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.

Objectivity and Persuasion

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Duffy, Page and Young, “Obama as Anti-American”
  • Duffy, Thorson and Vultee: “The Pursuit of Objectivity”

In “The Pursuit of Objectivity,” Duffy and Vultee frame journalism as an enterprise whose inherently persuasive nature should be embraced and acknowledged, rather than vainly denied.

Citing numerous sources in a broad field of communications scholarship, primarily journalism and rhetoric, they argue that journalism employs specific rhetorical techniques in pursuit of persuasion based on cultural values. Although these values are articulated in many professional codes of journalism, those codes urge “objectivity” that the authors find mutually exclusive with the values the same codes espouse. With a brief content analysis, they discuss the use of frames and content selection as persuasive techniques that journalists — and journalism institutions — apply in an oftentimes unwitting act of persuasion. By pointing out the inherently value-laden aspects of journalism, the authors seek to undermine arguments opposing public journalism. Finally, they urge what they call “radical curriculum reform” of journalism education.

The urgency of Duffy and Vultee’s message is heard most strongly in their observation that the current imperative for rebuilding the business of journalism presents a perfect occasion for fixing its problems — not just regarding financial structures but also, they argue, in terms of mission and craft. They acknowledge the “silo” trend in readership: “(C)itizens are able to contruct their own interpretations of reality including those recommended by their in-person or virtual networks. When those versions of reality conflict with the so-called authoritative sources, dissonance occurs.”

Duffy, Page and Young’s article “Obama as Anti-American” exemplifies this apparent inevitability. Not trusting many major media news sources about the validity of President Obama’s U.S. citizenship, for example, the underground “birther” movement was forged in no small part from the viral exchange of humorous and critical emails that often contained altered visual images that undermined the president’s identity.

Using detailed content analysis of such emails that contained visual images based on cultural allusions, Duffy, Page and Young explore the patterns of characterization of Obama that emerge and how specific cultural references communicate the ideology of the sender. They also make the case for viewing emails as modern folklore, and from a bird’s eye view ask “What worldviews emerge when the totality of the images are examined” and how social identity can be defined by the exchange of such images.

Read in concert, the two articles seem to be answering their own question: What will happen if we do not radically transform the way journalism presents itself to its public? We need only do nothing to find out, because the public is already using the media available to it through new technology to construct its own version of reality.

I’m certainly not going to argue that point, overall. And since I found myself frustrated with many points Duffy and Vultee made in their article, I was surprised at the end to find myself in complete and energetic agreement with their conclusions. The fact that I disagreed with many of their rhetorical stops along the way, I think, comes down to the fundamental definition of what we all mean by the word “objectivity.” That term itself has become so loaded that I wonder if, in this radical restructuring of journalism that Duffy and Vultee call for (and that I echo), we shouldn’t come up with a whole new word.

It would describe a baseline of shared cultural values from which most (no hedge deletion here) journalists operate, on top of which many layers of objectivity can be applied.

I reject the definition of “objectivity” as an absence of values.

I believe there is a least common denominator of social values that even our extremely heterogeneous society shares to a great extent. There are always exceptions and outliers and deviants. And yes, it is a judgment call as to when a fringe of society gains enough critical mass or embodies a valid enough point to be seen as holding a “legitimate” concern. This baseline of social norms is shifting ground. And yes, journalism can play a role in advocating for that shift.

The U.S. civil rights movement of mid-20th century is an example I think of often. Journalists, as members of society, reflected and reinforced a growing movement that changed our baseline values. Our ground is shifting under us even now, regarding climate change science, as Duffy and Vurtee mention, for example. And I wonder at what point our cultural values baseline will encompass gay rights as standard civil rights.

I have no doubt that journalism, even “objectively” practiced, will play a role.

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.

History and Structure of American Journalism

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Hallin and Giles, “Presses and Democracies”
  • Entman, “The Nature and Sources of News”
  • Commission on Freedom of the Press, “The Requirements”

The independent nature of the press — particularly the American press — defies a system of classification so tidy as biology’s mechanism for placing each specimen in a fully describable and quantifiable category. But that won’t stop scholars from trying.

And with good reason. There is much to be learned from the exercise of correlating media systems with the geo-political characteristics of the societies where they emerged, as Hallin and Giles to do in their chapter “Presses and Democracies.” Likewise, “The Requirements” put forward by the Commission on Freedom of the Press were an important normalizing benchmark in the changing professional standards of American journalism in the mid-20th century. And although the system for distinguishing among media, as laid out by Entman in “The Nature and Sources of News,” is admittedly far from precise, it is nonetheless a useful measuring stick to compare how the ever-increasing number and types of news forms stack up.

The analyses within all three of these articles are geared toward a dual measurement: how different forms of journalism compare with one another as they strive for (or ignore) the ideal of service to democracy.

That ideal can look very different in different places, as we learn in “Presses and Democracies.” By placing global media systems in the context of their political and cultural environments, Hallin and Giles find that they emerge along a parallel with comparative politics (a field of study from which the authors borrow heavily in their analyses and descriptions of the press, primarily in Europe and North America).

The authors propose that journalism’s “liberal,” “polarized pluralist” and “democratic corporatist” models (gauged according to their characteristics of mass circulation, state involvement, “political parallelism” or the alignment of mass media with political agendas, and professionalization) are very much reflections of the political realities and cultural values of the societies they serve.

Being such true reflections of societies, whose history and governance is a complex matrix of trends, there is an exception to every rule and more than a little overlap and oversimplification in the resulting classification system, but the authors nonetheless describe the general characteristics of these different media models and explain where, approximately, different countries fall along the spectrum.

“Presses and Democracies” is an international and largely historical study, but shares a basic premise with Entman’s “The Nature and Sources of News,” which is implicitly U.S.-focused. Rather than continue to analyze what journalism “should be,” both articles are framed to describe journalism as it actually is. With this understanding, both authors assert, one can better assess the true condition of the profession today. Only then can journalists hope to direct the field’s functional reality going forward.

Entman’s example provides an important lesson on perspective regarding the function of news. He gauges whether or not something is “news” based on how it’s received by audiences — not how it’s branded or intended by its producers. Therefore not only traditional, mainstream news sources, but also advocacy journalism, tabloid journalism, and even outright entertainment media all have a place along his news spectrum. And that place tends to be fluid for every news source described.

Regardless the source, he finds news recognizable based on its effect of “illuminating four areas of knowledge vital to effective democratic citizenship”: policy, power, ideology and an audience’s own self-interest in the topic being covered.

In contrast, “The Requirements” is a document that sets forth a definition of journalism for media to strive for — not a description of media in its contemporary form. Framing the discussion from the audience’s point of view, and assuming that it’s the press’s responsibility to provide “the current intelligence needed by a free society,” the Commission on Freedom of the Press delineates what audiences require of the press.

The impossibility of any single media to provide all of these requirements is fully recognized. All serving as parts of the collective whole, each media provides a unique set of functions in service to the ideal. The fallibility of the classification systems described by Entman and by Hallin and Giles are also duly acknowledged.

Despite the imperfections of each of these measuring sticks — or maybe precisely because they include so much grey area — these analyses are helpful in understanding the nuances and implications of how and why various media deliver their content they way they do. The rubrics are also helpful descriptions of the landscape for teasing out where you want your own contributions to journalism to live.