Are Newspapers Surrendering News Coverage? The Big Impact of Online News

Today’s New York Times provided a clear illustration of an impact of the rise of online news and associated cable and satellite news coverage around the clock. Could it be true that newspapers have given up on trying to report breaking news?

Source: Wikipedia

Maybe this was a bad news day, but the front page of today’s 19 March 2017 Sunday New York Times had virtually no ‘news’ – only essays or stories on conservatives trying to change the judiciary, the risks associated with SWAT teams serving search warrants, the perks of Uber versus taxi services, healthcare, the damages done by Boko Haram, and an obituary for Chuck Berry. All are interesting and valuable stories, but not one story was what I would call hard or breaking news, as I understand news. The closest was Chuck Berry’s obituary. For example, there was no coverage of the US Secretary of State’s visits in East Asia, but an essay on page 10 about the dangerous options available vis-à-vis North Korea.

Most studies of the impact of online news focus on the declining revenues and advertising in the newspaper industry, and the decline of print newspapers as more move only online. However, the greatest impact might well be on what editors believe is fit to print in the newspaper. If they are inevitably scooped by online news, then why publish news that is a day old? So the editors shift increasingly to analysis and opinion pieces on the news, rather than even try to surface new news.

In academia, a similar impact is apparent in book publishing, where I have long argued that while more books are published year by year, it is important to look at the content of books to see the real impact. In my own case, why would I put material in a book that is already available online, or for which more up-to-date information will be online before any book goes into print? So, I think about what would have a longer shelf-life as a book, and focus on key arguments, and the potential to send readers online for more facts on a particular case or event.

Interestingly, while so much angst in the US and worldwide is focused on the rise of fake news, which I have argued as not that new, the real problem might be the more basic demise of hard news reporting. Televisions news coverage is shifting more and more to entertaining debates about the news, and less and less investment in coverage of breaking developments. Now print newspapers seem to be moving away from the reporting of real news to analysis of known developments, perhaps with some investigative reporting, but essentially the discussion of what is already known.

Of course, a valuable role of the reporter is to put facts into a larger and more meaningful context, and this is as aspect of what we see more of in the newspaper. But my worry is that they are moving closer to the role of news magazines, which themselves are challenged by the pace of online news developments.

I would like to learn of more systematic research on any changes in the content of the news, but with increasing worry about trust in the authenticity of the news, it strikes me as worrisome that newspapers might well be retreating from their traditional role in sourcing original and putting it into a broader context for their readers. Hopefully, my fears are not warranted. Instead of threats of fake news, we may be facing the threat of less if not no news from the sources we have relied on for decades.

 

Talk on the politics of the Fifth Estate at University Institute of Lisbon, March 2017

I had a quick but engaging trip to Portugal to speak with students and faculty at CIES at the University Institute of Lisbon. I have given a number of talks on my concept of the Fifth Estate, but there are always new issues emerging that enable me to help students see the transformations around the Internet in light of current developments. In this case, they were most interested in the election of Donald Trump and the implications for Europe of his Presidency. I will post a link to the slides for my talk.

It was so rewarding to speak with the students, who were most appreciative. I don’t think students realize how much people like myself value hearing from students who have read their work. So, many thanks to my colleagues and the students of the University Institute of Lisbon for their feedback. You made my long trip even more worthwhile.

I also had the opportunity to meet with my wonderful colleague, Gustavo Cardosoa, a Professor of Media, Technology and Society at ISCTE – Lisbon University Institute. I met Gustavo when he was the adviser of information society policies for the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic from 1996-2006, and continued to work with him through the World Internet Project and more, such as his contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies (OUP 2014).

Professor Gustavo Cardoso and Bill
Gustavo Cardoso, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rethinking White House Press Briefings: Two Steps Forward, One Giant Leap Back

I was on the brink of applauding the White House for challenging some traditions of the daily press briefings in opening to more news organizations and adding the Skype seats, only to then learn of some mainstream news organizations not being welcomed in the room. So instead of diversifying access, this seems to be a blatant political reconfiguration of access to the briefings.

Two Steps Forward

The White House Press Briefings have been slow to change, and seem antiquated in the face of new media. For this reason, I was pleased to learn of two developments.

First, there were changes in the seating. Since 1981, 49 seats were assigned to reporters to be present at the briefings by the White House Correspondent’s Association. The Association is arms length from the White House, so less open to charges of any partisan or other political bias. However, the mainstream press dominates the Association, which are assigned the prime seats in the front and are, by tradition, normally called on first. The new press Secretary, Sean Spicer, has admitted more reporters to the briefings albeit without assigned seats. He and the President have also made clear moves to not call on the mainstream media first, and in fact, they have made an effort to by pass mainstream correspondents for new arrivals to the briefing. This is a good step toward diversifying access to the news, diminishing privileged access by the elite press, and empowering more media outlets. However, ignoring the mainstream press in answering questions is of course a worrisome bias if continued. th

Secondly, the White House enabled two so-called Skype channels for virtual and interactive participation by remote journalists. I have never been present in any White House briefing, but it appears that the set up permits about eight or more remote journalists to participate. This seems like a long overdue reform enabled by the Internet and the new media environment. Again, this diversifies and builds on the number of journalists with more direct access to the briefings. It also helps incrementally to escape from the locational bias of the press by enabling participation by correspondents anywhere in the world, not just physically in Washington D.C.

So far, some promising reforms. But then …

One Giant Leap Back

On Friday, February 24th, Sean Spicer ‘barred journalists from the New York Time and several other news organizations from attending his daily briefing’ (Davis and Grynbaum 2017: A1). In addition to the Times, other press stopped from attending included the BBC, Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. According to reports, other correspondents, from the Time magazine, and the Associated Press – which traditional had the first question – decided not to attend as a protest against this action (Davis and Grynbaum 2017).

In my view, it is okay to expand access to the briefings, even if this might dilute the role of those who have assigned seats, particularly in the front rows. It is great to broaden access to those who are remote from Washington DC. But once the White House restricts access by strong press organizations, and correspondents, it taints the entire process. Even if you believe the press is increasingly biased by partisan coverage, the remedy is not to punish the opposition, but to ensure that there is a more diverse and pluralistic range of sources with access to the briefings. Create a more diverse range of news sources, rather than a more politically tailored set of news sources. These restrictions will undermine the coverage by the press excluded, but also the coverage by those who are included, but become less trusted as objective sources.

References

Davis, Juilie Hirschfeld, and Grynbaum, Michael M. (2017), ‘Trump Intensifies Criticism of F.B.I. and Journalists’, New York Times, 25 February: A1, A14.

Wright, Bruce. (2017), “White House Stops Press from Attending Media Briefing’, International Business Times, Yahoo! News, 24 February: https://www.yahoo.com/news/white-house-stops-press-attending-201309162.html

Simplify and Then Exaggerate, Big League

I was taken back years ago when the editor of a major news magazine told me that she told her editors to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. That was the secret formula for writing a good news story.

th-1To me it is increasingly clear that all the news media have moved in this direction, and to keep in line with political rhetoric, they have also added a huge level of hyperbole to the formula. Fox and CNN are driving this trend, particularly with their panels. We have almost become the nation of hyperbole.

The bad news is that more and more news is so exaggerated that it is simply wrong, misinformation. The worse news is that, in due course, no one will take political rhetoric or news media seriously. It will just be viewed as entertainment.

The best journalists and politicians work harder to avoid this formula, and clarify the complexities surrounding so many issues. Call out over simplistic hyperbole for what it is. Hyperbole is part of President Trump’s style, but it is not simply the President’s rhetoric as this level of exaggeration came before him (the Tea Party) and goes beyond the President today, such as with the media and resistance to Trump, with its followers being proud to be compared to the Tea Party of yesteryear.

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Keeping a Journal: A Few Tips

Decades ago, while on the faculty of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC, the late Professor Richard Byrne convinced me to use a journal. In have never regretted that decision. It is an easy and powerful tool for managing information.

When I met Richard, he was the Associate Dean, who helped found the Annenberg School of Communication with his friend and colleague Frederick Williams, and later served as an Acting Dean. When he was not teaching, or directing the School, Richard taught time management and information management to executives through a firm he created, called Springboard! In university, Richard studied drama, and he used his skill set from acting in his teaching, and to present captivating keynote speeches for executives around the world. He was intense and engaging. He led an incredibly full life until he died from the complications of skin cancer at a young age, 53.

Richard did talks occasionally for students around various time management issues. I was sitting in on one of his tutorials when I learned his simple lessons on keeping a journal, which have stuck with me for decades. So easy.

First, get a journal you that is the size that is best for you to carry with you as often as possible. I like a small 5″ by 8 1/4″ Moleskin® journal. I always prefer plain, blank paper, but lined or graphic blank pages are fine, whatever you prefer. But use high quality paper so that you can write with different pens or markers without the ink bleeding through the pages.

Of course, it can have any color binding. I prefer black, but changing colors is helpful in keeping the journals identifiable. You’ll want to keep past journals accessible, so anything you can do to keep them in sequence is helpful, such as shifting colors. [Needless to say, you should have a pen or quality writing tools that you like. I always use a fountain pen with a medium nib.]  img_0867

You must wonder why you would want anything on paper. Is it not easier to do this on your computer or smart phone? I’ve tried to find digital media to substitute for my paper journal, but have never been satisfied that they are as flexible and user friendly. Just as the book remains difficult to beat electronically, I find the paper journal more creative, flexible, and private.

Secondly, start keeping notes immediately and start at the very first page of your journal. Date your entries, and take notes on anything. If you are listening to a lecture, keep the lecture notes in the journal. If you come up with an idea, sketch it in your journal. If you have thoughts on anything, reactions to a movie or play, an article, an observation, put it in the journal, dated, and in chronological sequence.

Chronological notes are key to being findable. Any other organization gets overtaken quickly with new topics or ideas that don’t fit a predetermined system, and you’ll find it very easy to quickly find the notes you are looking for if they are in a chronological order. No matter what the topic, enter everything chronologically, starting from the front and moving through, and you will be able to find everything by thumbing through the pages. Instead of having notes scattered everywhere, important as well as unimportant things are centralized in the journal. In fact, you don’t know what will be important or unimportant over time, so don’t worry about whether something makes the threshold for being in your journal, just add it. This is particularly critical in getting started. You’ll want to start with something significant, but it is more important to simply start.

There is an exception. I normally leave the first two pages of my journals for references, such as phone numbers, my address, or anything I don’t want to memorize that I often need. So your journal becomes an aide memoire in more ways that one.

Third, be as comprehensive as possible. For every meeting, phone call or conversation, take notes in your journal. Any thoughts that you believe to be worth taking notes on, or any information you want to remember, enter in your journal. That means you should carry it with you as often as possible. You want it to be a habit – both having and using the journal.

Fourth, I find it helpful to use a variety of note taking methods. I enjoy mind mapping, and I use mind maps often such as for taking notes on a lecture, or sketching notes for something I plan to write. But I don’t use only one form. I sometimes do simple lists, write out text, draw images or create typologies. By varying the form of your notes, they become easier to find, and the exercise avoids becoming too mechanical.

So get your first journal, starting filling the pages, and see for yourself how valuable it can be.

 

 

Protest Anything, but Reform the US Primaries

The protests following the 2016 Presidential Election express the frustration of many with the outcome, and various decisions in the early weeks of the new administration. But I worry that the electorate might forget the central role that the broken primary systems played in the election. The primaries of both parties (all parties) failed to attract the best candidates. And they have failed to gain legitimacy for the candidates selected. The problems are best illustrated by the such symptoms as not allowing Independent voters to participate in many primaries, and party officials putting their finger on the scales to favor insider candidates, the famous case of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Bernie Sanders Rally MSU
Bernie Sanders Rally MSU

Over the last several decades, the vitality and legitimacy of the political parties have declined, while the significance of the parties has remained great. They are the major king and queen makers of the primary process. Ironically, as people desert the parties, the central committees of the parties become even more powerful as they are more removed from accountability to their dwindling rank and file.

If the Democrats had nominated a stronger candidate, with more favorable ratings among the voters, the outcome might have been different. If the Republicans had been able to vet candidates in ways that avoided a 16-candidate debate, with more left off the debate stage, then the party might have appointed a candidate with broader support within and beyond the party. For that matter, if the Green Party had some contests for its party leadership, it could well play a more meaningful role in the election and its aftermath.

So it is frustrating to believe that it is the primaries that need to be fixed, and soon, but that everyone is focused on expressing their dissatisfaction with the candidates. Focus on the process that got us here, not the personalities. Four years is a short time. Do something that will matter in the next two and four years. Fix the broken primaries.

Orwell’s 1984: Must Reading for the Digital Age

I have not taught an undergraduate course on the Internet and society for quite some time, but when I did, at USC, I had George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on the required reading list. I remember one of the last classes I taught. It was in 1998. It is memorable because my students – after questioning why they should read a book written in 1948, and published in 1949 (how could it be relevant?) – came into class after seeing Will Smith’s movie, entitled Enemy of the State. The movie was based on Will Smith’s character being chased by the bad guys and all the time aided by satellite surveillance technologies, following a sensor planted on Will. It was: “Professor Dutton. This is exactly like 1984!”  img_0867

Even in 1998, I had learned the sad news that 1984 had been removed from most required reading lists across high schools in the US. That was one of the reasons I put it on my reading list. I was worried that my students may never have read this book, and I was right.

So it is very heartening to me that 1984 along with other dystopian futures novels are making a strong comeback.* They are indeed still relevant. Some attribute the rise of dystopian novels like 1984 to the election of President Donald Trump, but I believe it goes well beyond any single individual, and is tied to the information revealed by Edward Snowden, particularly around mass surveillance. The technologies envisioned by Orwell, like the telescreen, have been surpassed, but the idea of trying to sense what people are thinking, and not just what they are doing, by their location, movements, and associates, remains very central in understanding contemporary debates over surveillance in the digital age. Even Enemy of the State was trapped in mere surveillance – tracking and capturing Will Smith. But Orwell saw the ultimate objective to discern what a person was thinking, and whether they were about to commit a thought crime.

I first read 1984 in high school, and recall wondering if I would even be alive in 1984 to see if Orwell was a futurist. Long past 1984, I still wonder if Orwell will be proven right in my lifetime, if he has not already captured today’s threat better than any other novelist. It should be must reading for anyone living in today’s digital age.

*http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/george-orwells-1984-best-seller-heres-resonates-now/