Tyler Morning Telegraph publishes editorial on Page One — ABOVE the masthead

In an almost unprecedented move, the Tyler Morning Telegraph — a newspaper with a very conservative editorial stance — published an editorial in the Sunday, Oct. 3, paper chastising Texas Gov. Rick Perry for refusing to meet with any newspaper editorial boards during his current campaign for an umpteenth term.

That the Tyler paper would take Gov. Perry to task is pretty amazing. What is truly stunning is that they did it with a long editorial at the very top of Page One, above the paper’s masthead. And they signed it, from Publisher Nelson Clyde and Editor Dave Berry on down to City Editor Megan Middleton. Click here to read the editorial.

I’ve lived in Tyler for almost 20 years, and as far as I can remember, I have never seen an editorial that was above the masthead. For those of us who are current and former journalists and newspaper people, this is a HUGE deal. As a friend of mine at the paper said, it’s the print equivalent of shouting.

 

Gov. Rick Perry at work

 

Gov. Perry apparently feels that he no longer needs the “old media,” so he doesn’t have to submit himself to the hard questions that newspaper editors and publishers sometimes ask. This year, the hard questions likely would have centered around how he plans to deal with a state budget deficit estimated to be from $18 billion to $21 billion.

An editorial above a paper’s masthead carries a lot of weight because of its prominent position. It’s hard to achieve that level of prominence on a Web page. Maybe you could have the editorial or a really big story drop down over the Web page and open up right in front of you, like some of the really annoying Internet ads do. But, in general, Web pages are full of flashy images and bells and whistles, so it’s hard to identify the  most important story on each page. The print edition is unambiguous; you know the most important article on Page One is the editorial.

The Decline of the Public Sphere: Constructing Private Realms in Cyberspace

The first thing that struck me from this week’s readings is that all the authors really like the word “salient” or “salience.” Everything important in their world is salient, which Merriam-Webster.com defines as “standing out conspicuously, prominent.” It can also mean “leaping or jumping: a salient animal,” according to Dictionary.com. However, I don’t think the authors expect these discussions of the meaning and impact of new media to leap off the page. On another note, it was also a little unsettling to discover that a communication theory could consummate (!!!) as in “Agenda-setting is a cognitive effects theory that has remained applicable since its consummation in McCombs and Shaw’s (1972) seminal Chapel Hill experiment” [emphasis added] (Salinas, 2008, p. 1).

As far as the meaning of salience in the context of new media studies, the much-maligned Wikipedia has a definition that I found useful: “Salience is used as a measure of how prominent or relevant perception coincide with reality.” [emphasis added]. Aha! The veil is lifted from my eyes! I begin to understand why the authors of these articles on new media are so attached to this word. The articles we read this week explore how new media allows individuals to construct their own personal agenda and worldview without relying on mainstream media outlets to tell them what is important. As Wilkinson, McClung, and Sherring (2009) explain so clearly, new media enables individuals to become receiver-senders, both receiving and creating information. We can choose to be consumers, contributors, and/or creators of content.

Brubaker (2008) investigates if the mass media – broadcast and print – continue to set the agenda by determining what the important issues are. “New media’s increased content choices and greater control over exposure provide individuals the freedom to create more personalized information environments. This may separate them from media’s traditional public information agenda” [emphasis added] (para. 6).

The Internet equivalent of gated communities

If each of us his or her own personalized information environment, where is the public space – the public square, if you will – in cyberspace? Where do we stumble upon events and ideas that we were ignorant of? Where do we confront commentary and opinions that challenge our assumptions or that we find deeply disturbing? Few of us will seek out information and points of view that we don’t agree with or that make us uncomfortable. To me, these personalized information environments are the Internet equivalent of gated communities. They allow us to remain blissfully ignorant of viewpoints and ways of life that question our basic beliefs and values.

A look through the bars at a gated community in Plano, Texas.

“Ignorant” is the key word here, because if we don’t know something exists we don’t have to address it. This was the stance of the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s when reports of Adolf Hitler’s mass murder of Jews, gypsies, gays and lesbians, and mentally impaired people began filtering out of Germany. It was the stance adopted by many Germans after World War II ended; they denied knowing about the Holocaust despite the millions of Jews who had disappeared and the trains with boxcars full of people bound for concentration camps that crisscrossed the country on a regular basis. No one wanted to believe the Holocaust was happening, because something so horrendous demanded action.

It’s in our long-term interests to know about other opinions and ways of life, because we can’t shut out the rest of the world forever. Eventually some of those threatening ideas and values will break down the metaphorical gates and invade our idyllic realm. Without a common public agenda, we cannot address the problems and inequities of our society. Problems rarely go away; if you ignore them, they tend to get worse. This lack of a common agenda is one reason why Congress – as well as state and local political entities – are having such difficulty finding solutions to society’s current problems.

YouTube and the audience’s agenda

Salinas (2008) also investigates the new media’s role in setting the public agenda. He deconstructs the “underhanded form of agenda-setting that poses as audience-generated interest” (p. 4) inherent in the structure of YouTube. He discusses how Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification offers insight into what compels audiences to consume media content:

The audience chooses to seek and consume artifacts that suit their [sic] personal identities which offers an opportunity for the structure of YouTube to create an artificial, yet no less influential agenda of similar artifacts for the user to consume. (p. 5)

On YouTube, the individual initially chooses which video to watch – which media to consume. Then YouTube recommends videos similar to the one originally chosen.

… [O]pting to view any of the related videos starts the process over again through a different artifact. This is an ingenious and cunning form of agenda-setting that relies on the audience to determine its own agenda. … [but] the alternatives have still been defined for the audience. …  T]he algorithm of the search engine defines the audience (p. 6)

Yikes! Agenda-setting by search engine algorithms; sounds like a dystopian scenario in a science fiction novel. Salinas is making the point that “[t]o assume that there is no agenda in new media outlets is to ignore the bias inherent in all media and technology” (p. 8).

The difference between old and new media is that the user has determined what the agenda presented is going to be. That does not make the agenda any less insidious. In fact, it may even be more so if the user maintains the mistaken belief that he or she is engaging in personalized content free of media influence. … The pull nature of new media relies on what the user is already thinking about. Once that is defined in the search window, the suggestive facility of new media sets the subsequent agenda by providing relevant links and guiding the user toward specific content. (Salinas, 2008, p. 10)

This fits in with Kornegay’s (2009) discussion of the unintended consequences that are intrinsic to every new technology. He cites Tenner’s (1996) book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Tenner calls these unintended consequences “revenge effects.” They happen when people use a new technology in a real-world situation in ways that were not foreseen. The revenge effects often subvert the original purpose of the new invention or new media.

Thus, the inner workings of new media may subtly guide the construction of our personalized information environments and this personalized environment may have the unintended effect of isolating us from our neighbors and communities.

The emerging value system of digital culture

Finally, Deuze (2006) takes the new media one step further: it becomes the foundation of a digital culture. He draws a distinction between new communication technologies and a new digital culture. The new technology or new media provide the means, but the digital culture is:

an emerging value system and set of expectations as particularly expressed in the activities of news and information media makers and users online, whereas I see the praxis of digital culture as an expression of individualization, postnationalism, and globalization. … Digital culture gets expressed in electronic or digital media that are so deeply embedded in everyday life that they disappear.” (pp. 63-64)

We aren’t aware of this digital culture that is changing how we live. For example, the iPhone and other smart phones were truly amazing just a few years ago. Now they are just one unremarkable piece of the new media landscape. Our worldview is simultaneously fragmented and connected, separated and yet part of a network.

References

Brubaker, J. (2008). The freedom to choose a personal agenda: Removing our reliance on the media agenda. [Article]. American Communication Journal, 10(3), 1-1.

Deuze, M. (2006). Participation, remediation, bricolage: Considering principal components of a digital culture. [Article]. Information Society, 22(2), 63-75. doi: 10.1080/01972240600567170

Kornegay, V. (2009). Media convergence and the Neo-Dark Age. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 84-97. New York: Oxford University Press.

Salinas, C. (2008). WhoTube? Identification and Agenda-Setting in New Media. Paper presented at the Conference Papers – National Communication Association, 1-24. Article retrieved from http://ezproxy.uttyler.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=44852569&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Tenner, E. (1996). Why things bite back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. New York: Knopf.

Wilkinson, J.S., McClung, S.R., & Sherring, V.A. (2009). The converged audience: Receiver-Senders and Content Creators. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 64-83. New York: Oxford University Press.

The Promise and Peril of New Media: Engagement or Distraction?

Multimedia Milieu

Well, after this week’s readings, I now have a word to describe what I do each morning while I eat my breakfast. I’m participating in “concurrent media exposure” because I’m reading the Tyler Morning Telegraph or the Dallas Morning News while listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” on the radio. Who knew I was so au courant?

This week’s articles highlight both the promise and the peril of new media. New media can help develop people’s civic involvement and give them a way to store those long New Yorker pieces until they can read them. But on many new media platforms, the credibility of news stories can be altered depending on what surrounds them. And people greatly underestimate how much time they spend on new media.

Tenore (2010) described three Web-based programs that allow people to permanently store a link to long articles so they can read them later. Nate Weiner, creator of Read It Later, said he is giving these long articles “a second chance” (para. 10). For Weiner, Read It Later is a mechanism to avoid getting caught in the “conundrum of connectedness” (para.5), in which you are overwhelmed with data but don’t have the time to digest and evaluate it.

Attentive reading on an unlikely device

Marco Arment, developer of Instapaper – which has an application for the iPhone – maintained that cell phones are better than computers for reading long stories.

The modern computer is packed with distractions. Your hands are always on thecontrols, waiting to click around and find the next bit of information. Every few minutes something beeps or pops up a balloon or displays a big red number. Long-form content requires attentive reading, and attentive reading requires a distraction-free environment. (Tenore, 2010, para. 16)

I would be very skeptical of this claim if I hadn’t experienced this phenomenon myself. I have read several long Wall Street Journal and New York Times articles on my iPhone while waiting to see a doctor or get my hair done. There were no electronic distractions: just me, my iPhone, and the newspaper article. However, now that the fourth generation of  iPhones can run more than one application at a time, the days of distraction-free reading on that device may be numbered.

Finally, Mark Armstrong used a Twitter account called @LongReads as a clearing-house for long-form journalism. Readers tweet him about long stories they like and he retweets the recommendations to his followers. In essence, he’s developing a community of long-form journalism readers (Tenore, 2010).

Websites as tools for civic engagement

Coleman, Lieber, Mendelson, and Kurpius (2008) explored a different kind of engagement. They tried to determine if a website designed to meet users’ wants and needs in its content, navigation, and appearance can foster positive attitudes toward civic engagement. To do that, they employed uses and gratifications theory. This theory is designed to understand how people use mass communication, what needs they hope to satisfy, and what their motives are for using that particular medium. And the authors combined it with Yankelovich’s theory of public opinion. According to Coleman et al., Yankelovich describes three levels of public engagement in working to solve important public problems:

  1. Consciousness-raising, in which citizens learn about the problem
  2. Working through, in which they confront the need for change
  3. Resolution, where they make a decision about the problem.

While media are involved in the first step of this process, they usually “then abandon the effort, leaving people to the second and third stages on their own” (p. 181). The authors wanted to see if user-friendly websites – one example of new media – could play a positive role in civic engagement. They declared that:

Only the websites that provide gratification for the uses sought will be the ones actually used by citizens; only the sites actually used by citizens will have the potential to encourage civic participation. (Coleman et al., 2008, p. 184)

Results of the study showed that user-friendly websites did foster positive attitudes about civic engagement. People preferred the website with self-contained chunks of information with clear, no-nonsense headlines that enabled them to easily find the information they sought. This website also used a lot of lists, charts, and graphics, rather than long narrative passages.

Attitudes, not actions

From these results, the authors concluded that Yankelovich’s theory of public opinion needs an additional step between the first two, designed

to determine what people want and need on that topic, their motives for using websites with information on the topic and what they bring to the issue, so that the content and structure of the websites created would better meet those needs. (Coleman et al., 2008, p. 197)

To me, the problem with this study is that it measures attitudes about civic engagement, not actions. I can see that an easily navigable website with chunks of useful information and data presented in clear charts and graphics would be engaging. But, looking at a website is a passive activity. Even if the website has features such as polls to vote in or blogs to comment on, that is not the same level of engagement as actually voting or going to a town hall meeting to publicly express your opinion. Coleman et al. (2008) briefly discuss how Internet users tend to be younger and more interested in entertainment than politics. The authors’ user-friendly website is also more entertaining than most websites dealing with civic issues such as the budgets of governmental agencies. Their research does not tell us if the people visiting the user-friendly website took the next step and became more engaged in civic life.

News content set free

Thorson, Vraga, and Ekdale (2010) used social judgment theory as a lens to examine the effect that surrounding material has on straight news stories, now that “news content is set free to be publicly reframed and reinterpreted by bloggers and other self-appointed pundits” (p. 290). They cut and pasted an article from a news website and embedded it within a partisan political blog post, then altered the partisan ideology and civility of the blog post “to create a more or less credible standard of comparison to the balanced news story” (p. 290). Their overall results indicated that “judgments of news story credibility can be influenced by the context in which the story appears, at least when that context provides a salient and extreme standard of comparison” (p. 303). The authors found that readers judged the news article “more credible when the blogger’s post was uncivil than when the blogger was civil” (p. 304), thus demonstrating “a contrast effect. The uncivil tone of the blog message made the news story look more credible by comparison” (p. 304). Maybe the readers were just relieved to read something that wasn’t the Web equivalent of a shouting match.

While these findings are heartening to those of us worried about the fate of fair and balanced news coverage, it’s important to note that the blogging posts in this study were not assailing the facts or tone of the news article. Thorson et al. (2010) said “the news story itself was not under attack by the blogger but merely one of the policy positions described within the story” (p. 307). And the authors studied a one-time event, not exposure to the same blog over time. There is no shortage of partisan bloggers who have an audience that apparently enjoys a certain amount of uncivil commentary.

‘Multi-media-ing’ as a way of life

Finally, results of the Middletown Media Studies II by Papper, Holmes, and Popovich (2009) showed that many contemporary Americans engage in “multi-media-ing” for hours every day, often without realizing it. The authors were able to determine this by using observers who followed study participants around and noted their actual use of media. In contrast, many studies of media use rely on participants’ self-reporting, which is notoriously inaccurate.

The demographically balanced population in the study by Papper et al. (2009) were exposed to one or more media for almost 9 hours out of the average 12.9 hours of the observational day. For 2.75 hours of that 9 hours – 30.7 percent – participants were exposed to two or more media. “At 225.6 minutes [about 3 ¾ hours], media-only activity (not involving any other life activity) was the number one activity during the day” (p. 55).

The authors use the term “exposure” as opposed to “use,” because participants weren’t always actively using the media. An example would be a radio or television playing in the background while a participant surfed the Net on a computer.

Papper et al. (2009) did not track participants’ exposure to media over time, so they couldn’t say if media use is increasing. However, it’s certainly not decreasing. Anecdotally, I know my use of media has increased since I got my iPhone. I now check Facebook, read newspaper articles, and look up word definitions and synonyms during down times when I’m waiting for something. Before I had the iPhone, I couldn’t do that.

What we don’t know yet is how this constant exposure to multitudes of media is affecting us. “Multi-media-ing” is essentially a form of multitasking, and there are numerous studies that indicate multitasking is not nearly as efficient as corporate America would like us to believe. Some research implies that multitasking negatively affects our ability to concentrate and makes us more susceptible to distraction.

As we trip merrily down the yellow brick road of being increasingly connected to all kinds of media devices, I wonder if we are not also becoming more detached from our immediate physical environment. Cyberspace is indeed seductive, but we need to think about the cost of responding to its siren call.

References

Coleman, R., Lieber, P., Mendelson, A.L., & Kurpius, D.D. (2008). Public life and the Internet: If you build a better website, will citizens become engaged? New Media & Society. (10)2, 179-201. doi: 10.1177/1461444807086474

Papper, R.A., Holmes, M.E., & Popovich, M.N. (2009). Middletown Media Studies II: Observing consumer interactions with media. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 18-30. New York: Oxford University Press.

Richtel, M. (2010, June 6). Multitasking hurts brain’s ability to focus, scientists say; when one of the most important e-mail messages of his life landed in his in-box a few years ago, Kord Campbell overlooked it. Seattle Times. Retrieved from http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2012049123_webmultitask07.html

Tenore, M.J. (2010, August 19). How technology is renewing attention to long-form journalism [Blog]. Poynter Online. Retrieved from http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=101&aid=188741

Thorson, K., Vraga, E., & Ekdale, B. (2010). Credibility in context: How uncivil online commentary affects news credibility. [Article]. Mass Communication & Society, 13(3), 289-313. doi: 10.1080/15205430903225571

The olden days of ‘old media’

Last night in New Media class, I had a moment of — epiphany? despair? irony? — while giving my report on uses and gratifications theory. I was talking about growing up in Austin with just one TV station: the CBS affiliate KTBC, which was owned by Lady Bird Johnson.

Noted newsman Edward R. Murrow of CBS

The closest NBC and ABC stations were in San Antonio. If you had a big outside antenna, you could get them. We didn’t, so most of the time we got fuzzy, snowy pictures that weren’t worth watching.

About 80 percent of the class appeared not to fathom that. I felt like part of an oral history project; someone should have been recording me talking about the days of “old media” for the Library of Congress. It is very strange to be part of “living history” and still be alive and kicking.

According to Wikipedia, I am not remembering this correctly.  The Wiki article on KTBC says it actually carried shows from all three networks: 65 percent were CBS programs, and the remaining 35 percent were split between NBC and ABC. I sure don’t remember it like that, but if it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true, right?

It was a huge deal when UHF station Channel 42 signed on, because we could get NBC programs. The Wik says Channel 42 began broadcasting in 1965, which means I probably did see some of the original “Star Trek” broadcasts in 1966 and 1967 on NBC.

Project Proposal: “Lower your voice! I don’t want to hear about your cross-dressing boyfriend!”

Too much public and semi-public space – sidewalks, doctors’ offices, grocery store aisles – has been taken over by people talking VERY LOUDLY on their cell phones. The rest of us don’t want to hear these conversations, but smacking the phone out of the person’s hand isn’t acceptable social behavior. Plus, the phones are so small now that you could easily smack the person instead and be charged with assault.

One solution to loud cell phone conversations

A Sept. 17, 2010, article in Science News online discusses a recent study that shows the background chatter of cell phone users distracts people around them, making the reluctant listeners lose their focus on whatever they are doing. For example, it’s possible that a passenger’s cell phone conversation may distract the driver of the vehicle enough to impair his or her driving (Bowers, 2010).

Loud cell phone conversations in public places are thus not just annoying, but potentially a serious problem that needs to be investigated and remedied.

I will conduct a brief literature review of the effects of cell phone use on talkers and listeners, including research into why people talk louder when using a cell phone and why their one-sided conversations can be so distracting. I will look for studies that address modifying behavior, so that people don’t talk so loudly on their cell phones.

I will apply communication theories such as the coordinated management of meaning, social learning theory, and social exchange theory to this problem. The result will be a mechanism – such as a public service campaign using new media – to raise people’s awareness of the dangers and rudeness of talking loudly on a cell phone in a public place. The ultimate goal is to change people’s behavior.

The False Promise of Media Convergence: A Manifesto

The three chapters on media convergence we read this week by Grant, Kodzy, and Kraeplin and Criado were intriguing, but they gave me a headache. It took me a while to realize it, but they also made me sad.

Despite discussion of all the bells and whistles and multi-media presentations and links and blogs and commentary and choices and smart phones and print-audio-video-news-entertainment-sports on demand that make up media convergence, two things seemed to be missing:

  • How does serious news attract readers, listeners, or viewers in the midst of this cacophony of media voices?
  • Who is going to pay the journalists and support staff needed to produce news of substance that conceivably could make a difference in our lives?

I understand that we really don’t know the answers to these questions, but it does seem we should be talking about them.

There was scant mention of working reporters’ ideas and attitudes about media convergence in these three chapters, except for this from Kolodzy:

More often than not, journalists distrust convergence. They view it as a marketing ploy, a way to promote the news as a “product,” emphasizing the business rather than the journalism in the news industry. They also view it as a management ploy, a way to get fewer journalists to do more work with fewer resources [emphasis added]. (2009, p. 32)

Most of the media representatives cited in these three chapters are from management: they are editors or news directors, not the reporters who gather and present the stories.

The hamster wheel

Media convergence is great for media companies: They combine resources and expand their audiences. For reporters, convergence is likely to mean more work; besides writing or broadcasting their stories, they now have to blog, tweet, Facebook, etc.

And, by opening up newsgathering and commentary to readers/viewers/listeners through interactive products such as blogs, media companies can increase their content without adding staff.

Starkman (2010) calls the “do-more-with-less meme” sweeping the media industry the “Hamster Wheel.” Journalists are producing more stories, more copy, more audio, more video than ever before, he says.

Story counts are up, but the stories are trivial. Newsgathering is driven by the need for an ever-updated website, a lot of Facebook posts, and tweets galore. If the media platforms aren’t constantly changing, then nothing much must be happening.

There’s less and less time for journalists to spend on in-depth reporting, because they have to produce more and shorter stories. The point is to generate more page views of the website. Investigative and in-depth pieces take time and don’t lend themselves to a quick turnaround, so they are not as desirable. That means potential investigative pieces aren’t being done.

A Luddite who loves new media

I realize that I sound like a Troglodyte, an 19th century Luddite ready to take my ancient pica pole and attack the nearest new media platform. But I love the new media.

Luddites attacking machinery in 19th century England.

When I write my weekly reading reaction, I have to resist the seductive lure of my Facebook page, Twitter account, and RSS feed on Google Reader. If I don’t keep checking, I might miss something. And if I do peek at my Facebook page, I invariably end up commenting on a post or replying to a friend’s comment.

Now I have this blog, which allows me to publish my insightful analyses of each week’s readings in “New Media: Theories and Applications.”

And it doesn’t end there: I can set up categories of blogs, so that I can inflict my perceptive observations and thoughtful commentary on a theoretically infinite number of readers/listeners/viewers.

And that’s the problem. There’s an infinite supply of something Stephen Colbert might call “newsiness”: It’s not really news, but it’s “news-like.” Knowing or understanding it won’t make a difference in anyone’s life, but it can entertain and distract.

In the distant past of the 1980s, I was a copyeditor at the Midland (Texas) Reporter-Telegram. On the days when I was in charge of laying out Page One, I would discuss what stories should go on the front page with the paper’s editor and city editor. There was always a tension between having the “hard” news that readers needed to know, vs. “soft” news that was entertaining or enjoyable.

The hard news items were mostly wars, disasters, and politics; the soft news items were celebrity profiles, lifestyle features, and uplifting articles. We used our judgment as editors to decide what readers needed to know. That may sound condescending, but we saw it as a public service.

What is missing in all of this media convergence is a similar level of judgment. It’s fine for a media outlet to have feedback from its audience, but should it let the audience determine what it covers? Will the audience be allowed to vote some news categories off the island?

Hard news serves a purpose

Hard news can make people uncomfortable, and people don’t like to be uncomfortable.

But, as we’ve discussed in class, people don’t change their attitudes and beliefs until holding those attitudes and beliefs makes them more uncomfortable than rejecting them. If media no longer make people uncomfortable and therefore open to change, what other institution in society is going to take on that role?

I find it telling that one of Kodzy’s primary examples of successful media convergence is the AOL Time Warner merger. That ended up being a fiasco, with Time Warner officially splitting from AOL within the past year. If there was any synergy from the deal, it died long ago.

Kodzy also mentions ESPN as a successful integrator of various media platforms: network, website, and magazine. But ESPN is all about sports, which is primarily entertainment. People want to be entertained; entertainment is unlikely to make them uncomfortable.

Kodzy (2009) cites a 2004 Pew Research Center survey that reported half of people under-25 saying they are “too busy” to follow the news regularly. Convergence can fix this, Kodzy implies, because it provides news in more than one platform and people can access the news when they want it.

I think this ignores the real problem that the Pew researchers uncovered: lack of interest in the news. Often when people say they are “too busy” to do something, what they really mean is that the activity is not important to them. For half of the people under 25, keeping up with the news is not important, and an easily accessible, 24 hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week constantly updated news platform is not going to change that.

Many people under 34 also prefer their news to be in a visual format. Unfortunately, hard news doesn’t always lend itself to visuals. Sometimes what is required is to read and think, rather like I’m doing in this reading reaction.

Three questions

Finally, here are three questions I have after reading chapters in Grant and Wilkinson (2009):

  1. Who benefits from convergence?
  2. Who receives the most benefits?
  3. Why does it matter?

It’s easy to romanticize the journalism of “the good old days.” Easy, but not very helpful. We have to deal with journalism and the media industry as it is.

However, that doesn’t mean we have to jump on the hamster wheel and embrace media convergence as journalism’s salvation. So far, convergence has been most successful in combining various technological platforms. Whether it will make or break journalism itself has yet to be determined.

References

Grant, A.E. (2009). Dimensions of media convergence. In A.E. Grant & J.S.Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 3-17. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kodzy, J. (2009). Convergence explained: Playing catch-up with news consumers. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 31-51. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kraeplin, C, & Criado, C.A. (2009). The state of convergence journalism revisited: Newspapers take the lead. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 18-30. New York: Oxford University Press.

Starkman, D. (2010, September-October). The hamster wheel: Why running as fast as we can is getting us nowhere. Columbia Journalism Review, online edition. Retrieved from http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/the_hamster_wheel.php?page=all

Blogs: Black Market Journalism or New News Product?

While reading these three academic articles about the role and evolution of Web logs – more commonly known as blogs – I was struck by how dated they seemed. The oldest article, by Robinson, was published just four years ago, and the other two articles were published in 2008 and 2009.

Yet four years can seem like decades in the world of the Internet and new media. Murley (2009) was the only author to mention Facebook, because it didn’t exist in 2006 and was just taking off in 2008.

Whether reading about blogs as a form of postmodern writing (Robinson, 2006) or as a way to allow new voices to take part in a mediated discussion (Murley, 2009), this all seemed like old news to me. I felt that I was reading about blogs’ past, not how they function now, or how they may function in the future.

And that made me wonder about the relevance of the traditional academic publishing process when compared with the speed at which new media evolves. In the academic milieu, researchers typically measure and analyze data one year, submit their paper or book chapter the next year, and see their work published the following year.

By that time – two or three years after the data were collected and analyzed – the research question or problem may be irrelevant to current new media issues. It may provide insight into the history of new media, but it won’t help us understand new media now or predict its future.

The “j-blog”

Robinson (2006) sets out to analyze the “j-blog” – any blog written by a mainstream journalist. She conducts a textual analysis of a number of j-blogs with three questions in mind:

  1. Do these blogs uphold the standards of traditional journalism?
  2. How are truth, independence, credibility, and authorship established in these blogs?
  3. How do journalists “negotiate and (re)interpret traditional news frames and journalistic authority in the online medium?” (p. 69)

She cites numerous examples of “news repair,” when bloggers or their readers attempt to correct what they perceive as errors in previous blog posts, the mainstream print or broadcast news product, or other blogs.

In addition, she discusses the postmodern nature of blogs. Even journalists who blog may change the original information or opinion they posted in light of other bloggers’ comments or new data, she says.

Robinson concludes that blogs are a new form of journalism, and that they are postmodern, presenting multiple truths and “various interpretations of the day’s news, ‘unfiltered’ and ‘unedited’” (p. 79).

Yet journalists will only go so far, she says. They conduct news repair by criticizing blogs by non-journalists that fail to meet journalistic standards. They let readers change the content of the blog, but then link to other sources that provide different information or opinions, Robinson says.

Blogs’ effect on news coverage

In 2010, it seems safe to say that blogs – whether written by journalists or not – have changed the way mainstream journalism organizations cover the news. These organizations now are forced to cover events that would not have been news or that they would not have been aware of a few years ago.

The recent flap over an African-American Department of Agriculture official who appeared to make racist remarks in excerpts from a videotaped speech at an NAACP banquet is one example of that. The story was picked up by a conservative blogger and quickly spread over the Internet, forcing mainstream news media to cover it.

Disappointingly, these media initially did not fully investigate the story, which led to a lot of embarrassment when an airing of the full video showed the official telling a tale of personal redemption from racism. We will see if this incident gives mainstream media – or bloggers, for that matter – any pause the next time a politically inflammatory story runs wild on the Internet.

I wish I had Robinson’s faith that readers can distinguish between traditional news stories by mainstream media and the opinions and unsupported observations of an independent – or, more often, politically biased – blogger.

Too many otherwise intelligent people appear to believe almost anything they read on the Internet if it comes from a legitimate-looking website or blog. I hope this changes over time, and that readers become at least as skeptical of blog posts as they are of their own government.

Sweetser, et al, (2008) take up this issue of credibility, examining if journalists and public relations practitioners who use blogs think they are credible. They conclude that those who use blogs frequently think blogs are more credible than those who rarely use blogs.

They cite research that shows bloggers find blogs highly credible, while traditional news outlets are only moderately credible. And bloggers think other bloggers’ bias and lack of professional affiliation makes them more credible, not less.

An extension of work

Sweetser, et al, conclude that professional communicators use blogs as an extension of their work. According to their analysis, journalists tend to use blogs interactively, writing blogs and dialoging with their readers.

However, public relations professionals are more likely to monitor blogs about their organization and industry, rather than write their own blogs or actively engage with readers. This may be because media organizations have pushed journalists to blog, while PR professionals have been warned about the dangers of blogs and blogging, Sweetser, et al, say.

As a former journalist and current PR practitioner, this makes sense to me. For a journalist, the back and forth of blogging is not that different from having readers comment online, in letters to the editor, or by phone on a story.

But PR professionals have to be sure that blog posts cannot be used against the organization or company they represent. On the other hand, monitoring blogs that concern their field or industry can provide useful information.

I think PR professionals are becoming less wary of online interaction with customers or the public. The popularity of corporate Facebook pages seems to indicate that, even if the effectiveness of corporations’ use of social media remains questionable.

Murley (2009) gives a brief overview of the development of blogs and their historical, pre-Internet roots. He says their most important contribution to the media landscape “has been their ability to infuse new and different voices into the mediated discussion” (p. 245).

He notes that blog use is different in other countries, with higher percentages of Chinese and Japanese reading blogs compared with residents of the United States.

Blogs: The future or a fad?

Murley also points out the dangers of either miscalculating blogs’ effect and reach or devaluing them as a fad. They may be a fad, in that some other form of Internet communication may take their place, but the personalization, participation, and connection of this kind of communication is not going away.

As I read these three articles, it seemed to me that one issue continues to be hashed out in the blogosphere: the issue of control.

Who has control: the mainstream media, which still generate the vast majority of the news bloggers comment on or add to; the bloggers themselves, some of whom are powerful enough to generate news on their own; or the readers, who ultimately will determine what kind of news they want and who they trust.

Mainstream media appear to be losing control of the news and bloggers seem to be gaining some power, along with readers/consumers of news. This may be good news if you’re a postmodernist who doesn’t like hegemony, but it will be a scarier and more chaotic world if there is no “news authority” to at least provide some guidance about which sources are credible.

References

Murley, B. (2009). Web logs: Democratizing media production. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 234-238. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, S. (2006, January). The mission of the j-blog: Recapturing journalistic authority online. Journalism: Theory, practice, and criticism, 7, 65-83.

Sweetser, K.D., Porter, L.V., Chung, D.S., & Kim, E. (2008, April). Credibility and the use of blogs among professionals in the communication industry. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 85, 169-185.