Archive for ‘Journalism’

In case you didn’t believe me

By , 30 October, 2008, 1 Comment

I wrote on Monday that blogs will add to, not subtract from or replace, existing media forms like the narrative or the investigation because people still want to know facts and tend to process facts best in narrative form.

Today, I listened to a great NPR session with Nick Lemann (Dean of Columbia’s J-school, and my professor in a class on journalistic methods and ethics this fall), Andrew Sullivan (Atlantic writer and blogger extraordinaire) and Tina Brown (former editor of Vanity Fair and a newcomer to the blogosphere). Here’s what this trio of media giants thought:

Even on the blogosphere, people aren’t giving up on the need for information and analysis, for Linkdefinitive answers in the way Jeff Jarvis et al contend. They just verify information in different ways. Lemann reminds us that the biggest web traffic still goes to the “established” sites. Sullivan says that among amateur blogs, the winners are still people with expertise in some niche, people you can “trust and verify” because they give you the links to their sources and encourage readers to correct them. If print professionals get you to trust that they tell the truth because of their personal intelligence, bloggers earn trust by transparency and humility.

Yet Sullivan just wrote in the Atlantic that blogs are a bit postmodern, based on cultivating a back-and-forth of opinions that might in a theoretical aggregate contain the objective truth, but not in any one place you can hold in your hand or read from start-to-finish. But, he says, just as postmodern criticism has failed to swallow up all of academia, blogs cannot and should not swallow up all of news production: for some things, people still like and need the fixed narrative.

Sullivan, Lemann and Brown make the same point in the NPR spot–newspapers shouldn’t mimic blogs by getting more vitriolic, going all-digital or cutting stories to 150 word blurbs. They should worry about finding better ways to finance the kind of in-depth, objective-fact reporting blogs don’t do.

I often talk about media convergence. What I mean by this is not that one form will win out and everyone will go there, but that news organizations will learn to produce some combination of old and new media so that individual journalists can work across platforms. Sullivan is a great example of that–a magazine man who is also a full-time blogger and understands the difference between the two forms. Lemann is getting there–he used to think blogs were the end of journalism, now (in this NPR spot at least) he thinks they are the “golden age” for free discourse and commentary, but should not and cannot replace old school investigations.

At the individual level, then, convergence is moving along fine. Even at the institutional level, many newsrooms are learning to strike a cross-platform balance. The issue is one of financing that balance and that’s the one area where I thought this NPR dialogue covered new and controversial ground: late in the session, the group discussed the possibility of more public financing for print media, akin to the funding streams for NPR and PBS. I hadn’t really thought about that, since newspapers in America have never had state aid.

But is there any inherent reason why public financing for print should be unacceptable when we already do as much for broadcasters? I’m still not sure what to make of the proposal, whether it’s feasible and whether it would help the situation. What do you think?

From the talking heads to the echo chamber?

By , 27 October, 2008, 4 Comments

I consider myself something of a Web 2.0 moderate. Though I’m bullish about the prospects for technology to expand the reach of news to those who might not otherwise join in public discourse, I don’t believe that populist outcome makes bloggers and tweeters as individuals inherently superior to their New Yorker foes. I find the moralistic tone of netroots commentators decrying the “establishment” pretty repulsive, just as I find the conspiratorial fears among print journos about the insurgent techies to be silly and exaggerated.

Yes, people are tired of a he-said-she-said model of media that often involves going back and forth between talking heads of various ideological poles and winding up with no answers at all. But bloggers are swinging in two equally dangerous directions.

Some, like Jeff Jarvis, have gone postmodern on us: forget answers, they say. Jarvis foresees a digital echo chamber where there aren’t any narratives or accounts or collections of data. Instead, there will just be the “web” in its entirety, with any one blog post having value solely in its connections to every single item out there on the web on a given topic. I’m a big believer in the importance of links, and I see those as one of the web’s main assets, but I see links as helping to deepen a reader’s understanding on any one article or blog post. Just as I have never bought the litcrit argument that it’s impossible to hold and analyze one aspect of a text when it’s the “process of making meaning that matters”, I don’t really buy Jarvis’ argument that Web 2.0 readers will be so wrapped up in the process of following the links that they will no longer want some conclusions about their world. Narrative–and thus some single unit like a story or a blog post–will still matter.

Other techevangelists, like Larry Smith, think the web is going to get more more fractured, more opinionated, with people embracing the spin of the single subset of definitive answers they choose to read, caring as much about the identity of the journalists as they do about the news. As people embrace what Larry calls the “Fifth Estate,” the old media will become irrelevant and slip away. I don’t buy this picture either: just as people still want to walk away from their daily media digest with some coherent narrative, they also still want that narrative to tell some facts. The human impulse for information is as real and enduring as the impulse for interpretation.

People have been predicting since the the 1840s that technologies which allow for the blurring of fact, fiction and opinion would somehow debase the public’s ability to differentiate between these categories. 19th century public intellectuals angsted that readers would be so committed to factual objectivity that they would no longer value worldviews and social institutions. 19th century sociologists worried that readers would be so entranced with the fictional subjectivity of serialized novels that they would cease to care about real events–elections, wars, urban crime on their own street corners. Neither prediction came through; it turned out people wanted both information and interpretation, and the same print technology had to meet these two needs in separate ways. Newspapers, novels and magazine essays each found their place.

Similarly, the narrative/story–with its interpretative value–, the blog post–with its ability to make bias transparent, and the article–with its emphasis on data and figures all have a role in the 21st century. Web journalists will add the narrative and the article to their arsenal of forms, while print writers and analog broadcasters will learn from the web how to be more transparent about bias in their opinion-driven work. Overtime, as every journalist learns the skills of each platform, this dichotomy of established vs. netroots journo communities will evaporate, but not (as Jarvis says) by eliminating the differences between the content and purpose of these various media forms.

In other words, calm down. There will be change, but the sky is not falling.

Apocalypse 8: How Dare They?

By , 20 October, 2008, 2 Comments

That’s the reaction, apparently, of many newspaper editors to the AP these days. It seems some mid-size papers are opting out of the wire service, aiming to fill their pages exclusively with their own content and cut their costs.

It makes sense: when a smaller paper uses an AP story about a major international event, most of its readers are likely to turn to a major international outlet–print or online–for that information anyway. The city papers of America would be well-served to focus on local content, and they can report that without the AP.

More interesting, however, is the fact that the AP can now get on without these papers: it puts its stories on its own website, where it can monetize them directly through advertising. Really minute-by-minute breaking news often stays there while items that develop into clear cut narratives get picked up by the member newspapers, creating a second revenue stream. Indeed, the AP is, financially, lot more than the sum of its (newspaper) parts:

TV Still Matters

By , 19 October, 2008, 1 Comment

If the 1990s taught us anything, it was that video did not kill the radio star: despite their unappealing physical demeanors, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh did just fine. Radio survived the loss of the family dinnertime market by targeting a niche audience of political extremists at either end of the spectrum.

In a similar vein, if the financial crisis has taught me anything, it’s that the Internet has not killed TV news. On corporate hallways in the middle of the afternoon, TVs are still running. And while websites carry stock tickers and financial news stories, only 24-hour news channels carry live speeches by government regulators or live Congressional negotiations (they sometimes show up YouTube! several hours later).

Those speeches are the news behind the stock ticker: for example, the day Ben Bernanke announced his plan to buy commercial paper, the Dow tumbled several hundred points. DURING his speech. Which means traders were watching it live, on TV. Similar trends apply to the market response during the Congressional bailout bill hearings.

Then there’s the case of Jim Cramer, who spends weekday afternoons telling viewers how to make “Mad Money” on stocks. Not only did his ratings soar this past month with so much financial turmoil, but he learned (the hard way) that viewers really do care what he says. Many have gone as far as to blame him for some of the crisis: he was bullish on Bear Stearns when the company was about to go under; now he’s telling people to stuff their mattresses when many experts say a little less caution might help us loosen a stuck financial system.

We like to think of Wall Streeters and their fans as high tech high rollers. Ironic then that the financial sector is turning out to be the niche audience for the media stepchild that is daytime television news.

Pot and Kettle

By , 9 October, 2008, 1 Comment

My good friend Megan and I spend a lot of time emailing one another with thoughts on Maureen Dowd’s NYTimes columns. We both generally dislike Dowd’s work, yet somehow we can’t get her off our minds. My major problem with Dowd isn’t the arguments she wants to make–I’ll agree with her, for example, when she depicts George W. Bush as simpleminded and Dick Cheney as manipulative. It’s the fact that her style of snarky satire only confirms the dangerous stereotype people have about women in power–that they are catty and clawing–the same stereotype Dowd often complains about. In general, Dowd has a tendency to mimic or come down to the level of the people she is trying to dismantle.

This weekend’s column was a perfect example. Dowd’s right that Sarah Palin is less than brilliant and that the Joe Six Packs like her for it. There is surely room for a sustained examination of why folksiness beats intellect in our politics, so much so that intelligent leaders (Bill Clinton, Rhodes Scholar comes to mind) have to play down their brains to succeed. But Maureen Dowd is hardly in a position to complain about someone speaking to the lowest common denominator. If she’s so in favor of high-minded elite discourse, why doesn’t she write some?

I guess the new NYTimes makes sense after all

By , 7 October, 2008, No Comment

Awhile back, I mocked the NY Times’ plan to cut costs by combining sections of the paper to streamline printing. Today, the new NY Times debuted at my doorstep and I found it a bit sad and thin to hold.

But one story from last week’s OLD paper has me thinking this scheme is a good idea after all–this item on a terrorism trial that is now in its appeal stage appeared in the Metro section, instead of with other war on terror headlines in the national and international front section. Why? Because the trial itself was in Brooklyn and the reporter who found the scoop was probably on the metro beat.

In the NEW paper, that story would appear in the front section, because there is no Metro section, but it would appear buried in the back of that section, under the heading for New York regional news. I want the Times to go further, by merging all National, International and Regional coverage and organizing the front section with the biggest stories from all three beats in front. In other words, put the Brooklyn terror story on page 1 instead of page 20.

Why? In today’s globalized world, no story is ever completely bubbled off in one geographic zone: the best national stories have local color; the best local stories have international import.

Turning the front of the NYTimes into a single Headline News section is an important acknowledgment of that.

Plus ca change…

By , 26 September, 2008, No Comment

In my history of media course, we had a guest lecture by a young scholar of 18th century European print culture the other day. Dr. Will Slaughter is a protege of pioneering cultural historian Robert Darnton. Darnton basically maintains that there has always been a news media, because any spreading of information counts as news. The transitions from people gossiping in living rooms (c. 1700), to gossiping in streets (c. 1750), to writing down their gossip (c.1800), to videotaping that gossip (c. 1950) are technological superficialities. He denies that there’s any historical moment where mass media is born (and thus, denies any theories that link mass media to the rise of mass/democratic politics in the mid-19th century).

Slaugther applies Darnton’s theory to the present:

The Postfeminist Myth

By , 17 September, 2008, No Comment


Ever since Sex and the City first combined girl power with expensive shopping, women have been asking whether feminism is over. Does it, some 1970s types asked, undermine feminism to be so excited about feminine clothes and romantic ambitions? If so, responded young tween viewers, does it mean feminism is over because we no longer need it?

Yeah right. Gender inequity is shrinking, but it’s far from gone. Women make 78 cents on the dollar, as compared to 60 cents 4 decades ago. We are equal to men now when it comes to college degrees, but still behind if you’re looking at science and business education. We’re twice as likely as men to fall below the poverty line once we enter the workforce, and poor women are 30% poorer (further below the line) than men. And on the cultural front, just read a few articles about Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin and you’ll see, sexism is alive and well.

As I’ve written before, shows like Sex and the City just reflect a new feminism that says equal opportunities should leave room for women’s individual choices about how feminine and how high powered we want to be. Aisha Sultan’s column seems to suggest that with the Palin candidacy, even the right wing has come around to a new choice feminism, somehow bypassing the possibility that her run is just a big political hoax.

Problematically, many women and men take the new feminism as a sign that feminism itself is irrelevant, that we’re in the “post-feminist” age. And institutions that define themselves as feminist–women’s rights groups, for example–suffer as a result. Today, I learned that Bitch magazine, a publication that along with Ms. was a leader in publicizing women’s lib, is on the verge of bankruptcy. Seems many women don’t want to read that stuff anymore, somehow ignoring all the real economic and cultural signs that we need such voices.

I can’t afford to bail Bitch out, but I can do my best to publicize their cause. If feminism is the belief in equality, then I never want to live in a post-feminist world.

Homework

By , 15 September, 2008, No Comment

I’ve been negligent lately about posting here. In part, that’s because I took a little vacation these past few days to Providence and Boston and left my laptop behind. In part, that’s because I’ve been swamped by my Columbia workload. But most of all, it’s because when I do find time to get online, I’m too busy enjoying several other sites to worry about this one.

So, let me pass on some gems to keep you all occupied and distracted:

1. The Big Money, a brand new business site that launched today, comes to us from the team that brought you Slate. Similar layout and a few common features (Today’s Papers–>Today’s Business Papers). I think the layout could be cleaner and less banner-ad ridden, but overall, I’m impressed with the content and excited to see something in the web journalism world that has a business focus and isn’t just a compendium of stock-tips or gossip. It’s a sign that this technology is really becoming a new establishment, not just some goofball accessory or insurgent hippie subculture.
2. The Conversation, an NYTimes feature where two of my favorite columnists–Gail Collins and David Brooks–do a joint podcast of them just bantering about current political news. Political opinions journalism, most of it on television appeals to its audience of die-hards (the people who read poll numbers all day for fun) as much because of the character eccentricities of the pundits as because of the content: think of everyone you know who has a crush on Anderson Cooper or remembers fondly the time Judy Woodruff cried on camera. Print pundits have a harder time getting that personality through unless you’ve been reading them consistently for years and years–this feature helps.

3. MSNBC Video. I don’t think any of the other major news networks has this good an archive of video spots from their top shows. Since I don’t believe in waking up before 2 pm on weekends, I miss out on all the juicy interviews on the morning talk shows. But I’ve been savoring the video clips from Meet the Press this week. In particular, I’m loving Joe Biden commenting on religion. Every Democrat makes this argument (I’m personally anti-abortion but politically pro-choice) and quickly gets pigeonholed as an out-of-touch impious elitist. Biden seems somehow more believable when he separates his Catholicism from his politics here than, say, Kerry did in 2004. Not sure why, but it makes me hopeful about his prospects in a debate against Sarah Palin, whose major credential includes her appeal for religious conservatives.

The Times, it is a-changing

By , 7 September, 2008, 2 Comments

Today’s NYTimes announces that as of next month, the paper will eliminate some sections to cut production costs. The Times presses print four sections at a time, so the new model will fold New York regional news into the front National/International section and (from Tuesday to Friday), sports news into the Business section.

Such cost-cutting is hardly a strategy to revive a business, and the Times–like all newspapers in the digital age–is a struggling entity. Cutting costs creates short term advantages, sure, but it doesn’t protect those advantages: imagine if tomorrow, the Wall Street Journal found a way to go down from four to three sections? (Hint: split the Personal Finance content between the Investing and Marketplace departments).

Still the Times’ decision is a smart way to reduce costs. After all, the New York Times is a global paper of record, and the favorite of elites: its core expertise and brand power are in international and national coverage, and high-cultural commentary, not in folksy local news or sports coverage (which is most enjoyable when it’s written for a local audience anyway). With three regular sections (the front political/breaking news, Business and Arts) and some daily specials (like Science on Tuesdays and Dining on Wednesdays), the new New York Times feels about right.

As a reader who often chucks everything except the front, Business and Arts sections, I want the Times to take this policy a bit further. Other cuts I recommend: