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.
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.
The newsmedia has become an incestuous, sensationalism-obsessed mess. Everyone reports endlessly on the same [trivial] events.
Even the local news feels compelled to cover the same substance-bereft stories airing ad nauseum on cable (though they make a superficial attempt to “localize” them). Why? To siphon off the dregs of the audience that hasn’t heard about them yet? No wonder readers/viewers are leaving in droves.
What newspapers need to realize is that they’re in the business of providing an information service, not a product (absent our sentimental attachment, a physical newspaper is no more consequential than the wrapper my Spicy Chickencrisp Sandwich came in). Their focus should be making that service more attractive (not trying to commit mass suicide by walling the public off from that service).
Years ago Palm’s epiphany was realizing that they weren’t competing with other gadgets, but instead with the pen and paper. Today, newspapers need to realize that their competition isn’t the Internet – it’s the authorities people go to for info/advice.
Where journalists might better provide value to customers is in providing life guidance (for lack of a better term) to the average person more efficiently than other resources. As this scary Wired Magazine article shows – we need it. Badly.
Scanning one’s environment for relevant information is a daunting task, even with some of the amazing tools available. What if the information-gathering abilities could be invested not only in digging up news – but in indexing/categorizing that news so that it can be pushed in front of the people who aren’t looking for it (but who nevertheless need to know about it)? In that context – American ignorance suddenly becomes a market waiting to be conquered.
What if newspapers analyzed raw data about you using algorithms similar to those developed by Amazon.com and Netflix for their recommendation engines and combined it with their coverage? What if they could turn that analysis into a daily “to do” list, make suggestions in scheduling your calendar, or populate your address book?
I envision it working like this (three scenarios):
1. Say you’re a homeowner. You know how much you pay in property taxes every year, but there’s no way you have time to follow all of the public notices and legal happenings that may affect your life. Would you pay for a service that could:
- … scan public notices and the minutes of local government entities for developments that affect you, record your support/opposition in a tweet, and recommend a donation to a local political action group that represents your views …
- … crunch crime data and use it to reschedule locations/times of meetings for you to keep you out of harm’s way …
- … keep tabs on the real estate market and recommend changes to your insurance policy in real-time based on local housing values, the weather, and a background check of your new neighbors …
2. Say you’re interested in video gaming. You may follow the latest release details on hot properties like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, but beyond that it’s unlikely you’ll see other stories of direct relevance to your life and efficiently make use of that information. What if if this service could:
- …make you aware of a recent report on a scientific study about the health effects of playing first-person shooters, and automatically scaled back the time on your calendar that you plan to play during the week…
- …tell you about a business story about a large national chain threatening to remove the game from its shelves over complaints about the content, then change your shopping list so you can boycott that chain, and inform your broker to divest any of your holdings in that company…
3. Say you have diabetes. You may be able to follow your doctor’s recommendations, but how easy is it for you to keep up on the latest relevant information about your condition? What if a service could:
- … watch the federal register and automatically send you the paperwork when changes to health care insurance laws affect you …
- … study consumer reviews about blood glucose testing equipment and send you real-time reviews as you’re browsing in a store …
- … compare your social calendar to the available menus and reviews of the restaurants you’re going to visit and recommend the best options for you …
Newspapers have access to a lot of this information – but it’s buried within the arcane methods we have for organizing data. If they spent less time trying to dig up locals with a connection to the latest national scandal or tragedy and more time creating and organizing hyperlocal content, they might survive.
Suddenly a degree in Library Science is pretty relevant.
"...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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