Audience Connections

The following blog post was written as an assignment from Reuben Stern: What could/should journalists be doing (that they aren’t already) to better connect their journalism with its potential audiences? In coming up with ideas, be sure to consider how people like yourself live their lives and get information every day.

My instinct to the question of audience connections is to go grassroots and get social. And by “social,” I don’t mean just posting a link to our latest articles on Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/etc. (although those platforms are certainly important). I mean to make social events out of our reporting. Multimedia work presents an opportunity for this unlike any other.

Picture movie night, but with multi-media, instead. Imagine renting out a theater at your local independent cinema to show off a series of multi-media projects the same way short documentaries get screened. Or reserving your local middle school auditorium for a different kind of performance. (Or fill in the blank with whichever building the people you are trying to reach have in common.) Find the right empty wall and a willing property owner, and you could even improvise a multi-media drive-in experience, a la Sub Rosa in Dover, N.H. Depending on where you are, hold a panel discussion or a potluck or a dance party when it’s over. That’s what I call “social.”

Another buzzword we hear a lot about is “collaboration,” and I think far more potential exists for this than we have yet imagined — especially when it comes to partnering across disciplines, businesses, and even groups of people. For example, poets and painters partner up to create multi-platform exhibits. Why not reporters and sculptors? So much of art is political, it seems a shame to keep such a great distance between it and political reporting as we do. If balance is a concern — as it should be — two artists with very different interpretations of a particular issue could both create art to accompany a multi-media exhibit (which, after all, doesn’t have to be contained within the confines of a website). Imagine walking through a gallery with framed photos, video stations and laptops for interactive journalism, surrounded by paintings and sculptures and perhaps even music. I can imagine it, and it lights my fire. Obviously not every story can be reported this way, but I maintain that annual festivals don’t have to be just for food, films and music anymore.

What this largely comes down to is just plain having fun. As serious of an enterprise as journalism is, and I do take it very seriously, I also think journalists could stand to loosen up a bit when it comes to presentation. If we want audiences to engage more with our reporting, we could start by giving them something other than paper and electronic devices to engage with.

New Sources of Journalism

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:

One might walk away from this week’s reading with the impression that journalism is not destined to fail, and that business savvy and editorial integrity are not mutually exclusive.

It’s about time.

In “Reinventing the newspaper” (July 7, 2011 print edition), The Economist compares today’s crisis in the journalism business to the upheaval caused by the penny press in the early-mid 1800s. “Constant upheaval is part and parcel of capitalism’s creative destruction,” the article states. Journalists and their allies may consider “the news” a special case, but wishing so doesn’t inoculate against market forces. Technology has simply brought in a new tide. And now a whole lot of boats are getting built.

The article skims the surface of several new business models being tried out in response to these new media waters. Some complications are pointed out, especially the rapidity with which traditional revenues are declining. Even the most promising new business models, the article points out, are not turning profits at a high enough rate to close that gap. An undercurrent of urgency therefore remains. But again, there is promise, evidenced even in the sheer range of experimentation.

There are paywalls, then there are metered paywalls, and “all-access” marketing approaches that indirectly prime audiences for the habit of paying to get past those walls. Add the mobile app market, jump to the national shared payment scheme from Slovakia, then scrap it all like The Guardian or Daily Mail, which “have made all their content available free online in an effort to transform themselves into global news brands.” And if all else fails, uncork a wine club and set off on a cruise: the journalism business apparently is not just for news anymore.

But, The Economist cautions through the voice of Innovation Media Consulting partner Juan Señor, “you won’t fix the business model without fixing the editorial model.” Señor’s approach is described as heavy on design with an emphasis on storytelling. I couldn’t agree more in concept, but little detail of what that means in practice is offered here.

“Philanthrojournalism,” or a new approach through internet-based, foundation-funded “accountability journalism,” is discussed in closing. This brings the article to a bright end, although one built on an assumption that only nonprofit start-ups have reason to be so optimistic. It concludes with the distinction that just because “traditional institutions” are struggling, that doesn’t mean the entire profession has to.

Michelle McLellan takes a similar analysis to a more granular level in “Emerging Economics of Community News,” from Pew’s 2011 State of the News Media. She presents her current findings from an ongoing study of community news outlets, and comes to the conclusion that they are getting (and should get) more sophisticated about business at the same time they maintain editorial focus.

From a Knight Foundation report she worked on, McLellan shares two priorities for online local news sites: Define target audiences through research, identify their needs, and measure the impact of the news; and diversify both expense and revenue models by giving equal weight to both the business and reporting sides of journalism.

Methods of audience research and measuring impact were not discussed. As for diversifying revenues, McLellan did find many of the same experiments detailed by The Economist, adding advertising networks and even networks of news sites to the roster. She also devotes a lot of ink to (or screen) to kicking the crutch of foundation support out from under the public journalism model. “We need to run our businesses like businesses, even if our goal is public service rather than profitability,” said John Thornton, venture capitalist and chairman of the ambitious Texas Tribune — a nonprofit that assumes no foundation support in its long-term revenue projections.

McLellan also noted, “if the real job of journalism schools is to help journalism survive, then entrepreneurship, business literacy and community engagement must be as much a part of the curriculum as multimedia and digital literacy.” (Those reasons, combined with honing my reporting chops, are certainly why I came to graduate school!)

McLellan closed with a more in-depth look at the St. Louis Beacon, which she suggested is pioneering a revenue source that does not currently exist — one based on community connections and what Beacon founder and editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel calls “high-touch communication.” McLellan describes it as the intersection of content, engagement and revenue, and points to it as the promise of journalism’s next business model.

I am encouraged to learn of more journalists and scholars applying themselves to what, for me, is a fundamental belief that technology and business can serve the public interest if harnessed well in application to journalism. It is also quite validating to recognize many concepts behind my own journalism start-up (now on hold for graduate school) in the examples found in these two articles.

If the Knight Foundation is moving in the direction indicated by McLellan — away from wide and rapid experimentation and toward refinement of what they have found is working — I think they would do well to next study audience metrics in this new arena of engagement. How does a media company or organization — especially a small one — measure the depth and closeness of audience relationships? And if the goal, as Freivogel puts it, is to “not just toss information at people but to figure out how we can serve them better,” how does one measure how well people are being served? This is especially important to answer when keeping a close eye on the fine line between public interest and advocacy journalism.

News and Democracy

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Gans, Herbert, “The News: What Might Be Done,” from “Democracy and the News,” Chap. 5.
  • Bennett, “News: the politics of illusion,” Chapter 1
  • Patterson and Seib, “Informing the public”

This week’s readings re-examine commonly held assumptions about the role of news in democracy — including the responsibilities of the press, factors that limit our efficacy, new ways it can be achieved, and how its successes (or failures) can be measured.

In Gans’s chapter “The News: What Might Be Done,” (2003) he opens with the optimistic view that today’s challenges for news media also represent opportunities to make news more relevant and accessible to the general public. His suggestions of how this might be done range from the practical to idealistic: a new agenda-setting frame of mind in editorial decision-making, experiments with audience participation, use of opinion and humor, rethinking journalism training and education, and new economic models for news production. He closes by admitting the limitations of journalism to catalyze a sea change in the public’s interest in civic life, then goes on to list several societal conditions that would likely produce such interest — factors that have, since his writing in 2003, become virtually ubiquitous, such as terrorism or economic collapse.

In Chapter 1 of his book “News: The Politics of Illusion,” (2003) Bennett traces the historical progression of news delivery systems and their role in democracy — namely the interaction of political figures, the press, and the public. He describes news as a very top-down flow of information, originating with public figures and being filtered through the press before being packaged for public consumption. Bennett links the historical progression of journalism’s institutional practices with alarming statistics that measure audience distrust in the press and catalogue media’s slide down the slope of soft news and “game” rather than policy-based news frames. In doing so, he lays the groundwork for one of the central tasks he tackles in his book: how to improve the press’s place in American democracy under changing political realities and quickly evolving technological media. His premise in answering this challenge is that we must understand where we are and how we got here in order to figure out the best way forward. One critical observation he makes is that most news currently is not ultimately written for the general public, but for policy-makers and political insiders.

In “Informing the Public,” (2005) Patterson and Seib assert that the true measure of an informed citizenry is not how much most people can spout facts and figures but how much they engage with — think critically about — public life. If it’s the responsibility of the press is to inform the citizenry, therefore, our real job is not just to convey information but to impart meaning to it for our audiences and to compel them to take advantage of it for the sake of their contribution to our democratic society. He acknowledges that a balance between hard and soft news, strategic and policy frames are necessary to maintain engagement while delivering substance. But, he points out, that balance has been steadily slipping since at least the 1980s. News is losing audiences and society is paying with a less informed, less engaged citizenry. As the Internet and technology present more ways to deliver information, the authors assert, it is incumbent upon journalists to translate that into “news” in order to keep the public not just informed, but engaged — and to keep our profession viable.

I tend to be a “radical” thinker in the mathematical sense of the word: it is the root where I believe change must take place in order to meaningfully achieve social improvements. Therefore I loved this week’s readings for their re-assessment of our very notions about what defines news, why the press is important and how we can do our jobs better. I maintain that technological innovations present a perfect opportunity for revolutionizing media business models. This week’s readings served up a feast for such thoughts.

Primarily, I am interested in exploring how “mass media,” which Bennett describes (perhaps prematurely) as being in its “late stages,” might be replaced by socially responsible media models. Socially responsible entrepreneurialism is a growing movement in small and independent business circles. Much of the focus of authors and leading thinkers in this area — such as Woody Tausch (“Slow Money”) — focus on local agriculture. I believe that a parallel grassroots movement to promote socially responsible, independent local media is also in order. Rethinking the very mission of news media as the premise for our profession is necessary to inform such radical change. It is also necessary in both the culture and business models of the successful media ventures of the future.

Journalists and Citizens

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:

State of the Media 2011 Overview

Survey: Mobile News & Paying Online

“Bulletins from the Future,” The Economist

It’s not all bad news in the business of journalism.

It’s not all good, either — and hardly as promising as the prospects for the computer programming industry, to which the news media is increasingly beholden, as Rosenstiel and Mitchell point out in the overview of PEW’s annual report on American journalism.

But “after two dreadful years,” the report opens, “most sectors of the industry saw revenue begin to recover.” While newspapers continue to struggle and the three cable news channels saw their first audience decline in years, PEW reports that signs of traction are beginning to show in development of new journalistic business models. Patterns that indicate future growth are also emerging in the way that people access — and may be willing to pay for — “news and information” online and through mobile devices.

Still, there are challenges. The State of the News Media report evokes Robert Picard’s assessment of the “de-skilling” of the profession due to “lower pay, more demands for speed, less training, and more volunteer work” among journalists. It’s a trend that is certainly exacerbated by the morphing of audiences into not only consumers but also contributors and distributors of news, which Tom Standage points out audiences have become in “Bulletins from the Future.”

An attitudinal opposition among the public toward paying for online news and information is another persistent challenge in the new media landscape. Again, it’s not all bad. PEW tells us, “While currently 5% of adults report paying for local news content online, nearly a quarter (23%) say that they would be willing to pay at least a small amount…” Nonetheless, that leaves roughly 3 out of 4 people currently unwilling to do so.

And why would they pay for it? Most people, according to PEW, say that losing their local papers would matter not much (nearly 30%) or not at all (39%). Only 28% of respondents felt the loss would have a major impact on their ability to stay informed about their communities.

I am left wondering about the difference between perception and reality in the latter set of data. My experience with the sole local daily newspaper (which also posts all its articles online — recently behind a paywall) in my hometown of Portsmouth, New Hamsphire, is that it’s a favorite target of criticism among many people across most socio-economic boundaries. And with good reason. The paper blatantly panders editorial decisions to favor and even lure business advertisers, and too many front-page, top-of-the-fold headlines are about puppies or lost rings for it to be taken all that seriously. And this is from the 13th largest city in the state, not an isolated hamlet in the boondocks.

Nonetheless, the news about city government and state-level affairs that the paper also publishes makes it the only source of substantive local reporting. While criticisms of the Portsmouth Herald are well-deserved, I believe it’s also undervalued as a whole. Yet this conundrum is partly of its own making, and I can’t imagine that it’s unique to Portsmouth. If local papers like the Herald did more to earn the respect of their readers, would more people be willing to pay for them?

Another PEW data set that makes me wonder is that more than a third of “mobile local information consumers say they and others like them can have a big impact on their community.” This sounds promising for the ideal of journalism fostering a healthy democracy, but I am curious how accurate their feelings are. I also wonder how many of the people who feel so empowered actually act on their perceived potential.

The PEW study finds that news savvy is claimed less according to traditional fault lines of race and more along contemporary class divisions according to education and income. At the same time, many trends of mobile device usage do — for the time being — correlate to race, as well as age. Learning such demographic information about audiences will certainly help media catering to their demands and interests. And this, no doubt, feeds the growing plurality of news sources in America.

In some respects, as Standage points out, this plurality is a return to the past, before mass media became the dominant paradigm for the industry. But rather than assume that repetition makes this current trend benign, we would do well to study that era — in particular how it defined a national dialogue across the fault lines of income, race, education and age. Given the current tensions between classes and ideologies in our country, I believe we should attempt to learn from that history, rather than simply repeat it.

What Is This Thing Called "News"

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Gans, Herbert, “Journalistic Practices and their Problems,” from “Democracy and the News,” Chap 3.
  • Entman, “Democracy without citizens”
  • Carey, James, “The dark continent of American journalism”

Reality check: Democracy doesn’t function according to the highest ideals for it, and neither does the journalism that seeks to inform the democratic process. That’s what all three readings this week seem to be saying — especially “Journalistic Practices and Their Problems” by Herbert Gans and “The Dark Continent of American Journalism” by James Carey.

The thesis of Robert Entman’s essay “How the Media Affect What People Think — and Think They Think” is that journalism does, indeed, influence public opinion. Perhaps if I were more familiar with the “autonomy models” he challenges, this would seem revelatory to me. Regardless, echoes of Entman’s “interdependence model” can also be found in Carey’s premise, especially in regard to the collaborative act of journalism’s more narrative forms.

Gans details the ways that the operating structure of modern, popular news media trip up journalists in pursuit of the profession’s democratic ideals. The convenience of top-down news, the pitfalls of reporting for mass-production, and the habit of reducing data to oversimplified terms that don’t illuminate real complexities all perpetuate widespread misunderstanding or confusion about how the business of the nation is conducted. This dysfunction is exacerbated, Gans asserts, by a disconnect between what journalists think the public should do with their reporting and how most people actually interact with democracy.

If journalism were to take off the blinders of this “democratic ideal,” he says, then perhaps they’d be able to see “the larger forces that drive politics” and how those forces can manipulate journalism itself. And if journalism broadened its definition of news to include more than politics — in particular, if it did a better job of reporting the economy as it plays out in the lives of the public — then perhaps the media would actually produce news that people could use.

Carey also shares Gans’s contention that most of the American public is woefully ill-informed, although he describes this more thoroughly by way of his analogy that journalism is like a curriculum in which most people stop at the introductory course (ie: the daily news). Carey explains, fittingly, the “how” and “why” of this truism by telling the stories that illustrate how and why the “how” and “why” are left out of the daily press — again, due to many of the operational systems detailed by Gans. Once the facts of a story are handled, he says, it’s the “how” and “why” that people need most in response to an inevitable, human urge to understand the world around us and our place in it. Yet it’s the “how” and “why” that the daily press simply doesn’t have the means to explain.

Suggestions for ways to improve this dysfunction are implicit in Carey’s essay. He details the different ways that journalists attempt to answer the “why” and the ways in which those methods are insufficient. Aside from the express admonition to not rely as much on motive as an explanation, a reader is mostly left to infer that she should do a better job of using cause and consequence as explanations. The technique of applying significance to even random events seems to get a pass from his judgmental eye, and a brief reference to a failed movement toward “precision journalism” is left surprisingly undeveloped.

To reevaluate journalism as it’s actually practiced and perceived, and to do that within a context of reevaluating how democracy actually plays out in modern society, as Gans and Carey do, is especially useful now as journalism is changing. In fact, the correlation that Carey draws between how journalistic standards and practices evolved in direct response to technological developments lends itself perfectly to today’s media landscape. He’s connected many dots in our past, and I am left with the sense that our current trajectory has departed the most recent but yet to land on the next. I wonder how our societal expectations of journalism — and how our values as practicing journalists — will take shape next. And I wonder what all that will mean for country and the world of countries we live among.

Assuming Entman’s assertion of the “interdependence model” of journalism is accurate, then Gans’s suggestions of how to report on democracy in a different way (by treating more than politics as newsworthy would be a start) would imply that the American public could actually interact with our democracy in a different way. Perhaps, then, media now more than ever has the opportunity to influence the direction of the nation.

What I’m left wondering — for myself and also on behalf of all three authors — is whether or not that’s a good thing.