How to Capture Attention in 2017

This is my first newsletter of 2017 – honestly I’ve been waiting for a moment when I had more to talk about than . . .

Trump, Trump, Trump . . .

I’ve been desperately trying to block out news of the American President’s attempts to destroy liberal democracy.

It’s not working.

Maybe it’s the new podcasts I’m listening to? Apart from making me feel like an insider and occasionally laugh, Pod save America and The Ezra Klein Show do almost nothing for my overall sense of wellbeing. Watching what’s unfolding in the US is like watching a multi-vehicle crash sequence in an action film. The kind where the tipped over fuel tanker is sliding towards you.

And yet I can’t look away. My attention has been captured.

Yesterday I read that parts of the Steele Dossier have now been verified by US intelligence agencies no, not the bedwetting part. On medium there is smart conspiracy theory level information, based on a Reuters report, that Putin gave a 19% stake in Rosneft – a major Russian oil company – to someone unknown, who could well be Donald Trump. On no wait – that was last week!

It’s like a Tom Clancy novel from the early 90’s except this is only chapter 3 and I’d be just as happy not to read on. Clancy money quote [from Wikipedia]: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

Could it Happen Here?

It’s not that there aren’t parallels between the US and NZ. I read a really interesting article on about voters in a small Wisconsin county that went for Trump.

They made the point that it wasn’t just the coastal elites that the Trump voters were against, it was the local variants – hipsters, downshifters and lifestylers who’d moved in from nearby Minneapolis-St Paul.

“ . . .the resentment isn’t just directed at the coasts. It’s local. Here, the urban elite isn’t a faceless, distant other: It’s the enclave of liberal. . . newcomers who have moved here over the past few decades—not just an abstract political imposition, but an actual physical presence. It has spawned anger and bitterness, a simmering undercurrent of alienation among many people locally born and raised.”

They feel patronised and displaced by these people and like their county isn’t theirs any more. The ‘outsiders’ are perplexed. Can’t these people see that their organic, localised, eco-conscious values are good for everyone?

The Lay of the Land

Does that happen here in New Zealand? I’m going to find out as part of the Lay of the Land study, for instance, by asking people who live on the edges of some of our cities how they get on with their neighbours. Where values clash, culture is made.

First stop: Greytown in the Wairarapa.

But how do you capture a tension like that? The difference between qualitative research and journalism is that in research you want to identify all points of view – especially the bland majority ones in the middle, whereas in journalism you must be selective and pare down to the essence. But is there some synthesis that can serve both purposes?

I read an interesting book over the summer called Storycraft by Jack Hart, which is all about how to write narrative non-fiction. It’s by no means a new trend, Hart was there at its inception in the 1980’s, working for the Oregonian, but I think it’s had a new boost recently. I’m thinking of the rise of Instagram phenomena like Humans of New York and of narrative podcast series like Serial, Accused and practically everything that Alex Blumberg’s Gimlet Media produces. All are based on compelling true stories.

I’m not alone in loving Alex Blumberg’s fearless storytelling. I am currently re-listening to the first season of his Startup podcast where he creates a podcast about his attempt to start a podcast company. “I know . . .” he say in the introduction, “ . . .it’s meta.” Emotionally brave is what it is – and because of that, it’s riveting. Even the ads they make are pretty compelling.

In the 21st Century, attention is the scarcest resource. From voters to customers, there’s a constant need to resonate with them and intrigue them. Trump knows how to capture attention, but I’d back Alex Blumberg to keep it longer and reward the giver more profoundly. I can’t wait to use his methods and see what they can do for NZ values in 2017.

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