Tag Archives: blogs

Media convergence: Can it work in smaller media markets?

For a time when I worked at the Longview News-Journal in the mid-1990s, the area NBC-TV affiliate, KETK, had a news studio in the basement of the News-Journal building. Given the longstanding antipathy between newspaper and TV reporters, it was strange to see the full-color NBC peacock and the call letters “KETK” emblazoned on the side of the red brick newspaper building. But the LNJ had empty space in its basement, and Tyler-based KETK needed a studio for its Longview reporters and production team, so the arrangement benefited both parties.

Photo illustration accompanying the Nov. 5, 2010, story about the partnership between the Longview News-Journal and KETK-TV.

During that same time, the newspaper and the TV station had another arrangement. The LNJ published KETK’s daily weather forecast, along with photos of the station’s meteorologists, and the anchors on KETK’s 10 p.m. newscast promoted the major stories that would appear in the next day’s News-Journal. This partnership lasted a year or two, and then faded out. KETK moved its studio to another Longview office building, and its call letters and the peacock came off the side of the News-Journal building.

I don’t recall a lot of dismay among newsroom reporters and editors about the News-Journal’s arrangement with KETK. Though we liked to make fun of the anchors and reporters on all three area stations, we could see the benefit of having our stories promoted on the nightly newscasts. None of us realized that the partnership between the News-Journal and KETK was an early example of media convergence; I doubt any of us knew what that was.

According to Dailey, Demo, and Spillman, as cited in DeMars (2009), the arrangement between the News-Journal and KETK was an example of the two lowest levels in their convergence continuum model: cross promotion and cloning. The LNJ promoted KETK’s weather and meteorologists, and KETK promoted the LNJ’s major stories.

The New Media City on a Hill

What once was old is new again

That was then, this is now: On Nov. 5, the News-Journal and KETK announced a partnership that goes further than just cross promotion. According to identical stories on the News-Journal and KETK websites, “You’ll see Longview News-Journal reports and staff featured on KETK and FOX 51. You’ll also see KETK and FOX 51 news team members in the Longview News-Journal and its partner newspapers” (Wesp, 2010, para. 5). This new affiliation would fit into Dailey et al.’s third and fourth levels of convergence: “coopetition” and content sharing.

Here are the definitions of Dailey et al.’s five levels of convergence activity, as cited in DeMars (2009):

  • Cross-promotion: Partners promote each other’s stories. For example, the TV station promotes stories that will be in the next day’s paper on its 10 p.m. news.
  • Cloning: Partners copy each other’s content, as in a newspaper publishing a local TV station’s weather report.
  • “Coopetition”: The partners both cooperate and compete with each other in the pursuit of news.
  • Content sharing: Partners “share repackaged content and sometimes even budgets” (p. 205).
  • Full convergence:  “The partners fully share in gathering and disseminating news, with a common goal of using each medium’s unique strength” (p. 205).

Some level of cooperation between newspaper and TV stations in smaller markets is becoming more common. Earlier this year, The Tyler Morning Telegraph joined forces with local TV station CBS 19 in a similar partnership. Morning-Telegraph reporters and editors appear on CBS 19 newscasts, and CBS 19 reporters write short stories for the paper.

Media convergence and the bottom line

In fall 2003, DeMars (2009) surveyed nine newspapers and 17 television stations in smaller media markets in Texas. Out of those, seven newspapers and 10 TV stations were working with other news media. A majority said their convergence efforts had been positive. Most said their primary reason to experiment with convergence was to better position themselves in the market; providing better service to the market was a close second. It seems that the glue holding these partnerships together is economics: the partners believe these arrangements will save or perhaps even make them money.

DeMars (2009) also conducted an ethnographic case study of convergence in Quincy, Ill., where one company owned the paper, the local NBC-TV affiliate, a cable-only Fox affiliate, local broadcast radio stations, and a website. He concluded that during the two years the newspaper and broadcast outlets worked together, the parent company benefited financially because of reduced costs. The quality of news-gathering didn’t suffer and, because all the media outlets were owned by one company, personal relationships and social networking were able to overcome the biases that print and broadcast journalists held about each other.

Finally, DeMars (2009) outlines three trends that he thinks will determine the future of convergence:

  • The addition of mobile media, including smart phones and now the iPad and similar devices, into the converged media mix.
  • New competition from Google and Yahoo! as they and other sites create and distribute local content.
  • The continued growth of citizen journalism through websites, podcasts, blogs, and video.

Economic pressure trumps technological advances and altruism

The findings of Keith & Silcock (2009) were somewhat different. They compared two examples of media convergence: The Arizona Republic’s partnership with KPNX-TV in Phoenix – both owned by Gannett Co. Inc. – and The Tampa Tribune’s partnership with WFLA-TV and Tampa Bay Online, also owned by the same company, Media General. Keith & Silcock did one round of interviews in 2002 and another three years later. While the Tampa arrangement hadn’t changed much, the partnership in Phoenix had. Having multimedia editors and a videographer working out of the paper’s newsroom didn’t turn out to be profitable. Newspaper circulation and television ratings didn’t go up. This confirms the suspicion that many media analysts have:

… that convergence has been as much a result of economic pressure as [of] technological advances and altruistic attempts to provide news in multiple ways to time-starved audiences. If the nation’s largest newspaper company, Gannett, cannot figure a way to make money from substantial, daily acts of convergence by a television station and newspaper under common ownership – one of the factors that usually promotes convergence (Quinn, 2005) – what does that suggest about the longevity of convergence partnerships between partners owned by different groups? (p. 226)

So, once again, does it all come down to money? Does the success or failure of convergence depend on how much it can cut media companies’ losses or boost their profits? I think the answer is a qualified yes. In the past couple of decades, most media companies seem to have mastered the science of losing money. They don’t need to adopt yet another way to generate red ink. But they can’t see a clear way ahead.

They are like the blind men in the fable who stumble onto an elephant and are trying to determine what it is. One man grabs the tale and says, “It’s like a rope!” Another blind man grasps one a massive leg: “No, it’s like a tree,” he says. A third seizes the elephant’s writhing trunk: “You’re both wrong. It’s like a snake,” he says. Each is right about the part of the elephant that he holds in his hand, but none of them has a clue about what an elephant really is. Media analysts, media owners, media scholars, and journalists – none of us – know how to successfully deliver news in the new media environment. We may grasp part of the new media “elephant,” but we can’t yet see the whole.

References

DeMars, T. (2009). News convergence arrangements in smaller media markets. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 204-220. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keith, S. & Silcock, B.W. (2009). Beyond the “Tower of Babel”: Ideas for future research in media convergence. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 204-220. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLellan, M (2010, Nov. 15). Key to culture change: Unlock the middle. News Leadership 3.0 [Web blog]. Retrieved from http://www.knightdigitalmediacenter.org/leadership_blog/comments/20101114_serious_about_culture_change_work_the_middle/

Wesp, M. (2010, Nov. 5). KETK & Fox 51 to partner with Longview News-Journal. KETK Website. Retrieved from http://www.ketknbc.com/news/ketk-fox51-to-partner-with-longview-news-journal

Money, money, money, money: How much is the global commodification of culture costing us?

The chorus of the “The Money Song” from the Broadway musical Cabaret sums up the “cents” of this week’s readings:

Money makes the world go round
The world go round, the world go round
Money makes the world go round
It makes the world go round

A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound
A buck or a pound, a buck or a pound
Is all that makes the world go round
That clinking, clanking sound
Can make the world go round

Money, money, money, money
Money, money, money, money
Money, money, money, money, money (Kander, 1966)

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret."

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret."

In contemporary American civilization, everything is a commodity. The only value is economic: What is it worth in dollars and cents? Can it be produced, circulated, and consumed? And it’s not enough to enjoy our commodified culture here in the United States; we produce it for export worldwide so that everyone on Earth can consume it, whether they want to or not. And it’s the advent of new media – the Internet, smart cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – that has enabled us to do this.

Graham (2000) argues that these new media have created a world where “the spheres of production, circulation, and consumption” overlap (p. 133).

[S]ince the ascendancy of digital ICTs [information and communication technologies], the monetary system of exchange appears to have taken on an autonomous trajectory and existence; it appears to have become an end in itself. … It derives its conception as a system of “wealth creation” purely by the authority of the experts who concoct the abstractions upon which this global financial system thrives. … This massive and parasitic system of speculation includes trade in the most abstract of commodities, such as “credit derivatives, call warrants, roubles, and baht.” … But financial “commodities” have no intrinsic use-value whatsoever. They generate value only as long as they are continuously exchanged. (p. 134).

Graham could be describing the financial meltdown of 2008, which began when trading in similar ephemeral financial commodities ground to a halt because they lost their “use-value” in the minds of investors around the world. He continues:

Today, the “globalized” financial system of exchange values quite overtly mediates social perceptions of the relationships between space, time, power, and persons. … [P]eople’s perceptions, rather than concrete “things,” appear to be the primary objects of production in developed countries today. This is made possible by the advanced technological facility for people to commodify increasingly intimate aspects of social life, combined with the intrinsically human nature and functions of language and thought. (p. 134-135)

Thought has become a commodity, with language the way it is promoted.

Systemic capital has steadily increased its pervasiveness, and “free time” has become more and more a “shadowy continuation of labour [sic],” a complex space of economically productive “pseudo-activities.” In hypercapitalism, economically “productive” activities can now consume the entire waking life of people. (p. 136).

‘Exchange value’ vs. ‘use value’

So, they’ve got us right about where they want us. Everything we do is “economically productive,” though probably not for us. We’re consuming things, whether concrete or abstract, and things are commodities, meaning we have to exchange something of economic value for them: money or its equivalent. Or as Pink Floyd bassist Roger Water (1973) puts it in “Money“:

Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay
And you’re O.K.

Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands
And make a stash

New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

Money get back
I’m all right Jack
Keep your hands off my stack (Waters, 1973)

Graham (2000) discusses Karl Marx’s views of production and consumption, especially Marx’s concept that a commodity has an “exchange value” – what the commodity is worth in the marketplace – that is separate from its “use value” – what the commodity can be used for. If everything is a commodity, its usefulness is mediated by its marketplace value. “And that is what has happened: hypercapitalist production processes have commodified and industrialized almost every conceivable aspect of human social life, including life, birth, death, sex and thought” (p. 138).

Poster for the 1975 film, "Jaws."

It’s apt that I’m writing this on Halloween, because I find this scarier than all the fear generated by “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Jaws,” “Poltergeist,” and “Alien.” I’m much more afraid of the consequences of the commodification of everything than I am of a demonically possessed great white shark invading a haunted suburban development along with its sidekick, an unearthly reptilian with rows of razor-sharp teeth embedded in an extendable jaw.

Access to privileged knowledge

While new media have shaken up the existing order of things throughout history, today’s new media allow knowledge commodities to be produced, consumed, distributed, and exchanged almost instantaneously on a global scale, according to Graham (2000). And, just as in times past, this doesn’t herald the advent of an egalitarian Utopia, where knowledge and information is available to all. “The logic of a system historically based on more and less valuable and valid knowledges presupposes an intrinsic assumption of inequality between social contexts of knowledge production, and so between individual persons: it presupposes an economy of access to privileged knowledge” (p. 149).

According to Graham (2000), the illusion of value trumps utility: what is important is what something is worth in the marketplace, not whether it has any usefulness. “The role of value has become inverted, and social utility now appears to be mediated by a mute, brutal and illusory value system which is increasingly alienated from its source” (p. 152). This explains much about our society, from the obsession with Paris Hilton and other vapid celebrities who are famous for being famous, to the popularity of Fox News, with its hyperventilating commentators who market fear to build ratings.

In Crick’s (2009) poorly copy-edited article – it was obvious that it was spell-checked but there were too many typos for someone to have read it carefully for errors – he argues that we have to move beyond “corporate liberalism” in our discussion of how news will be produced and delivered in a way that will support democracy in this new media age. He cites Thomas Streeter’s definition of corporate liberalism as “the belief that democracy thrives in an unregulated sphere of ‘business entrepreneurialism’ guided by ‘a safely liberal vision of private profit-oriented individuals in an open, competitive marketplace’” (p. 482).

Lippman vs. Dewey

Crick (2009) frames his argument by analyzing a philosophical debate between journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann and philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey that occurred in the 1920s, in the aftermath of World War I. Lippmann thought the war showed the limits of a democracy based upon the idea that citizens should be knowledgeable and informed about issues and leaders so that they can make rational decisions about public policy. Lippmann thought modern capitalist society was too complicated for that to work. Dewey thought it still was possible, with the aid of some publicly funded agencies of “social inquiry” (p. 494).

Crick applies the perspectives of the two men to today’s Internet, especially the blogosphere, concluding that – surprise! – freedom to communicate may be a “core democratic principle” but you need more to ensure democracy in today’s complex world. “[T]he blogosphere itself cannot provide answers to our problems. It is a tool only” (p. 495). Crick concludes that neither Dewey nor Lippmann gives us a blueprint for action, but they help us think outside the box, so to speak.

The financial theme also runs through the three other articles by Fisher (2009), Gahran (2010), and Moore (2010). Fisher outlines how converged newsrooms are likely to be more successful if they are organized in a way that supports convergence, and if managers receive training in how to run a converged newsroom. Good advice, but not likely to happen on a large scale. In my experience, even back in the good old days when newspapers’ profit margins topped 20 percent, newspaper management didn’t put much money into training. Now that newspapers are losing money and staffs are smaller, I just can’t see media companies hiring and training more managers. Gahran discusses how to structure stories by adding dates and links so that they have more value.

Moore talks about how pay walls – offering specific news or information for a price – aren’t productive in the long run. Instead, he describes how some news organizations are embedding information in their articles that allows them to track the articles as they spin around the Internet. Intriguing, but I don’t really see how it translates into money for publishers.

So, does money make the world go around? Or is it just a nice thing to have, as The Barenaked Ladies contend?

References

Crick, N. (2009). The Search for a Purveyor of News: The Dewey/Lippmann Debate in an Internet Age. [Article]. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 26(5), 480-497. doi: 10.1080/15295030903325321

Fisher, H. (2009). Developing media managers for convergence: A study of management theory and practice for managers of converged newsrooms. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 135-150. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gahran, A. (2010, August 19). Structure news: Make useful connections to build your news business [Web blog post].Retrieved from: http://www.knightdigitalmediacenter.org/leadership_blog/comments/20100819_structured_news_make_useful_connections_to_build_your_news_busines/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+KnightDigitalMediaCenter+Knight+Digital+Media+Center&utm_content=Google+Reader#When:22:32:34Z

Graham, P. (2000). Hypercapitalism: A political economy of informational idealism. New Media & Society, 2(2), 131.

Kander, J. [Composer] & Ebb, F. [Lyricist]. (1966). The money song. [Recorded by J. Grey & L. Minelli]. On Cabaret. New York: ABC Records.

Moore, M. (2010, August 18). Media shift: How metadata can eliminate the need for pay walls [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/08/how-metadata-can-eliminate-the-need-for-pay-walls230.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+pbs/mediashift-blog+(mediashift-blog)&utm_content=Google+Reader

Page, S. & Robertson, E. (1993). If I had a million dollars. [Recorded by The Barenaked Ladies]. On Gordon [Record]. New York: Reprise Records.

Waters, R. (1973). Money. [Recorded by Pink Floyd]. On The Dark Side of the Moon [Record]. London: Abbey Road Studios.

Journalism: What Value Does It Have, Anyway?

Unlike the readings from last week, week seven, these articles did not require the literary equivalent of a machete to slash a way through pages and pages of impenetrable prose in order to arrive at the sacred temple of understanding. This week’s readings were relatively straightforward. Yet they still left me feeling bewildered, not knowing which way to go, in a metaphorical sense, and despairing of ever finding my way.

The more I know about the wonders and miracles of the new media and its Internet connections, the less I seem to understand. There are so many shiny bells and whistles and distractions, all clamoring for my attention. And it seems the shiniest ones with the latest technical gadgets are often the least important. For example, watch the video promoting Flipboard for iPAD. Note how the guy using Flipboard is so intent on seeing what his friends have sent him to read or view on his iPad, that he ignores them when they walk up to him.

My bewilderment began with the article by Legrand (2010) on how to make videos more interactive. Some of his suggestions are quite simple, such as allowing viewers to comment on a video and then responding to their comments. But others involve building a virtual studio in Second Life – a virtual reality site – or using wikis or a “collaborative mindmap” (???) to ask for help from potential viewers when preparing a video interview. It seems the ways to interact with your audience are limitless, but the time you can devote to mastering them is not.

And will the content that is communicated matter to anyone? So much of the focus in new media is on the channels of communication, not the content. There’s also a tendency, I think, to “dress up” the content to make it as dazzling as the channels it’s flowing through. Scandal, gossip, and titillating revelations lend themselves to bells and whistles. The danger is that the “information” or “news” may be the new media equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes: when you look at it closely, there’s nothing there.

Social movement organizations and alternative media

Photo of the 1976 Philadelphia Bicentennial Celebration, by Jim Ryan

No one talks about all the time spent perfecting how your content is presented and communicated, how it looks and sounds. We only have so much time, and time spent creating a stunning presentation is time not spent creating meaningful content.

Stein (2009) discusses how – and if – social movement organizations (SMOs) are using the Internet to communicate their messages to potential supporters and donors and to receive feedback from these audiences. In her research, conducted from February through May of 2006, Stein doesn’t mention social media, per se. Rather she focuses on how the SMOs’ use their websites to interact with their audience.

[C]ommunication scholars have suggested that the internet can serve as an important resource for social movement communication, providing movements with communication opportunities not available in the mainstream media or alternative forms of movement media. Social movements can use the internet to bypass mainstream media gatekeepers or repressive governments and communicate directly with their constituencies and the broader public. (2009, p.750)

Stein (2009) cites research that equates movement media with alternative media, in that the goal of both is social change and the undermining of the power structure.

Logo of The Rag, an underground newspaper in Austin, Texas, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

When she mentioned alternative media, I thought of The Rag, an underground newspaper that operated in Austin in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was definitely alternative media, featuring news coverage and commentary on the Vietnamese War and the peace movement, as well as civil rights issues, student freedom issues, and the ‘60s counterculture.

And it was influential, as I know from my own experience as an Austin High School student at the time. Some college-age kids tried to sell The Rag on the Austin High campus one day and were summarily escorted off the property. It was a subversive newspaper, and the Austin power structure at the time didn’t like it. The Rag was published on cheap newsprint and the layout wasn’t very attractive; it was very old media. But its content could motivate people to action, and that is the point of social movements.

The results of Stein’s analysis of a random sampling of websites run by national social movement organizations in the United States reveals that most aren’t taking full advantage of their websites’ potential. While most do provide information about their social movement or cause, only about one-third frequently use their websites to coordinate actions and mobilize their supporters. Just one-third commonly use their websites for fundraising and resource development. And almost half frequently link to other organizations and resources that support or benefit their causes. Very few use interactive techniques or encourage dialog on their sites, or allow for creative expression from their supporters. It may be that they lack the resources needed to fully exploit Internet technology, or their goals and strategies may not fit this technology. For example, some SMOs may not feel that computer-mediated communication is the best way to build trust and reinforce the commitment of its members.

Social movement organizations and social media

This research was done in early 2006, before Twitter and before Facebook was open to the general public. I wonder how the SMOs are using social media to communicate and inspire their followers. Social media seem very well-suited to organizing people, promoting feedback and dialog, and keeping people in touch with what is going on. And a Facebook page or Twitter account doesn’t cost anything to keep up, except, once again, time.

Finally, Wilkinson (2009) attempts to outline what “our field” – journalism – is, and what unique value it brings to the world. Sadly, much of what he discusses implies that it’s not really worth all that much, and other fields are rapidly invading “our” territory. He examines four professions that are content providers and manipulators in the new media world: art and architecture, law, medicine, education, and government. These areas are developing their own “media specialists” (full disclaimer: I am a media specialist in the medical world). “Practitioners in these fields are also creating messages for mass audiences. By creating content with entertainment and information value, using digital technologies and delivery systems, we have entered a period of social and economic Darwinism” (p. 99). I fear this evolutionary struggle will result in survival of the most entertaining – in other words, the news and information decked out in the trendiest media fashions. And that is probably not a good thing.

Then Wilkinson composes two daunting lists of qualities and expertise that a journalist needs today. No one could possibly master all of these skills well enough to do the associated tasks. And, again, the focus is on the form the information takes, not the information itself. But the form is useless without the content. Wilkinson throws journalists a sop, when he says, “The tools of journalism are the critical thinking and interpersonal skills – dealing with people that journalism educators have championed since the beginning” (p. 110). The problem is that fewer and fewer people seem to understand “critical thinking.” They don’t use it to evaluate the information they receive, so how can they value it in others?

References

Legrand, R. (2010, Aug. 17). 10 Ways to make video a more interactive experience

[Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/08/10-ways-to-make-video-a-more-interactive-experience-229.html

Stein, L. (2009). Social movement web use in theory and practice: a content analysis of U.S. movement websites. [Article]. New Media & Society, 11(5), 749-771. doi: 10.1177/1461444809105350

Wilkinson, J.S. (2009). Converging communication, colliding cultures: Shifting boundaries and the meaning of “our field.” In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 98-116. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

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.