Tag Archives: Facebook

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.

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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.