Saturday, January 30, 2010

Journalism and short-attention-span politics

One of the central ideas we've been talking about in my advanced journalism class so far this semester is the changing nature of journalism, especially how it's evolved away from a traditional top-down, institutionally controlled model for selecting and creating the news report.

The central concept behind the change is "on demand." Audiences have embraced, and come to expect, accessing media presentations in an on-demand way. With an entire library of songs on an iPod, music lovers can program their listening rather than waiting for their favorite song to pop up on radio. DVR makes it exceptionally easy to time-shift television viewing so you can watch what you want, when you want. Netflix delivers movies right to you, or even lets you watch them online (saving even a walk to the mailbox).

With regard to journalism this means a shift way from the "institutional" model, in which readers/viewers were locked into absorbing a presentation based on what the journalists said ought to be in it -- delivered to the doorstep at 6 a.m. or to the TV screen at 6 and 11. (Usually this is referred to as the gatekeeper model). Now, with access to a far greater range of choices for reporting and presentation, audiences can create their own reports through aggregation (e.g. Google and Yahoo collections), surfing to their favorite sites, subscribing to RSS feeds, following media organizations on Twitter and mobile updates, etc. Journalists don't determine the news report an individual consumer sees; consumers determine it for themselves. (And, increasingly, they help create it. But that's another matter.)

On balance this is a good thing, but not without a certain down side. With so many choices, it's nearly impossible to avoid attenuating our attention to any one of them. As we get lost in the "flow" it becomes difficult to pay sufficient attention to complicated matters. That's the subject of an interesting column by Charles Blow in today's (Sat. Jan. 30) New York Times.

The column is mostly about how President Obama presents his thoughts to the public on important ideas of the day, reflecting on the recent State of the Union address. But at the end, Blow has some idea about how that connects to news ecosystem and the way citizens access and react to the news of the day. Blow's comments include:

  • "Obama has to accept that today’s information environment is broad and shallow, and we now communicate in headline phrases, acerbic humor and ad hominem attacks. Sad but true."
  • "We subsist on Twitter twaddle ... (where) thoughts are amputated at 140 characters."
  • "The most trusted 'newsman' may well be a comedian (Jon Stewart), and stars of the 'most trusted news network' (Fox) may well be a comedian’s dream."

Blow's comments remind us that it's important to make sure that somehow -- despite the emphasis on in-demand, in-the-moment, flow-related journalism -- reporting and presentation don't become so reductionist that they harm rather than help our society's ability to address important issues of the day.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Incivility in reader forums

Back when the Democrat and Chronicle introduced a revamped Web site with lots of new social media tools back in 2008, I found idea of participating in online discussion about community and national issues really intriguing. I became active, for a while, in the online forums that were a part of the new site.

Now, joining in these online conversations isn't for the thin-skinned or faint-of-heart. Most of the participants are anonymous, and hide behind that cloak to make rude, insulting comments about other participants with whom they disagree. I won't even use the word "discussion" to describe what goes on there because to me, that word implies respectful give-and-take with the goal of reaching common ground, or at least a civil conclusion about agreeing to disagree. NOTHING about the exchanges in most of the D&C's most active forums is respectful, civil or directed at finding common ground.

I was posting under my real name, with a photo, so the insults could be (and were) directed at me by name. I'm not particularly thin-skinned, so the rough-and-tumble nature and even the insults didn't really bother me. And I tried really hard to cultivate civility. I never returned fire with the insults, and tried to encourage other participants toward more respectful behavior. To absolutely no avail.

After swimming upstream against this I eventually got tired of it, and stopped participating. I still look back in occasionally, and the same rude individuals are at it. I guess they find it fun; I found it crashingly boring to watch people hurl insults rather than try to engage in civil discussion.

Which brings me to a recent column by Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison. He notes that anonymity seems to be at the root of the problem with uncivil discourse in newspaper forums. His column was a follow-up to an earlier column in which he'd asked for feedback about the paper's coverage of Haiti. He reported that among those who chose to give comment via e-mail "None of [them] were mean-spirited (even the two who disagreed). Is it a coincidence that all of those civil people are reachable (and somewhat accountable) through a return e-mail?"

On the other side: "Of the 20 anonymous comments attached online to the column asking for feedback on earthquake coverage, most were negative. Several comments devolved to personal attacks, both on me and those readers who said anything positive"

And when he asked for comments about the comment feature itself, "Dozens said the online comments are so vitriolic and mean-spirited that they have stopped reading them. Many said it appears that the online comment option -- aimed at providing a community forum to discuss stories and issues important to central Ohio -- devolves so quickly into name-calling and hate-mongering that it's not worth their time."

The italics there are mine, not Marrison's. I emphasized those passages to raise the point that it appears I'm not the only person who'd like to have a civil discussion online but finds it a waste of time when the dominant ethos is anonymous name-calling. It appears if newspapers really want their story-comment sections and open forums to be places where productive discourse can occur, they will need to get rid of the anonymity.

There's a piece of academic research in here that I actually started work on a while ago; even did some lit review and collected some data. Reading Marrison's column reminds me that I ought to get back to it. It appears to be a topic worth further exploration.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stock and flow in journalism

Twice within the past week I've seen references to "stock" vs. "flow," a distinction that appears to originate in economics and describes the static vs. dynamic aspects of a system.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman used the terms in in a column about economic development in China, contrasting how historically what's mattered in economic growth was making the best use of knowledge stocks but now managing a dynamic flow of knowledge is increasingly important.

Robin Sloan blogged about how stock and flow serve as a metaphor for modern media, with the flow of tweets and blog postings being more prominent in media consciousness than substantial works such as books. Even as she says flow is "ascendant," her view is that stock (the more durable creations) is something "we ignore at our own peril." Both are important and striking a balance of time and attention to creating both is crucial, she says.

In journalism, especially, flow appears to be ascendant these days, with news tweets, mobile updates, live blogging, aggregation and the like getting so much attention and effort. But the "stock" of journalism is the information that's developed through original, independent reporting -- the vast majority of which comes from mainline news organizations. So much of the flow, especially through the blogosphere, just moves this stock around. But as news organizations shrink, the durable stock of vetted, verified information developed in this way shrinks along with them. As Sloan points out, we ignore this at our peril.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Big moves" for hyperlocal involve big partners

North Carolina-based blogger and free-lance journalist Andria Krewson, writing for PBS's MediaShift, recently took note of five significant developments in the world of hyperlocal journalism. (5 Recent Big Moves In Hyper-Local News, Jan. 19, 2010)

Two of them entailed hyperlocal aggregators raising significant funding to expand their efforts; interestingly both also have partnerships with legacy media businesses (Cowles Media for one and CNN for the other). Two more of her highlights were about other partnerships of "big media" -- The New York Times for one and and Los Angeles Times for the other -- with independent players to provide closer-to-the-audience coverage of parts of their geographic areas. (Actually, the NYT partnership was with City University of New York; the LA effort was with a company that calls itself "A network of of interactive community hubs.") The fifth entry in Krewson's list also addressed a hyperlocal network, which has a partnership with a national-brand media outfit (AOL), that is seeking to expand by ... hiring professionals under the job title "regional publishers."

More evidence of the evolving ecosystem for news that has places in the mix for the pros and the independents together.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Fifth Estate" may describe pro-am journalism

Just read a terrific (though not recent)* post by Poynter's Roy Peter Clark about the updating of the Fourth Estate role of journalists to a Fifth Estate encompassing traditional media and commentators from the public. He credits the term to an unnamed speaker at a Poynter conference. The phrase caught my eye because I always use the term "Fourth Estate" in the unit I do in my intro journalism class about the role journalism plays in supporting democracy.

In the column, Roy Peter makes some wonderful analogies to other situations where the work of "amateurs" augments that of the professionals such as: citizen crime patrols who help police, lay ministers who assist ordained clerics at church, and even by-standers with proper first aid training who provide assistance in medical emergencies. As he puts it, "You do not want me to perform brain surgery on your granny, but I assure you that if granny is choking in a restaurant, I'd know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on her."

While amateurs in these and other fields are no replacement for professionals, he notes that "in the right context, with appropriate training, amateurs can contribute to the professions." Further, "Amateurism may have special potential in a field like journalism where you do not need a license to practice." As a final point, he mentions that legions of "expatriate" journalists are now among the citizenry, with the knowledge, inclination and ability to report and comment on community affairs. Put it all together, and we have a Fifth Estate.

I think Clark is on to something here. It seems all too often the discussion over the fate of journalism gets framed from one of two polemic standpoints, either:
  • "If newspapers die, accountability journalism dies with them, and nothing will replace it;" or
  • "Newspapers deserve to die because the crusty curmudgeons associated with them just don't 'get it,' and never will, and the new free-range media of bloggers, hyperlocals and the like will do just fine in their place."

I've never liked polemics in the first place, and find myself quickly losing patience with anyone who makes either of those arguments too vociferously. My own view is that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The credibility and "trusted brands" of legacy media, not to mention the professionalism and training that the practitioners affiliated with them bring to the table, have to account for something. But having citizen journalists and bloggers extending the reach of overstretched professional journalists can't do anything but help the situation.

If I can add another analogy to Roy-Peter's list, think of the tremendous work done by volunteer firefighters, ambulance drivers and EMTs as first responders -- often working side-by-side at the accident scene with the paid pros, but also letting the paramedics and MDs follow through with treatment that extends beyond their capacity and training. Could that be a model for journalism?

There certainly seems to be a place in the mix for both professional journalists and their amateur counterparts. What we struggle with is articulating exactly how the pro-am relationship ought to be conducted. A defining concept such as the "fifth estate," and analogies such as the ones Clark uses, might help us down that road.

*Clark's piece was dated May 5, 2009. I was directed to it via a tweet by good friend @ljthornton, who was re-tweeting an item about blogger Todd Vogt's comment on Clark's work.