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New Media and the Future of Journalism

Topic Overview: If this topic were assigned its own week, the readings would focus on the question surrounding the future of journalism and the reality that this may be one of the most pressing problems this country faces. The media landscape is changing dramatically; we see shifts in terms of how people access information, how information is produced and reported, and how it is distributed. Some observers point to the rapid decline in readers of the print-based news and the lack of quality TV journalism as evidence that the commercial media is dying. Many look to emerging and growing numbers of nonprofit organizations focused on investigative reporting, hyper-local blogging, and the use of citizen journalism and see a new golden era. The current discussion on the future of journalism extends beyond debating what the substance and funding of journalism should entail and also includes a discussion about what it will take to make the transition.

“How to Save Journalism” by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney

In addressing potential solutions to the journalism crisis, McChesney and Nichols argue that in order to have an educated and informed public, we must firmly advocate for a functioning and independent press. They advocate the importance of advocating journalism subsidies and increasing support for public media, and they show that these efforts do not lead to censorship or threaten private and commercial media and that this country actually has a strong history in supporting these kinds of efforts.

The two also discuss more potential solutions to the crisis of journalism, including potential tax vouchers for independent and community oriented media, an AmeriCorps type program which would put thousands of young people to work, perhaps as journalists on start-up digital “publications” covering underserved communities nationwide, and the LC3 model (LC3 stands for low-profit limited liability model – a sort of hybrid for profit and non-profit model for newspapers). Shifting newspapers away from a high-profit commercially driven structure to low-profit or nonprofit ownership would potentially allow them to keep publishing as they complete the transit from old media to new.

The two don’t undermine the importance of digital technologies and do believe that the digital revolution “has the capacity to radically democratize and improve journalism”, but they do advocate for paid staff that interact with and provide material for the blogosphere, and argue for the continued professionalization of the press. The overarching theme of the book and this article is that the journalism crisis is solvable; there are solutions and they have mapped out a clear road of what it takes to get us there. McChesney and Nichols have turned their ideas into a book called “The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again” which was published in early 2010, where they discuss this issues more in-depth.

“Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” by Clay Shirky

Shirky’s piece, written in March of 2009 discusses the nature of changes happening to society, newspapers and journalism. He argues that society doesn’t need newspapers, but it needs journalism. In that way, the crisis is more than just about the demise of newspapers or magazines etc, it’s more about the institution of journalism itself. He really argues to say that nothing will necessarily save old media, it’s dying and its business model is failing and nothing (pay walls etc) will “save it”.

His underlying point is that because basis for the conventional newspaper model has gone away, we need to experiment a lot more in order to understand what is going to replace it.
Shirky also explains that print media does a very important job, or as he calls it, “society’s heavy journalistic lifting” and that this kind of coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers (mostly because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers). And while he may not have the answer as to who or what is going to replace it, he also points out like McChesney and Nichols that journalism has a long history of being subsidized.

This may not be so surprising to many people who have studied what is going on with respect to journalism, but in this piece Shirky articulates the crisis and what may come next very well, and puts the entire debate into some historical context. He concludes by arguing that we need to shift our attention away from “saving newspapers” into “saving society” and that by doing so, the imperative will change from preserving institutions that no longer are viable into doing whatever it takes to make sure journalism will survive.

“Saving the News: Towards a National Journalism Strategy”

This report, which can be downloaded in its entirety from http://www.freepress.net/media_issues/journalism is written by Victor Pickard, Josh Stearns and Craig Aaron, for the national media reform organization Free Press. In it, the authors lay out several ideas for saving the news, and address the crisis from a policy standpoint. The ideas include:

- nonprofit, low-profit and cooperative models
- community and municipal models for future journalism
- foundation and endowment support
- public and government models
- news commercial models
- public subsidies and policy intervention

In this paper they also discuss several short-term and long-term strategies that are necessary to move towards a national journalism strategy. Some of the short-term strategies include new ownership structures, incentives for divestiture, and a journalism jobs program. Longer-term strategies include research and development for journalistic innovation and exploring options for new public media.

It also includes several figures which detail the decline in newsroom employment by year (there’s a huge drop for 57,000 in 2007 to 46,700 in 2009; the 2009 figure is the lowest in history). They also illustrate the percent decline in daily and Sunday Newspaper circulations (it’s like a walking down a steep cliff) and the numbers of US Daily Newspapers.

“Old and New Media Go to Washington”, On the Media, hosted by Brooke Gladstone

In this piece from May 2009, Gladstone discusses recent hearings that a Senate committee held on the Future of Journalism, which illustrates that this issue has received national attention. John Kerry (who is the Committee Chariman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation which held the hearing says that the purpose of the hearing was to examine and figure out from people in the field where new media is going and what to do to help existing media), Jim Moroney publisher of The Dallas Morning News, and Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), who introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, and Arianna Huffington.

There are several issues mention in this piece that are of importance to the debate around journalism, including whether it’s possible and/or realistic to monetize online content (for example the now defunct New York Times “Times Select” option), the idea of the Kindle and other electronic readers as the “solution” that publisher’s should be going for (but really that’s not actually viable because of the split revenues they come down somewhere on the in of Amazon receiving 70%and publishers receiving 30%). There is relevance from that debate to the iPad as well, even though the iPad hadn’t been invented yet! The piece also discusses the emergence of new non-profit investigative journalism websites, like Voices of San Diego, which Huffington argues is having real impact investigative journalism.

New Media and the (Uncertain) Future of Journalism

Potential Topic in New Media: “New Media and the (Uncertain) Future of Journalism.” We touched on this briefly in the beginning of the semester, but I think it is an area that is very rich and could benefit from a deeper discussion. How bad is the existing journalism “crisis”? What are potential solutions? What will it take to get us there? What is the appropriate role (if any) for government funded journalism? I tried to make these required and recommended readings reflective of the debate more generally, and what is happening currently in the field.

Required Reading/Viewing:

Recommended Reading/Watching:

Google’s Living Stories is in a Coma at the Moment

While I have tried to seek out people who are currently trying to develop Google’s code of Living Stories I was able to interview Neha Singh, software engineer for Google and another person, we will call him Eugene, at Nature Publishing Group who is attempting to develop it further.  There is a huge silence surrounding this code if in fact it was such a success that Google found it to be.  Digging around the forum and discussion group, I was able to find Eugene and inquire about how he is working on the code:

Eugene pointed me to some scientific news stories for an online journal at Naturenews.  “We’re looking at experimenting with it to show both science news and the human stories behind important scientific discoveries published in the journal,” said Eugene.  He went on to comment about the code itself and the problems that he encountered with it.  Apparently, installing and getting the code running was pretty straightforward, however, the content manager kept timing out a lot.  “I do like the possibility of applying the system to stories that have already happened though I guess they’re not “living” any more. Living Stories is a good way to browse any sort of narrative, see the people involved, browse relevant media etc.  The default content manager makes this as difficult as possible, unfortunately – to put in dates from say 1950, so you have to do a lot of clicking on a popup date widget, you can’t just type in the year.”  It was interesting to hear how Eugene was trying to use it almost like a historical and categorical reference tool along the lines of what libraries use.  This reminds me of the historical overview that wikipedia has on many topics.  The difference would be that you would have a historical time line of scholarly articles using the Living Stories interface.

Back to Google’s representative – Neha Singh>>

Neha answered a lot of my questions, but couldn’t really answer the harder ones.  To my understanding, he has to be careful with what he divulges to the public.  For example here are a couple harder questions that were asked,

1.  How does Google benefit from this type of investiture?

Our interest is in helping journalism thrive in the digital era, because it’s important to society and an important source of the high-quality information our users turn to us to find. We’re doing the Living Stories project to learn about creating more engaging experiences for consumers of news online

2.  Because Google has been deemed by some as an aggregation thief of news, was the open sourcing of this, to some degree, a  political move in a way to win over the hearts of the publishers and people?

Cannot comment.

3.  What are those two news companies doing with it at this point since they were the two main guinea pigs for the experiment?  Are they continuing to develop it on their own?

They are currently evaluating how they want to proceed.

4.  Could you give me some contacts of people who I can talk to at the NYTimes or The Post to ask them some questions about it?

I would have to ask for their permission first. So it will take some time.

5.  Is there a list or a distribution list of developers that you released it to?

We just announced it on the Google open source blog.  You would have to solicit replies on the discussion forum.
Ok, it looks like I wasn’t able to get the harder answers out of him, but they do insinuate a sense that Google is trying to help out the traditional journalism’s journey to the online environment.  I’m kinda skeptical at such a benevolent approach without any financial incentive.  Maybe that’s why Google open sourced it in the first place.  I do wonder if Google was paid by the NYTimes and The Post for their help in creating such a format.  Yet, this wouldn’t be that plausible based on the fact that they open sourced it. 

One of the biggest questions that I tried to focus on was whether or not Google’s decision to open source the code for Living Stories was planned from the beginning or was it something that was considered after the experiment was over.  Mr. Singh had informed me that, “Open sourcing the code was the logical next stage of the experiment and was always planned. From the beginning, we had said that hosting the stories on Google Labs was temporary. We want to help interested news publishers cover stories this way on their own websites. The Times and Post had teams of reporters publishing through the Living Stories format for over two months, which helped us collect a lot of data and feedback, and improve the code.“  I confirmed his statement, by checking the Google News Blog, which had indicated back in December, when Google started the experiment, that they were going to release it to the public after the experiment was finished.  This could have a tremendous impact on the way people search for news online based on the topic.  Google News aggregates and filters the topical search, but it still takes you to the traditional news article that has stayed the same for quite sometime now.  The topic of the article would be the key ingredient rather than the publisher or article itself.  Moreover, “If you look at search behaviour, that’s often what people search for (and why Wikipedia is so popular), declares  Paul Bradshaw, of the online journalism blog, on his report of Google’s Living stories.  Bradshaw asks two very important questions that many are wondering (if you decide to peruse through the discussion forum of Google’s Living Stories).

  1. How much of the construction of the page is done automatically, and how much requires someone to input and connect data?
  2. How does this address the advertising problem?

What advertising problem you ask?  Well, d3vianted@gmail.com articulates this well in the discussion forum:

Publishers want to drive people to their sites in hopes of attaining ad impressions.  Thus the “free” content they are giving away is providing some source of income.  As more and more papers see a decline in readership and their sales decline, the money their make from their online products is becoming more and more important. Living Stories takes away any ability for the publisher to direct traffic to their sites (other than name recognition and the hopeful conversion of a curious reader) or provide any support for advertisers.  Publishers would be producing content with no ROI [return on investment] simply for the convenience Google’s users.

A counter solution to this payment for content problem has just been announced by Google’s competitor Bing.  Apparently Bing is trying to help UK newspapers better monetize their online news.  Here’s the article.

Lastly, it would have taken more time to generate the contacts at the NYTimes and The Washington Post to inquire where they are taking the project at this point.  Mr. Singh could only tell me that, “They are currently evaluating how they want to proceed.”  Even if this statement foreshadows the vague undertones that surround the future of this project, it does however, imply that Living Stories is something that we could see changing the way that we consume and experience news online in the future – however long this might be.

Travelogue 3: Who is & What is developing with “Living Stories”?

December 09′ to Feburary 10′

Journalism has undergone a crisis in the past several years and so has the news that has followed it.  The ‘digital future of news’ is currently shaping the future of how we stay informed and connected to what’s going on in our world.  The internet with online news updates possesses the remarkable capacity to change the way we read news.  Moreover, news agencies have tried very hard to adapt to the changing climate of media within this digital era that has been underway for quite some time now.  Nevertheless, the multi-billion dollar corporation Google has once again tried to revolutionize the internet.  From December of 2009 – February 2010, it sought to experiment with the way people experienced the news online.  Since the experiment, there has been much optimism with how it could change the nature and interface of online news.

“We believe it’s just as important to experiment with how news organizations can take advantage of the web to tell stories in new ways — ways that simply aren’t possible offline.”  - Official Google Blog

So Google decided to team up with two of the most world renowned news organizations: The  News York Times and The Washington Post to see how they could develop a way in which  people could better experience reading the news online.  Like mad scientists (engineers) stuck in  some lab in Mountain View, California they created their own version of Frankenstein… they  called it “LIVING STORIES“.  It’s aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive!!!  Essentially, it is  a “new format/interface for creating and consuming news online”.    Everyday the news of a particular topic or story would be covered or    reside  under one URL with a summary explaining a general overview with live updates of new material in a timeline format, which would give offer readers,  ”a different online approach to balancing the overview [of a topic/or story] with depth and context”.

On the other hand of the debate, Google has been looked at with a great deal of animosity and dislike because of how it devalues the content on the web.  Matt Asay posted one particular comment by Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson, to call into question this widespread attitude against Google:

Google devalues everything it touches. Google is great for Google, but it’s terrible for content providers, because it divides that content quantitatively rather than qualitatively. And if you are going to get people to pay for content, you have to encourage them to make qualitative decisions about that content.

Nevertheless, the question abounds to why Google would do such a seemingly benevolent thing to help out publishers and news agencies.  What is the underlying rationale or motive for helping the news agencies?  Yet, The NYTimes for example are welcoming the help from Google.  It appears as if the news agencies are following the age old adage, ‘if you can’t beat em’, join em’.  The NYTimes and The Washington Post have worked on a collaborative effort with Google so it doesn’t seem like their was any negative feelings towards each other.  It seems a big brother helping out his younger brother.  While Google has had its fair share of criticism, the NYTimes for example is trying to take its own journalistic endeavors and combine them with the ingenuity of Google.  ”It’s an experiment with a different way of telling stories,” said Martin A. Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations of The New York Times Company, in a statement. “I think in it, you can see the germ of something quite interesting.”

February 10′ and Beyond

On February 17th, Google decided to open-source the code to see what people and developers can do with it.  My question and curiousity, which is basically Google’s question too, is – what are people doing with the code other than making bug fixes here and there?  In other words, How are people utilizing and improving the open-source code of Living Stories?

  • My research and journey will be to figure out what I’m able to on where the project is going since its release to the public.  I have already contacted some owners of the experiment from Google that were in charge of Living Stories and even some people at the New York Times and the Washington Post to see what they are continuing to do with the format.
  • In addition, I will try to seek out some developers who are working with it to see what they have been able to do with it.
  • Lastly, I will also attempt to contact various news agencies and inquire about whether or not they would implement such a format to their online site.

In our recent weekly readings on Travelogue 3, we saw a different viewpoint on collectivism and open source.  I wonder if this would contribute to a loss of authorship or a degradation in the quality of content.  Or would it turn into “mush” as Jaron Lanier wrote about:

Actually, Silicon Valley is remarkably good at not making collectivization mistakes when our own fortunes are at stake. If you suggested that, say, Google, Apple and Microsoft should be merged so that all their engineers would be aggregated into a giant wiki-like project—well you’d be laughed out of Silicon Valley so fast you wouldn’t have time to tweet about it. Same would happen if you suggested to one of the big venture-capital firms that all the start-ups they are funding should be merged into a single collective operation.  But this is exactly the kind of mistake that’s happening with some of the most influential projects in our culture, and ultimately in our economy.

Well Mr. Lanier, it seems as if Google did just that.  It created something and released it to the public for a ‘collective action’ to implement and improve upon the original test design.  If Lanier is correct in his assertion, than Living Stories would turn out to be a mistake in the long run.  However, I don’t think that this will be the case.  I believe that it will only be a matter of time before online news slowly transforms into this type of interface.  Only time will tell.  But for now, I’ll have to find out where the public is taking this “creative monster”.  Stay tuned for more “living updates”…

First Travelogue: The Trap & New Media

Next week we will start our first journal series. Please follow these instructions:

  1. Watch Adam Curtis’s The Trap: What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom
  2. Each choose one topic that stood out, intrigued, irritated, disturbed or made you tick in any way and try to discover the discourse around it through research and expand it through your own commentary.
  3. Write at least one posts to the class blog before Sunday, 4pm. Make sure to include references and links where needed and to expose the discussion in an enticing post that would make the rest of the class interested enough to discuss it.
  4. Choose at least three of the posts published by other students in the class and comment on them (in the post’s comments section).
  5. Be prepared to present the posts you chose to react to next week to the class.
  6. Additionally: Write a short comment to the Trap post about how do you see the relevancy of the trap to the new media discourse.

Required material:

Suggested Material:

Alexandra:

  • Read the two articles and listen to the On The Media segment
  • Summarize it for us in a nicely accessible post to be published by Sunday 4pm
  • Be prepared to present the article in class
  • Post to del.icio.us some links that expand the discussion either about the text or about key themes in it.
  • Enjoy.

See you all next week.