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Journalism: The journey continues despite the potholes and perils of new media

Journalism. Journey. Two very similar words.

“Journalism” comes from “journal,” which is, according to Dictionary.com, “1. a daily record of occurrences, experiences, or observations. … 2. a newspaper, especially a daily one.” “Journal” in turn originated during the mid-14th century; it came down through French from the Latin diurnalis, meaning daily, Wikipedia says.

Journey” is “1. a traveling from one place to another, usually taking a rather long time; trip. … 2. a distance, course, or area traveled or suitable for traveling,” according to Dictionary.com. It is derived from the Latin diurnata, which means a day’s time.

So both journalism and journey come from the same Latin root, which seems appropriate. Good journalism takes the audience on a journey through the story. The journalist who crafts the story is essentially a mapmaker, laying out the route so that readers/listeners/viewers can follow it through to its destination. Good journalists draw clear maps with understandable directions, so that readers/listeners/viewers can follow the path and avoid hacking a new trail through thickets of unnecessary and confusing words or images.

This week’s readings are all about the journey that the field of journalism is taking through the still alien landscape of new media. None of us on the journey really knows where we are going, though more and more journalists – and those invested in turning a profit from journalism in the new media age – are offering maps of their own design. Some of the paths on the map look promising, but the destination remains unclear.

Every place has a story

Clark (2010) got me thinking about this, with her pitch for “location-aware” storytelling. She says:

Maps are powerful tools. In fact I’ve come to believe that the best journalism is like a map. It shows where you are in relation to others; it provides a sense of topography and can show the best path forward. Whatever the purpose is of a particular piece of journalism – breaking a story, investigating corruption, giving voice to the voiceless – when the job is done well, a new place in this world emerges or new understanding of a familiar one is gained. Effective storytelling helps citizens and communities discover where they are (sometimes by examining who they are). From there, they can better decide where they want to go. (para. 9)

She makes a compelling case for crafting stories that, using new media and location software, have lots of information about a place embedded in them. Clark describes “harnessing the fleeting but powerful investment that people have in a place when they are physically in it” (para. 24) through geotagging software and communication tools such as Twitter, Foursquare, and Gowalla. But rather than being overwhelmed by digital data about a particular place, journalists can filter and present relevant data and stories.

I see a world where narratives are draped on a landscape, and the news of a region is not just about what’s new. Place provides an alternative organizing principle for journalism, prompting questions about what forces – economic, political, environmental, cultural, personal – shape one spot in the world. (para. 26)

Using geotagged data and stories and new media devices such as smart phones, reporters can reconnect people to place.

 

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler

 

I find this very intriguing. I work at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, which is on the site of Camp Fannin, a base set up by the U.S. Army in 1942 to train infantry for World War II. After the war ended, the base was decommissioned and the federal government gave the state of Texas the base’s 1,000-bed barracks hospital and 614 acres for a tuberculosis hospital. Thousands of people with TB were treated there from the late 1940s through the 1960s. As the number of people with TB shrank because of new, more effective drugs, the state gave the hospital authority to treat other diseases of the chest.

 

Camp Fannin World War II Veterans Memorial

 

The hospital and its clinics joined The University of Texas System in 1977, and eventually became what it is now, an academic medical center with clinics, a hospital, and a biomedical research facility. So there are layers upon layers upon layers of narratives draped all over this specific piece of East Texas. It would be fascinating to point a smart phone at the Biomedical Research Center, for example, and learn that it was built in 1986, close to the site of Camp Fannin’s original barracks hospital, and that a new $11.3 million research wing was completed in 2005. You could also find out how much federal and private grant funding the center received last year, and see a profile of a particular scientist who specializes in lung disease research.

The really real versus virtual reality

My only concern is that, once again, people will be staring at their digital devices rather than observing the real world around them. So, will they really be more connected to that specific place? Yes, if they use that information to better understand the history of the place and put it in a broader context. No, if they just focus on the information coming out of their digital devices. Theoretically, a virtual reconstruction of an important moment in the history of a place could be more compelling than the place itself.

The results of Huang’s (2009) study of how youths from 15 to 30 get their news show just how compelling news presented on digital devices, particularly the Internet, can be. Surveys and interviews for the study were conducted in 2007, just as the first iPhone was being released, and most of the youths at that time found mobile digital devices such as smart phones too expensive and too complicated. Most of the youths preferred to get their news on the Internet. At least they say they are interested in news. They want to keep up with current events and they trust established news organizations. But they want to be able to access news anytime and almost anywhere. They want to control what news they access and how they access it. They don’t want day-old news from newspapers, especially when that news tends to be boring and depressing. And the TV newscast format is dated. However, with the Internet they have almost instant access to the latest news in an attractive and entertaining format.

The newspaper, as a social entity, has largely lost its roots among young people. … True convergence, based on the findings from this study, needs to be realized on the Internet. It is very likely that the “paper” part of newspapers will gradually become a nostalgic concept, and TV and radio will be assimilated into online news presentations. Enriching rich media on news websites to truly converge TV and the Internet is the future for the younger generation. (p. 118)

My sentimental journey

 

My morning ritual

 

I think the map of journalism’s journey through new media that Huang presents is plausible. Even though I grew up reading a daily newspaper, I now get so much more of the information that I need from the Internet. Maybe it’s taking this New Media class, but I already feel nostalgic reading my Tyler Morning Telegraph and Dallas Morning News every day. And I’m stopping my subscription to the print version of The Wall Street Journal because, again, I can get everything I want and need from the online version. I feel as if I’ve surrendered to the inevitable March of Progress, sad and guilty. I’ve tossed aside my trusted and well-creased paper map in favor of the latest digital GPS system. I just hope it doesn’t lead me astray.

Daniels’ (2009) study tries to determine if one converged news organization has taken the right road. He finds that convergence works well with enterprise stories and sports stories, because the print and TV media use their different resources effectively. But the arrangement doesn’t work as well with breaking news. Other non-converged news organizations seem to do as well on those stories. So the journey to full convergence continues, with the knowledge that it can work.

References

Briggs, M. (2009). Building a digital audience for news. In Journalism Next, pp. 310-334. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Clark, K. (2010, Summer). Journalism on the map: A case for location-aware storytelling. Nieman Reports [Online version]. Retrieved from http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=102425

Daniels, G.L. (2009).On linkages and levels: Using theory to assess the effect of
converged structures on new products. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.),
Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 164-181. New
York: Oxford University Press.

Huang, E. (2009). The Causes of Youths’ Low News Consumption and Strategies for Making Youths Happy News Consumers. [Article]. Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 15(1), 105-122. doi: 10.1177/1354856508097021

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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 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