Sunday, March 19, 2006

3/19 FHPN New report from "Project for Excellence in Journalism" supports my view that new media hasn't changed the world just yet

"FHPN," "Fair, Honest, Principled News," is a regular feature which gives links and excerpts from selected recent key stories, often focused on a single theme, with my bold italicized comments. See 3/11 "Digests of my previous posts for busy people" link for blog's core ideas.

This edition of FHPN focuses on the media, with the release of the annual report by the "Project for Excellence in Journalism." The 3/18 edition, link, focused on Rice's harsher-than-expected comments about China during her Asian trip.

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3/13 "Project for Excellence in Journalism," affiliated with Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism "The State of the News Media 2006 An Annual Report on American Journalism" link:

"Will we recall [2005] as the year when journalism in print began to die? ... declining circulation, pressure on revenues, stock prices for the year down 20% ... Even if newspapers are not dying, they and other old media are constricting, and so, it appears, is the amount of resources dedicated to original newsgathering ... On local TV news ... the range of topics that get full treatment is narrowing even more to crime and accidents, plus weather, traffic and sports. On the Web, the Internet-only sites that have tried to produce original content ... have struggled financially, while those thriving financially rely almost entirely on the work of others. Among blogs, there is little of what journalists would call reporting (our study this year finds reporting in just 5% of postings)

In the future, we may well rely more on citizens to be sentinels for one another. No doubt that will expand the public forum and enrich the range of voices ... Yet the changes will probably also make it easier for power to move in the dark. And the open technology that allows citizens to speak will also help special interests, posing as something else, to influence or even sometimes overwhelm what the rest of us know. The worry is not the wondrous addition of citizen media, but the decline of full-time, professional monitoring of powerful institutions [ital added]

In 2006, we see six new trends emerging that deserve highlighting

The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories. Such concentration of personnel around a few stories, in turn, has aided the efforts of newsmakers to control what the public knows. One of the first things to happen is that the authorities quickly corral the growing throng of correspondents, crews and paparazzi into press areas away from the news. [ital added]

The species of newspaper that may be most threatened is the big-city metro paper that came to dominate in the latter part of the 20th century. the big metros are the news organizations most likely to have the resources and aspirations to act as watchdogs over state, regional and urban institutions, to identify trends, and to define the larger community public square.

At many old-media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost. The troubles of 2005, especially in print, dealt a further blow to the fight for journalism in the public interest ... at many new-media companies, it is not clear if advocates for the public interest are present at all. [ital added]

That said, traditional media do appear to be moving toward technological innovation — finally ... several big questions remain unanswered. One is whether younger audiences care anything about these traditional news brands. Another is, even if these legacy media do finally try to move online seriously, can they change their culture, or will they succumb to the natural tendency to favor their traditional platforms?

The new challengers to the old media, the aggregators, are also playing with limited time. When it comes to news, what companies like Google and Yahoo are aggregating and selling is the work of others — the very same old media they are taking revenue away from. The more they succeed, the faster they erode the product they are selling, unless the economic model is radically changed. Already there are rumblings. [ital added] Can the new rivals become more than technology companies? And if they do, will they have more than rhetorical allegiance to the values of public-interest journalism?

The central economic question in journalism continues to be how long it will take online journalism to become a major economic engine, and if it will ever be as big as print or television. the likelihood that the next battleground will be producers of old media challenging Internet providers and Internet aggregators to begin compensating them for content, the model that exists in cable. [ital added]

3/13 LAT "More News Outlets, Fewer Stories: New Media 'Paradox'" link "Many television, radio and newspaper newsrooms are cutting their staffs as advertising revenue stagnates, but blogs and other online ventures lack the size or inclination to generate information, reports the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The study depicts the media in an interregnum — with the reach of print, radio and television reduced, but the promise of an egalitarian online "citizen journalism" unfulfilled. "It's probably glib and even naive to say simply that more platforms equal more choices," project Director Tom Rosenstiel said. "The content has to come from somewhere, and as older news-gathering media decline, some of the strengths they offer in monitoring the powerful and verifying the facts may be weakening as well."

3/16 Economist "Net dreams Traditional media companies are making a huge push onto the internet" link "now the world's largest entertainment companies are rushing to distribute their video content online and, to a lesser extent, to the users of mobile phones. Old media companies are also snapping up internet firms as fast as they can. Most of these are profitable, in contrast to the dotcoms of a few years ago—but only just ... traditional media companies have no choice but to experiment. They are in mature businesses, many of which are endangered by the internet and other technologies. Investors have sold down their shares ... The most obvious opportunity is to put the content they already own on new platforms. Media companies can charge people directly, or sell ads around it ... Only a fraction of the media firms' video content is online, certainly, but every few weeks another slew of popular programmes makes the leap ... Shifting onto the internet will take time, because powerful forces are lined up against changes to video distribution ... And none of the conglomerates want to jeopardise the phenomenal profitability of DVDs."

2/27 WSJ "Blog Epitaphs? Get Me Rewrite! Rumors of Blogs' Demise Are Exaggerated, But a Lot Less Obsession Would Be Healthy" link "Recent weeks have seen the rise of a cottage industry in Whither Blogging? articles. New York magazine cast cold water on newly minted bloggers' dreams with an examination of the divide between a handful of A-list blogs and countless B-list and C-list blogs that can't get much traffic no matter how hard their creators work. Slate's Daniel Gross spotlighted signs that blogs may have peaked as a business. And a much-discussed poll from Gallup concluded that growth in U.S. blog readers was "somewhere between nil and negative." From there it was off to the races ... let blogging become what it was always destined to be: just another digital technology and method of communication, one with plenty to offer but no particular claim to revolution ... Blogs will be everywhere in the near-future ... relatively few people actually yearn to be publishers ... That may not sound like the stuff of revolution or VC riches, but it also doesn't sound like a fad or a failure."

FHPN: I will reiterate for emphasis what the new PEJ report said:

"Yet the changes will probably also make it easier for power to move in the dark. And the open technology that allows citizens to speak will also help special interests, posing as something else, to influence or even sometimes overwhelm what the rest of us know. The worry is not the wondrous addition of citizen media, but the decline of full-time, professional monitoring of powerful institutions."

As the LAT story above notes, "the [PEJ] study depicts the media in an interregnum — with the reach of print, radio and television reduced, but the promise of an egalitarian online "citizen journalism" unfulfilled."

This mirrors the concerns that I wrote about in my 2/27 article, "The New, Old Thing: Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Madison Ave—Oscar, Emmy, Clio, or “Amateur Night at the Apollo.” link

Despite the bally-hooed proliferation of new media, I see very few signs that the the majority of the public is becoming more well informed. It is one thing to spend a lot of time online, it is another to use that time to learn about the world.

More importantly, the average American, who is very time constrained, gets his news from tv and radio. And the news there obviously continues to get worse, it is usually simply infotainment, at best, and too frequently what unfortunately best can be described as propaganda controlled by the oligopolistic mass media corporations.

As the PEJ report bluntly says, "At many old-media companies, though not all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost."

In most old-media, especially tv and radio, pandering in search of ratings and circulation to drive profits has completely triumphed over serious journalism, which is indispensable for a free society.

Imho, the burden of proof is still on advocates of new media that it will fill the huge serious journalism gap left by the rampant commercialization and biased politicization of mass media news.

So far, the Internet era has seen the creation of the largest stock market bubble in history, in part due to mass delusions that the corporate media was complicit in helping to create, and an invasion and costly war of another country for reasons that were not proven, again in part due to corporate media complicity.

To be fair, citizen journalism only gained significant momentum after both events. Nor do I expect online journalism to have changed the world overnight.

So, I proposed a reality check in the 2/27 article referred to above. Let's see in the next year how the real estate market and/or tensions with Iran and others play out.

If the new media optimists are vindicated, then the pessimists just got lucky with the previous TMT bubble and Iraq invasion. If things much worse than expected happen yet again, then the optimists need to seriously consider, "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

I believe that one of the main reasons why journalism is not getting better is because politics is not getting better (and vice versa, it's a chicken-egg sort of thing).

Buried underneath the headlines last week of Bush's latest decline in the polls in a March 16 WSJ article was the following:

"two-thirds approve his [Bush] stance on the recently passed USA Patriot Act, and majorities express support for his Supreme Court appointments, Medicare prescription drug benefit and warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency."

"Eight months before Election Day, the Democratic Party draws positive ratings from just 32% of Americans, while 37% have a negative view of Mr. Bush's political adversaries. That's nearly as weak as the Republican Party's 34% positive rating and 43% negative one. Among political independents, negative views of the Democratic Party outweigh positive views by 38%-22%."

The fact is that despite extremely low poll ratings, Bush is actually still winning the key political battles. He got the Patriot Act renewed, warrantless wiretapping goes unchallenged, and most importantly he is stacking the Supreme Court with young appointees who support his very expansive view of presidential powers, who likely will impact the nation for decades to come.

If new media and "citizen journalism" are having as much effect as its ardent supporters believe, then how is this happening?

Unless the political situation dramatically changes, huge amounts of amateur-hour blogging and incessant web celebrity searches, media downloads and social networking seem to be having very little meaningful impact on serious policy issues in this country. Again, it's a chicken-egg thing between the abysmal state of the media and abysmal state of politics.

A very good example of what I am concerned about is the Iraq war. Just because support for the war has dramatically eroded, that does not vindicate the idea that the process of informing the public works, if perhaps with a dangerously long lag. It doesn't.

Before the invasion, polls showed that a large majority of Americans supported the invasion on the unproven views that Saddam possessed WMD and/or was involved in 9/11 and was allied with Al Queda (a recent Zogby poll showed that 85% of U.S. troops polled in Iraq still believe they are there because of Saddam's role in 9/11).

Public support for the war, and Bush's ratings, have since plummeted. But NOT because the inital rationales for the invasion were not proven, rather because the task proved much more difficult than promised, i.e. because the claim of "mission accomplished" proved false.

Had it been otherwise, had things gone as promised in Iraq, then there is NO reason to believe that the initial unproven beliefs would have changed. Thus, it is quite possible that a similar scenario of unproven claims leading to war could happen again, given the current state of the news media and the political process.

Even when well-informed, new media lacks the clout to have much impact, because there are no economic or political levers to pull.

It's not an either/or choice, but right now if I had to make one in a fantasy league of big-league, effective economic journalists, I'd take one Paul Krugman at the NYT over all well-informed economic bloggers combined, given both Krugman's ability and the powerful media platforms that carry his columns.

Unfortunately, in terms of serious discourse, much blogging and other web activity isn't worth the currently essentially free bandwidth used to send it, which shouldn't come as a surprise from an economic viewpoint.

I have friends far cooler and hipper than me (not very difficult) who I'm sure will disagree about my views on the media. I hope they're right. But as of now, I don't see it yet. Neither, evidently, does the "Project for Excellence in Journalism."