuters espouses tend to be complex enough that it takes some training for users to know how to cut through the information mountain and find the right nuggets. For a business audience using, say, a specialized news service, training users is a clear possibility. But it gets a lot more difficult when it comes to addressing the consumer market.

What the "Glued to the Screen" report suggests is that consumers need to be taught "information management" skills. Its authors advocate that those skills be taught in the schools, so that today's young generation will be better prepared to handle the information glut than today's adults. Bridges says that learning to navigate in an information society will be easier for those who learn at an early age. "It's like learning to drive. It's easier when you're younger," she says.

Publishers increasingly will need to take the information overload problem into account as they design their sites. Creating tools that allow consumers to pinpoint desired information -- either via a search or through personalized delivery (or "push") services -- is the key. But equally important will be training your customers in how to use the new information management tools that you create.

Bridges believes that on the Internet, the trend is that consumers more and more are demanding specialized services to target specific content. Reuters is creating more news and information vertical products, covering specific industries like autos, for example, by filtering out all the automobile industry news from Reuters' many information streams and selling the service to specialty publishers. Publishers selling broad consumer-based content (like newspapers) will have an increasingly hard row to hoe.

As information overload becomes a more serious problem, publishers will find themselves putting more resources into providing solutions to their customers, and offering narrowly focused beams of content rather than one-size fits all information services.

Bridges says the problem of information overload is getting worse, as the report documents. This is the second such report conducted by Reuters. The first study in 1996 showed that 41% of managers surveyed thought that their work environment was made more stressful because of information demands. The 1997 study boosted that number up to 65%.

The information glut will become a hotter topic next year, no doubt. The time to start thinking about it as it relates to your digital publishing efforts is today.

A stellar archive

To continue on the recent topic of digital news archives, Ronald Dupont Jr., Internet editor of the Sunline Web site in Florida, wrote in with an interesting comment:

"I've been reading the archive conversations with interest, because it's an issue we dealt with a year ago. We were using CGI scripts to archive our paper, and we began getting complaints from folks that they couldn't bookmark old articles, particularly obits. So we switched to a non-CGI script database, making the archives stable.

"But we added a feature that I haven't seen done anywhere else. We allow people to type in a date and see what articles were in the paper on that particular day. We have only a year's worth of archives up, but you can pick any day from the past year, type in that date and see what was on the front page, what local articles were featured in the various sections, what photos, etc. Now you can see old papers without having to use microfilm. I think this will become a wonderful history tool down the road. And it will be particularly cool for folks who want to see what was going on in their community the day they were born ... or the day they were married, etc. "Our archives are free because, well, we're just too tiny of a paper to charge for them. You can see the date feature at:"


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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