Goodbye Gatekeeper

I spoke to a small group of science educators the other day about the diminishing role payed by media gatekeepers — which made it more necessary for communicators such as themselves to publish directly to whatever audiences they would like to reach. That is no revelation to anyone who has paid attention to the changes taking place in the mediascape. But of the three dozen communications professionals meeting at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in San Francisco, only one or two nodded when I mentioned the Attention Economy. For the rest it seemed like a novel idea to say that when everyone can produce media, attention becomes scare. How do niche topics like chemistry find an audeince?

I’m afraid I gave less prescriptive help than the listeners might have liked because I don’t know how important topics will filter out into public conversation. And the listeners caught that immediately. They were familiar with the challenge of placing — or rather trying to place — stories of scientific importance into popular media. They seemed to sense that, to the that extent Internet media depend totally on advertising support, new media will be more friendly to light content than to heavy fare.

I spoke immediately after chemist and writer John Borchardt and it was a fortunate placement because my thoughts followed directly from some of his comments. At one point I recall him saying that he was writing ever shorter articles because so much of what he produced was destined for an online readership where people seem to have less patience for long essays. He said something to the effect: that several years ago he couldn’t have imagined that he could write something meaningful about science in 350 or 400 words — but nowadays he was doing that more often.

I wish I’d thought of it yesterday, when I could have shared the strategy with these puzzled science lovers, but this morning it occurs to me that publishers of serious stuff might take a page from political communicators. They’re the masters at trying to get people’s attention to wonkish stuff. Back when I was in the typesetting and publishing business I did a lot of work for a political organizer named Jim Alford (I’ve lost touch with him but maybe this will filter out to him). In designing brochures and similar campaign material, Jim told me a rule he followed that might work for all communicators. It was the 3-30-3 rule and it was Jim’s short hand for how people processed political direct mail. Most people took 3 seconds to throw it out. Some spent 30 seconds reviewing it and then tossed the mailer. And a small fraction spent the three minutes that might have been required to read the piece in its entirety, see who sent it and make a reasoned judgment.

In the science setting perhaps this means a three-tiered release. Something very short and almost bumper-sticker like; perhaps a nifty slogan and a piece of art or an animation. This is the viral porion of the message, something that people might email each other. The second stage would be a longer and more formal release that would give the gist of the development. The third stage, for the truly interested, might be the scientific paper that represented the peer-reviewed version of the scientist’s work, perhaps collected together with enough background to give the interested layperson a chance to grasp the paper.

I suspect this is not an original idea and that I’ve seen multi-stage releases of this sort. But I’ll try to reach Borchardt and pass it on. He appears to be a regular with ACS and may be able to disseminate this if he thinks it useful.