Are bloggers journalists?
This debate continues to simmer as the traditional news-gathering industry undergoes a painful period of rapid evolution.
The answer to the question “are bloggers journalists?” can be answered by flipping the question on its head:
In an era where journalists increasingly write for digital versions of their newspapers (many of which have cut delivery to a handful of days per week or eliminated it completely)- publishing news DIRECTLY to the web without editorial oversight on every single story: are journalists bloggers?
Yes. And vice versa.
Journalism is an activity, an ethic, a philosophy. Historically it’s been bound by certain physical trappings: the masthead of a newspaper with a large circulation, rumpled oxfordcloth shirts, and thin spiral-bound notebooks. No longer.
Even the structural and social components that used to define journalism have changed:
- Editorial Layoffs: Over the past decade hundreds if not thousands of editors have been dismissed from their papers and magazines (particularly at the local level). In many cases, journalists are now publishing content directly to the newspaper’s website without an editorial filter applied to every individual story.
- Public Perception: The public’s esteem for the news media has plummeted in recent years. In 2011 the percentage of people surveyed by the Pew Center for the People and the Press who said that the news media “Get the Facts Straight” was 25 percent – down from 55 percent in 1985.
- Reach: The strength of the traditional news media is its reach. Or at least it was. Unfortunately newspaper circulation has declined precipitously. So has TV news viewership. So has magazine circulation. So has radio listenership. It’s important to note that this has taken place at a time when the public is consuming more news than ever.
If you’re a blogger that subscribes to a code of ethics and strives for honesty and integrity – you’re a journalist.
If you’re a journalist that publishes your content electronically to a content management system – you’re a blogger.
The Pew Center Project for Excellence in Journalism recently published a study (“How Mainstream Media Outlets Use Twitter; Content Analysis Shows an Evolving Relationship“) showing that, despite its myriad applications, most newspapers just use Twitter as a way of regurgitating the content they’re already publishing on pulp or on their websites. Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab rightly points out that this turns Twitter into “a glorified RSS feed.”
The results of the study are a good insight into why the newspaper industry has suffered such a decline in recent years; they still haven’t embraced social media in a meaningful way. The particularly telling statistic was that during the one-week period when the Twitter accounts were observed, 93 percent of the tweets linked back to a story on the news organization’s website.
In fairness to the newspapers observed, most of them likely have a strategy that divides up the content and engagement among various different Twitter accounts. For example, the Arizona Republic notes that @azcentral is the site they use for news and opinion (they reserve @arizonarepublic for interactions with the newsroom) and fortunately the Pew study methodology noted this. The Pew study took this into account to an extent by measuring what was published by reporters that work for each paper.
One measure of an organization’s level of social media engagement (though admittedly it’s riddled with problems and much-derided by many social media experts) is Klout. For what it’s worth, here are the Klout scores of the 13 news organizations measured (as of November 15, 2011). By comparison, I’m not terribly influential and my Klout score is 54 – the highest Klout score currently is Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) at 100:
- The Huffington Post (@huffingtonpost): 86
- The New York Times (@nytimes): 86
- ABC News (@abc): 83
- The Wall Street Journal (@wsj): 83
- The Washington Post (@washingtonpost): 82
- Fox News (@foxnews): 82
- CNN (@cnn): 81
- MSNBC (@msnbc): 77
- USA Today (@usatoday): 77
- NPR (@nprnews): 76
- The Arizona Republic (@azcentral): 63
- The Daily Caller (@dailycaller): 61
- The Toledo Blade (@toledonews): 46
I was curious to see if some of the non-traditional major newspapers also succumbed to this non-engaging practice of using Twitter so I took a look at the accounts of the St. Petersburg Times (run by the Poynter Institute) and a few of thedaily papers operated by the McClatchy Company, as well as the Grand Rapids Press. My hypothesis was that they would have embraced social media (in this case Twitter) in a more meaningful way than the traditional for-profit newspapers which would show up in a higher volume of tweets and more engagement with individual Twitter users.
During the one-week period between November 8-14, 2011, these were the results:
|Tweets||Links to Own Stories / Others / Pct||Klout Score|
|The St. Petersburg Times (@tampabaycom)||51||48 / 0 (100%)||47|
|McClatchy – Anchorage Daily News (@adndotcom)||100||65 / 15 (81%)||10|
|McClatchy – The Kansas City Star (@kcstar)||213||169 / 20 (89%)||58|
|Grand Rapids Press (@grpress)||50||49 / 1 (98%)||49|
|Total||331 / 36 (90%)|
As you can see, they were pretty much the same as the rest of the newspapers observed in the Pew Study; an average of 90 percent of the links provided were back to their own content.
What was interesting was that the period of time observed for the Anchorage Daily News was during a massive storm which dramatically changed the way the paper used Twitter. It was far more likely to retweet breaking news from other Twitter users, as well as link to other sites (such as the National Oceanographic and Aeronautic Administration – NOAA). This change begs the question; if it’s important to martial all information regardless of source during an emergency, why isn’t that the case during the regular news day?
Here’s some advice for the newspapers (for what it’s worth):
1. Acknowledge and Engage Followers:
While it’s certainly reasonable for any given news organization to tweet links back to its content, that shouldn’t make up the bulk of the tweets. Twitter offers a unique opportunity to interact one-on-one with readers in a very timely fashion. The organizations that use Twitter well participate in the online community and acknowledge their customers/constituents – speaking personally to them and sharing what they publish(by re-tweeting “RT-ing” them).
2. Embrace Social Media Conventions:
There’s an interesting phenomenon going on right now where news organizations are worried about re-tweeting content from other users because they fear it is perceived as an “endorsement” of the person (some go so far as to expressly mention in their Twitter descriptions that RTs are not an endorsement). Be not afraid, journos! RTs are only sometimes an endorsement, and if some of your readers are too stupid to note the difference – you probably don’t need them anyway.
What was particularly shameful was the lack of use of hashtags in tweets. NPR didn’t use a single hashtag during the entire period they were observed. That’s shameful. Hashtags are signposts that allow people (and algorithms) to identify relevant content, and they facilitate discussion around a topic. They should be a priority for any Twitter user to include whenever the 140 character limit permits.
3. Give Your Social Media Presence a Face:
By this I mean an actual face. Of a person. Not a logo, but a person. Everyone knows that there’s a person behind every social media presence, yet most organizations conduct themselves on social media as though a giant machine is adding copy and triggering the “send” button. Of the Twitter accounts measured, only five readily identified who was tweeting on behalf of the organization (The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Arizona Republic, The Daily Caller, and the Toledo Blade).
4. Learn From Your Reporters:
In my experience, I’ve found journalists are frequently adept at using social media – Twitter in particular. They’re personal, timely, and engaging. They get social media conventions, and they’re not afraid to participate (even using Twitter to gather news and find interview subjects). That’s one of the reasons why #JournChat (a weekly dialog involving reporters and public relations pros) is my favorite Tweet Chat
[Updated] Earlier this morning, Dan Gaydou (President of the newly-minted Mlive Media Group) announced that the Booth papers: Grand Rapids Press, Kalamazoo Gazette, Flint Journal, Jackson Citizen-Patriot and Muskegon Chronicle will be cutting distribution down to three days a week – Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. The announcements characterize the new venture as a “digital-first company.” Another big announcement was that MLive Media Group will merge with Advance Central Services Michigan.
What does it mean for the citizens of Michigan? I’m afraid it will be less detail and less of a local focus in their news coverage.
Even in the announcement of the move was somewhat disconcerting (and even incestuous): Read more…
People fond of a more traditional, fundamentalist definition of journalism are frequently critical of the idea of citizen journalism. The criticism usually centers on the lack of editorial oversight in the content that is produced. The “news,” they argue, is better and we should all bemoan the rise of citizen journalism and citizen reporting because there’s “no oversight” and that means more misinformation and a more poorly-informed public.
I’m an advocate for citizen journalism. I think it can be every bit as good as traditional journalism if the right conditions are present. I would also argue that the public can retroactively apply an editorial filter of its own to proof and vet content. It’s just a matter of flipping the timing of the model. Read more…
After declaring Grand Rapids, Michigan a “dying city,” Newsweek is now backing off the characterization after GR’s flashmob empresario Rob Bliss organized the world’s largest lipdub video in response to the charge.
Perhaps written up best by Gawker (“Dying Michigan City to Newsweek: Drop Dead”), the response boggled my mind:
“To the Grand Rapids crowd:
First off, we LOVE your YouTube LipDub. We’re big fans, and are inspired by your love of the city you call home.
But so you know what was up with the list you’re responding to, we want you to know it was done by a website called mainstreet.com—not by Newsweek (it was unfortunately picked up on the Newsweek web site as part of a content sharing deal)—and it uses a methodology that our current editorial team doesn’t endorse and wouldn’t have employed. It certainly doesn’t reflect our view of Grand Rapids.”
A couple of immediate concerns spring to mind:
- Newsweek recycles content under its masthead?
- Newsweek publishes analysis it doesn’t even stand behind?
Here’s my problem: A Facebook status update is hardly as prominent as an article on Newsweek’s website. Fairness demands that Newsweek publish a retraction of equal prominence.
As Grand Rapids (along with the entire state of Michigan) attempt to attract emerging industries to the state to diversify our economy (which suffered so greatly recently because decades of incompetent leadership allowed us to grow far too dependent on manufacturing) – publishing a characterization like this isn’t just an interesting diversion; it has real economic ramifications.
As I teach my Communication students: perception is extraordinarily powerful.
So my challenge to Newsweek still stands: let’s wait five years and see which institution better fits the adjective “dying.”
It’s on. Time to take yer beatin’ like a grown-up.
Newsweek just caused a flap by declaring Grand Rapids (viewed by many as a shining beacon of economic recovery in a depressed state) to be one of America’s top ten “dying cities” (“Americas Dying Cities: Cities With Bleak Futures Ahead”). The basis for this assessment of the top ten dying cities is based on a scant two pieces of data:
- a population decline from 2000-2009
- a population decline for people under the age of 18
There are a lot of ways to rebut Newsweek’s deliberately inflammatory article, but here are just a few:
Limited Data: Basing a declaration of a “dying” city based purely on population statistics is … stupid. It ignores the variety of other measures that can be used to assess vitality. How about median income, for starters? Economic development? Access to higher education? Unemployment rate? Using Newsweek’s very short-sighted measures, many flourishing European cities would be considered to be “dying” simply because people aren’t procreating enough. Just look at the fastest-growing metro areas in the US. More people doesn’t always = better. More people create more congestion, they tend to lower the median income, contribute to traffic, and in many cases in the Southwest – they’re going to cause catastrophic shortages of fresh water.
Population Trends: Grand Rapids is in the latter stages of weathering a once-in-a-generation structural economic shift. After the state of Michigan ignored the signs that banking heavily on an auto manufacturing economy was untenable, the dam finally burst and the state has been scrambling to diversify its economy (something it should have been doing since the 1970s). The good news is that West Michigan has turned things around. The population losses happened in the early 2000s, and the city’s population is up from 1990.
Comparison: Just as Newsweek would like its declining circulation to be considered in the context of a radically changing mass media environment that has seen content and readers move online faster than most print news enterprises can adjust business models to respond, Grand Rapids decline has been tiny compared to the declines in the rest of the state. By comparison to the rest of the state, Grand Rapids is doing fantastically.
West Michigan has been tremendously successful at attracting investment from the healthcare, biological sciences, and alternative energy industries. Cranes have dotted the skyline of the city for the past few years as gleaming new buildings have gone up. Higher Education institutions have clamored to open up campuses downtown. Internationally-ranked breweries are scrambling to expand to meet demand.
Let’s put the shoe on the other foot: how would Newsweek feel if I called it a “dying magazine?” After all – its circulation numbers have been falling far more precipitously than the City of Grand Rapids’ population.
Unlike Newsweek, nobody’s putting Grand Rapids up for sale.
I’ve got a wager for Newsweek: let’s wait five years and see which institution better fits the adjective “dying.”
Related to my previous post, one of the other fascinating things to observe about the Wikileaks release of cables from the US to other foreign governments is how the event seems to serve as a blank canvas upon which people can paint their own perspective.
I don’t watch much of the traditional newsmedia, but it seems as though the US public isn’t really of a single, cohesive mind on the case. This would make sense given that audiences continue to fragment, and the news sources selected by most in the US cater to their particular flavor of opinion.
Check out what Google’s analytical tools show people searching for when referencing Wikileaks:
It would be interesting to see what context/terms the people of OTHER nations are using to search for Wikileaks information – I’d enjoy seeing screen caps or other analytics data if anyone has it.
The news media, like any other collective, has hierarchies. Scholars refer to the phenomenon as the “Agenda-Setting Media” (ASM). Described by Linguist/Political Activist/MIT Professor Noam Chomsky:
“There is another sector of the media, the elite media, sometimes called the agenda-setting media because they are the ones with the big resources, they set the framework in which everyone else operates. The New York Times and CBS, that kind of thing. Their audience is mostly privileged people. The people who read the New York Times—people who are wealthy or part of what is sometimes called the political class—they are actually involved in the political system in an ongoing fashion. They are basically managers of one sort or another. They can be political managers, business managers (like corporate executives or that sort of thing), doctoral managers (like university professors), or other journalists who are involved in organizing the way people think and look at things.
The elite media set a framework within which others operate. If you are watching the Associated Press, who grind out a constant flow of news, in the mid-afternoon it breaks and there is something that comes along every day that says “Notice to Editors: Tomorrow’s New York Times is going to have the following stories on the front page.” The point of that is, if you’re an editor of a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio and you don’t have the resources to figure out what the news is, or you don’t want to think about it anyway, this tells you what the news is. These are the stories for the quarter page that you are going to devote to something other than local affairs or diverting your audience.” (Chomsky, N. “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream,” Z Magazine, October, 1997)
There was a great example of the hierarchy at work this weekend with Rob Bliss’ “World’s Largest Water Slide.” Here’s how it went:
- Local media covered the water slide.
- This elevated the story to the attention of the ASM in the form of the New York Times.
- Now endorsed by the New York Times (a member of the ASM), the story was then picked up by the Denver Post, National Public Radio and even the Sydney Morning Herald.
- The fact that the story was picked up by the ASM became newsworthy to the Grand Rapids Press, which reported on it (Catch that? A news outlet reported on the fact that a story was reported on by another news outlet).
Understanding the ecology of the media environment is, predictably, critical to practicing public relations.
In the past few decades, however, the ASM has experienced a rather steep slide in credibility. The Pew Center for the People and the Press and Gallup Polls have done an excellent job documenting this decline:
I think we may be witnessing the death of the ASM – or at the very least, a decline in the traditional ASM (which will create a vacuum to be filled by a new ASM). That would be the logical conclusion to draw as the circulation numbers of the ASM continue to decline. Look at the New York Times circulation numbers for example (via the Political Calculations blog which put together this graph from the NYT’s annual reports):
…and that graph stops at 2007; the decline has continued (or even accelerated) for most of the members of the ASM.
What next? To be effective at communicating, PR pros need to continually be on the lookout for the influencers who will replace the ASM. It’s likely that they’re not going to be nearly as consolidated as the traditional ASM; they’ll likely be splintered into many different topic-focused news outlets.
"...and you shall have no pie."As my parents tell it, when I was an infant my first word wasn't a word - it was an entire sentence. Very little has changed.
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