Friday, April 3, 2009

Another Break from Sports; A Different Look at New Media

I am just two days into studying communications in college.  I have had less than 4 hours of classes on the subject, and yet I feel compelled to weigh in on the way we view a changing world of media.  I have a lot of objections to how we are responding to these changes as a society, and I am taking the opportunity to get them off of my chest.

(note- If you are only interested in this site for semi-irrelevant projections, occasionally questionable writing backed up with links that at times don’t even seem to make sense, bad jokes and smug criticisms of people with difficult, high profile jobs in sports, feel free to skip this and come back in the next few days when I may actually find the time to finish up the Olympic preview)

                Newspapers are on their deathbed, and even if they survive this economic climate, they will likely not be the same when it recovers.  Indeed, with consumers increasingly reluctant to pay for content, and an effective advertizing based revenue stream still a fantasy for online papers, downsizing is not just a reality, but inevitability, even for institutions such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.  This means that well researched, thoughtful pieces and international news, the two more expensive sides of reporting, will dwindle in the coming years. This is a process that began years ago with the advent of the internet, which duplicated what was available with papers (as opposed to TV, or cable news, which were separate media).

People believe that the media will become reliant on either centralized wire services, with only one voice, or that the blogosphere type media (this includes pretty much all online journalism, and really could be extended to cable news networks) will be the only way to access information.  This is viewed as a negative thing, but I have to defend it, not because this is a blog (tangent- it isn’t, blogs update every few hours, bringing short, knee jerk bits of information, news and unfiltered opinion.  This is a webpage with magazine or newspaper style columns.  It just happens to share a domain with many blogs.  Deadspin is a blog, formatted more like a newspaper or magazine, OV Sports is more like a section of a newspaper, without any of that news to get in the way, formatted like a blog…something I felt compelled to clear up), but because most of the fears stream from a technophobia, and distrust of platforms we are not accustomed to.

                A plethora of fears and complaints seem to have surfaced regarding changing media. Some of the more common ones are:

 

-          These new media are unreliable

-          These new media are not objective

-          With a lack of large scale organization, the mainstream media will rely on the same sources, leading to only one voice

-          A lack of funding will lead to under coverage

 

The first two fears deal with problems foreseen with new systems of media.  Let us put those on hold and first address the third and fourth fears, dealing with the future of the old mediums.  Essentially, it is possible that these two fears could come to pass, but it is asinine to suggest that they must.  People worry that a reliance on wire services and the lack of a diversity of coverage agencies will lead to abject acceptance of party lines.  This notion is ridiculous.  While it may be more difficult to put people in Washington or New York for the cost, advances in communication that are available should offset that.  It is now possible for reporters to do due diligence on a story without being on location, by cross referencing claims and conducting interviews from their own locale. 

The under coverage issue is easily avoidable.  While the Dallas Morning News may no longer be able to afford a London correspondent, the internet is has eliminated the need for one.  Sure, local papers may suffer, and subscribers may be unable to read about international news in that paper, but instead they can access outlets such as the Economist or the BBC online, and actually get more complete coverage of international news.  This will cause local papers to find their niche.  At risk of sounding Darwinist, if a newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma that cannot survive without first hand coverage of Japanese politics exists, it probably deserves to fail.

Moving to the blogosphere, I must start with an observation that some would think (wrongly) runs contrary to common sense.  Objectivity itself is completely over rated.  The fact is every piece of news is delivered by a human.  In a given newspaper there is only one segment which can actually be called objective.  That is the box scores from baseball games, which contain only numbers, as determined from the finite framework that is the rulebook of Major League Baseball (the exception being errors, which are also subjective,  but that is a different column for a different day—although the column is actually a book, Moneyball by Michael Lewis, and the day was sometime around 2002).  All other reports, articles and columns are subjective.  All of them.  They are delivered by humans who decide who to interview, which statistics to gather, which facts to site and how to word the reports.  The newspapers themselves are subjective.  They chose which stories run on the front page, and what gets relegated to C-21.  The fact is, this is the nature of news, and that is okay.

                The reason that it is not a problem is simple.  It is exceedingly possible to gain valuable information from something that is not objective.  Some of the most valuable conversations one can have are those that take place with someone you disagree with.  If someone is to tell you why the President is right, or why the president is wrong, the fact is they are probably giving you a better idea of what the president is dealing with than if they simply tell you what he is dealing with, as they must present information about what the president is doing, why he is doing it and what the ramifications are in order to make their point.  By lending opinion (or to use a more taboo, but equally accurate term, bias) to a story, a reporter or analyst can lend significance, context and relevance to a story.  There is no room for shortcuts when presenting an argument, as opposed to a report where people are much less likely to notice them.

                The perceived problem with bias is that people can be influenced by the way in which stories are presented.  Indeed, it is a bad thing if people only read those who they agree with, or if they take what they read at face value and become overly influenced by a story’s subjectivity.  The thing is, to use a clich√©, that this is a you problem, not a media problem (I know I said that I would put the bad jokes on hold, but that was too easy to pass up).  If the Prius driver in San Francisco only wants to listen to Al Franken, and subsequently misses out on other perspectives, or the pick-up truck driver in a Kansas is uninterested in journalists (term used loosely) not named Limbaugh, therefore not getting facts that go against his arguments, that problem rests on the consumer of the media, not the producer. 

                The problem that stems from a lack of reliability is more concerning, but is one that is present in all media, and need not be exacerbated in the shift away from traditional media (the word media is plural for medium, so to say “forms of media” as most probably would have is redundant, and yet everyone keeps talking about traditional versus new “forms of media”).  I am not about to suggest that internet sources are always reliable, but we read them knowing that they aren’t always reliable.  This means that we are taking a step in the right direction, not the wrong one. 

After all, even the New York Times, among many other papers, was accused of having false stories.  One of the popular tidbits sited by the “save the newspapers” crowd is that because of the reliance on wire services, few outlets questioned the claims of WMDs in Iraq (their point being that if only a few papers survive, it could be no one next time).  This only goes to show that newspapers are not infallible.  Yet, how many people read a Washington Post or San Francisco Chronicle article and think, “I better cross check that.”  Sure, the batting average of accuracy for blogs may be lower, but people are more likely to verify that which they read.  While this seems like it makes for more work in a society where the last thing we need is another obstacle in becoming informed, it is more than offset by the plethora of information that is now available through the internet. 

Is there still a place for newspapers?  Of course.  The world will be much better off if they can figure out a financial plan, or else be taken over by NPOs, and are allowed to exist.  There is still a place for traditional, well thought out reporting that the blogosphere falls short on.  Platforms for widespread op-eds need to be continued.  Simply creating a blog and expressing what one has to say, as I have, will not take you to prominence.  On the other hand, if writers are backed by platforms such as newspapers, they are allowed to flourish, and no one wants to see professional editorializing disappear.  It is even worth keeping papers around for the nostalgia some feel when holding the physical paper.  But to fear the new media is ridiculous, and until people realize this, the flow of information is being dammed.

1 comment:

Spatz said...

Jack,

I thought you might find this video interesting, its about newspapers being saved in Europe by design.

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jacek_utko_asks_can_design_save_the_newspaper.html

-Spatz