Al Jazeera America thought tens of millions of people were starved for serious, hard-hitting, longform journalism. Now the numbers don't seem to be panning out. At The Atlantic, Derek Thompson explores the psychology of why we ask for broccoli and then eat jelly beans.
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!)
Fluency also explains one of the truisms of political news: That most liberals prefer to read and watch liberals (because it feels easy), while conservatives prefer to read and watch conservatives (because it feels easy). It's a not-even-industry-secret that down-the-middle political reporting that doesn't massage old biases is a hard sell for TV audiences.