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Media around the world are debating the value of opinion and the role it plays in their editorial mix. Time was, the front page of a newspaper was sacrosanct. No editorial or column was to appear on such valued real estate. The idea was that by relegating opinion to clearly delineated areas of a publication, such as the back pages, then readers could read the “fair, objective” news coverage and then refer to opinion as a second option.
But that got boring, and as readers fled the staid newspapers of the past, journalists began experiment with placing columns and editorials in all sorts of places, including on the front page. Of course, these columns were clearly labeled, so readers could discern the difference between straight news and opinion.
But that got boring and now media are competing with each other for top-notch talent able to unleash opinion on a moment’s notice. And this opinion is flung far and wide, on front pages, special sections, websites, blogs, Twitter and other social media.
And that is not boring. Far from it. It is exhilarating and dangerous, informative and damaging.
Arthur Brisbane addressed this topic recently when explaining changes in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section, now called Sunday Review. The change, he note, “marks a decided turn toward more opinion journalism.”
We took note of this rush to opinion journalism at the end of 2010 in predicting that publications would make changes enhancing point-of-view journalism.
David Kaplan of Paid Content attributes the desire to insert more opinion journalism as a driving force behind changes at Reuters.com, as well as Bloomberg and Dow Jones.
“Bloomberg, Reuters and Dow Jones have been working diligently on becoming more “consumer facing,” that is, appealing to wider professional audience than the financial markets professionals who subscribe to their respective services. The feeling is that as the business of news is flattened on the web, where traditional print brands are effectively rendered equal in terms of distribution and reach, these financial information companies can expand their presence to both readers and advertisers, thereby enhancing their core services.
"That’s why Reuters has gone on such a hiring binge and has been aiming for prestigious journalism prizes with its long-form “enterprise reporting” and hiring star reporters like the New York Times’ Rohde. It’s also why Bloomberg hired former NYT op-ed editor David Shipley and one-time Clinton Administration-era Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin to run its opinion features.”
But taken to its extreme, there is a real danger to mixing the power of media with a strong, albeit clearly stated, point of view. And for a sample of extreme media, look to the disarray among the liberal and conservative newspapers in the U.K.
On Sunday, Rupert Murdoch closed one of the oldest and highest selling newspapers in the U.K., The News of the World, after allegations that the paper illegally eavesdropped on the phone messages of murder and terror victims, politicians and celebrities.
The media in Great Britain are known for over-the-top slanted reporting and exceedingly aggressive reporting tactics. The News of the World took these to an extreme that has damaged reputations, put hundreds out of work and ended an institution.
Howard Kurtz, who left the Washington Post for the Daily Beast because he wanted more freedom to express his opinion, wrote today that the U.S. media may not be far behind the U.K.’s tabloid.
So as media rush to herald “opinion-based journalism” watch for those who slip from publishing more point-of-view information to abusive, obnoxious and potentially illegal practices. To see how quickly this shift can occur, just ask former commentator Mark Halperin.
Keep today's front page someplace safe and dry. Go to the nearby supermarket, drug store or newstand/newspaper box and buy extra copies. Newspapers around the country tore up their front pages on severe deadline last night and captured a point in time you will want to remember in the years to come. Here are a some of the resulting front pages, some from around the world. Here is some more.
Say what you want about newspapers' struggle, but they do one thing better than any other medium: They capture history, one sliver at a time.
Yes, you can get fantastic coverage of Osama bin Laden's death at a variety of news web sites. But can you easily preserve the news in images you can show your children, your grandchildren?
Yes, Twitter broke the news of bin Laden's death, even the attack on his compound, before mainstream media, but does a single tweet, even a series of tweets, capture the scope of an event?
In our basement, my children will one day find front pages from 9/11, the Iraq war, the election of our nation's first black president, and more. (I must admit that they also will need to sift through some more mundane articles, although I was proud of them when I wrote them!)
So sure, newspapers are struggling to remain relevant. But today, as you review front pages from across the country and around the world, that struggle seems slightly reduced.
Time magazine once called Neal Peirce "the only national chronicler of grass-roots America."
The author of 12 books including his latest, "Citistates: How Urban America Can Prosper in a Competitive World," has been examining the urban landscape for about 50 years.
And now that the nation is (hopefully) post recession, post foreclosure crisis and post real estate crisis, other media are beginning to catch on to what Peirce has been covering for decades. They are examining in far greater detail the livability and transformation of urban communities, as well as those businesses and organizations that are part of the resurgence.
Changes in media coverage tend to follow rather than lead social change. Many of our nation’s city’s hit their low point in the 70’s and 80’s, Peirce said when we met recently. But now, “center cities have come back. Young professionals have moved in, and there has been a lot of private sector investment.”
“Urban schools are improving. They are not quite as strong an undertow,” he said. “Newspapers and the media are covering cities more positively now.”
As part of his efforts to chronicle urban evolution, the Washington, D.C., journalist has created the Citistates Group, “a network of journalists, speakers and civic leaders focused on building competitive, equitable and sustainable 21st century cities and metropolitan regions.”
The organization includes Citiwire.net, which produces coverage focused on modern urban challenges. Citiwire.net, including Peirce's regular column syndicated by the Washington Post Writer Group, is in high demand.
At Bloomberg Business News, journalists are increasingly being assigned to cover communities across the country. In late 2010, Bloomberg recruited former Cleveland Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg to bolster community coverage in the West.
Competitor Thomson Reuters has reassigned reporters from business to municipal areas of coverage responsibility.
Forbes.com regularly features the blog posts of Joel Kotkin, author, Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and an adjunct Fellow at the Legatum Institute in London, UK.
Richard Florida, author of the global best-seller The Rise of the Creative Class and Who's Your City?, is consistently quoted in media on trends impacting the nation’s communities. The self-described urbanist has more than 107,000 Twitter followers (@Richard_Florida).
It is encouraging to see the national media covering our communities this way, don't you think?
More than 20 years ago, an amateur Argentine videographer shot the film that helped accelerate the nation’s conversation concerning one its most explosive issues – race.
On March 3, 1991, Rodney King ran foul of the L.A. Police Department and suffered a terrible beating. George Holliday caught the incident on his Sony Handycam and eventually leaked the video to a local TV station. As TV and media critic Eric Deggans wrote on CNN.com, Holliday unwittingly became a citizen journalist.
"Holliday became the leading edge in a revolution of technology and social attitude that has made amateur reporters of us all.
"In the process, journalism has increasingly transformed from a craft to an act; something a random club-goer initiates when 'Seinfeld' star Michael Richards tosses the n-word around onstage, or a traveling entrepreneur from Florida can practice when a passenger plane lands in the Hudson River, sending a picture via Twitter that travels across the globe in an instant."
Holliday’s decision to act stemmed from his desire to use the technology he just acquired to record a terrible wrong. Holliday then turned to the media to do something about it. Holliday may not have known it, but he was both citizen journalist and engaged citizen. Without an empowered, engaged society, citizen journalism dies on the vine.
In 1992, when the jury verdicts in the King case triggered widespread rioting, journalists across the country independently concluded it was time to examine race relations in their communities. At the Akron Beacon Journal, we examined the issue and engaged our community in an honest dialogue, based on facts and neighborhood trends. Where other newspapers dedicated scores of skilled journalists to the task, the Beacon Journal applied both reporting muscle and the gripping power of person-to-person interaction, stemming from focus groups and community meetings. Eventually, thousands in the Akron community took part. Eyes were opened, relationships were built, and we achieved the incremental change that eventually can lead to signficant societal progress.
The community was engaged.
The Beacon Journal won the Pulitzer Prize’s Gold Medal for Community Service for its reporting and its connection with the public. We were proud of both our work and our community.
Today, the media – and the global community overall -- benefit from the growing prevalence of engaged citizens and citizen journalists. Think of the images and information we would miss without them. As Deggans points out, without citizen journalists, would anyone have captured the heroism of Sully Sullenberger? Would the world have witnessed the initial hours of the valiant Haitian effort to survive a devastating earthquake? The riots in Iran? The recent revolutionary struggles in Libya? Would Egyptians have taken their first steps to become a free nation?
Gary Lee of PR analytics firm mBlast recently shared an interesting statistic at a PR measurement conference in Washington, D.C. He said there are 2 billion voices on the Internet today. Each of those voices has the potential to capture news, upload a video and captivate the world.
Sure, most of that information from those 2 billion will be poorly presented, some of it will be inaccurate and perhaps some will be purposely misconstrued. Some journalists argue that such dangers outweigh the benefits of citizen journalism.
But there is no denying the growing power of the George Hollidays of our world. The smartest media organizations know this. Citizen journalists feed the "Town Square" concept these media are fostering. It’s like gently blowing on sparks beside dry kindling.
Do you have any doubt that eventually, some of those sparks will take hold, to burn all the brighter, to engage us and accelerate our conversations?
In their efforts to become more relevant, vibrant and profitable, media are diverging, with larger newspaper companies investing to accommodate high-profile leaks, and smaller news organizations fighting to reinvent themselves at a community level.
Consider two recent news items recently. One relates to innovations major media are rushing to enact to accommodate WikiLeak-like leaks of massive amounts of data.
The second comes in the form of a memo from new Philadelphia Daily News editor Larry Platt, whose job is to lead a proud and struggling newspaper that operates as its city’s second source of news, behind the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In an article for Yahoo! News, Michael Calderone writes about the effort on the part of the mega news media organizations to bring online new technology systems designed to handle the largest dumps of information you could imagine. These systems will be designed to handle massive leaks with the ease of a plug-in flash drive. Al Jazeera calls this system its “Transparency Unit,” Calderone wrote. New York Times editor Bill Keller acknowledged in the same article that his paper is pursuing a similar system. Other news organizations around the world are not likely to be left behind.
"It would be surprising if other large news organizations are not already at work on their own encrypted WikiLeaks-style portals," according to Raffi Khatchadourian, who has covered WikiLeaks for New Yorker. "The New York Times and Guardian, for instance, have every incentive to follow in Al Jazeera's footsteps and give people a way to submit sensitive material directly to them rather than through an intermediary, such as WikiLeaks."
Compare this to Platt’s missive, where he tries to re-energize and refocus his staff. He too speaks of innovation, but his is at the grass-roots, gut level of his newspaper. His vision is for the newspaper to become the “Town Square” of Philly.
“The times demand that, together, we reinvent ourselves,” he wrote. “We’re going to be a laboratory of innovation and experimentation.”
“I find it liberating that we’re not Philadelphia’s paper of record. If you don’t have to cover everything, you can actually cover anything. You can let your passion guide you. In other words, we are free to focus on giving our readers what they can’t get anywhere else, which is a service to them — while setting us apart from the pack.”
We are “no longer in the newspaper business; we are, instead, in the Town Square business,” he wrote. “We provide the last bastion of community in an ever-fractured world, and we touch the members of our community in myriad ways: via print, the web, apps, events, and other media outlets. What we do – what you do — is vital.”
WikiLeaks-like data leaks and the massive amounts of information they encompass are likely to become more common, but only the largest of media will be able to accommodate them.
A significant portion of the media are going the Town Square route.
The headline near the top of The Wall Street Journal’s front page was straight to the point: “Obama Mandates Regulation Review.”
However, the item was far from routine. It told readers of this most widely read and influential business publication that on Page A17, they could read an exclusive article by the president about this topic. If they so chose, readers also could turn to a much smaller, less powerful news article written by a staff writer, on Page A3.
The headline on Obama’s article spanned the top of the Journal’s influential Opinion page. “Toward a 21st-Century Regulatory System.”
The headline on the news story by Elizabeth Williamson ran across two-thirds of the top of A3 and read, “Obama Launches Rule Review, Pledging to Spur Jobs, Growth.” The article was complete, and offered the context that the president had been in conflict with some business leaders who see his policies as overly-restrictive.
But on the whole, the strategy of announcing a new policy in the media by writing an op-ed article was effective. First, the Journal benefited from the “scoop,” which came directly from the president. The news story certainly was secondary.
From the Obama Administration's perspective, they were able to express their views directly to an influential, target audience and bypass the filter that all media impose on those they cover.
The New York Times, as it covered the announcement, cited Obama’s article, published in one of the Times' fiercest competitors. “Mr. Obama announced his executive order with a column on the op-ed page in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, in which he called for “the right balance” between free markets and public safeguards against health hazards and commercial abuses like those that gave rise to the financial crisis.”
Publishing an article from the President of the United States is not without precedent. Congressional leaders submit op-eds frequently in the national media to promote their particular agendas or to speak to specific hot-button issues.
Of course, getting an article accepted is not easy. Most media reject submissions that lack widespread appeal, substance or are self-serving. Not everyone will get their work in The Wall Street Journal. But as mainstream media diversify their platforms through their websites, featured blogs and other forms of social media to attract readers, they are likely to give more individuals the opportunity to speak directly to target audiences. No Pennsylvania Avenue address necessary.
Is it my imagination or are there more end-of-year lists and predictions than ever? It would make sense, as there are more sources of information available to us than ever. Or perhaps my appetite for this media tradition every December is waning.
These lists can be poignant, whimsical, silly or just plain ridiculous. The best offer perspective on the year that was and some insight into the year that will be.
This list of the biggest PR blunders of 2010 is entertaining. Of course, at the top of the list is BP’s handling of the oil spill crisis in the Gulf. However, Richard Carufel ranks NPR’s firing of Juan Williams at No. 3 on the list. I’m not sure about the NPR blunder was that significant. But an opportunity was lost to examine the growing problem the media have with uninformed – and often loud -- opinion.
The New York Times released a thoughtful, moving compilation of photos from 2010. I defy you to review this without humble reflection on the world’s joys and disasters in the past 12 months.
For one of the more interesting overviews on the state of the media, see these survey results from Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab. Here are excerpts:
Q. “Who will have more traffic: The New York Times or The Huffington Post?
A. “Old media wins — barely: 57 percent say the NYT, 43 percent HuffPo.”
Q. “Who will have more traffic: The Daily Beast or Newsweek?” (The two merged in 2010)
A. “Perhaps a trick question, depending on how NewsBeast finally decides to handle its URLs. But 83 percent think the Beast half will win out.”
Q. “Name two media companies you expect to merge in 2011, a la Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
A. The answers were a random spray: no two predictions matched up. Some of the more intriguing: AOL and Yahoo, Tribune and Yahoo, USWeekly and The Huffington Post, Slate and The Atlantic, TBD and the Washington City Paper, Clear Channel and Pandora, Politico and Roll Call, and Gannettand Groupon.”
Q. “How many local sites will Patch have in operation by the end of 2011? (It had 475 on 12/6/2010.)
A. “Most folks believe Patch will still be under 1,000 by next year’s end.”
Here’s a few prediction of my own:
High profile journalists will continue to make news as they leave their traditional media organizations for more cutting edge publications such as AOL, the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post.
Many more lower profile journalists will do the same, but make fewer headlines.
Wikileaks will continue to leak.
Many more lower profile leaks will continue to pepper media reports.
The presence and value of opinion will grow in the mainstream media.
Uninformed opinion will become more of a problem, resulting in more apologies and firings. (See Juan Williams and NPR.)
Do you have any others you wish to share?
The reporter was so angry with me as I was editing his story, his voice was shaking. “You want me to reference another newspaper in my story? You want me to tell readers about our competitor’s coverage? Is this just because I didn’t break the story myself? Do you think other media would do this?”
At the time, interacting with readers by citing other sources of information was a foreign concept to many. Today, the conversation would go far differently. Engagement is a journalism buzzword, illustrating depth, breadth and personal investment.
AOL’s Patch.com is in the process of launching a series of “hyperlocal” news sites in my back yard of Northeast Ohio. The purpose of these and other extremely local news sites being created around the country is to “engage the audience and connect that audience to advertisers,” Patch president Warren Webster recently said in an interview with Crain’s Cleveland Business.
In a New York Times story this week, Peter Applebome writes about The Register Citizen in the economically challenged town of Torrington, Conn. The paper is trying innovative ways such as opening up the newsroom to the public to connect with residents and encourage interaction with readers.
“The business plan is based on making The Register Citizen’s website a magnet for all things local and thus an attractive place for advertisers, sponsors and others who can replace declining newspaper subscribers and advertisers.”
“The same thought underlies the public meetings and open newsroom, the opening of the company’s archives, the public spaces for bloggers and the meeting room that will host courses on blogging and journalism, so residents can write and link to the site.”
Perhaps no other media has received as much attention for its engagement efforts as TV-Website TBD.com in the Washington, D.C., area, which launched this year with the goal of producing local journalism unlike any other organization. TBD is supported by a “community engagement team.”
In this article in Neiman Reports, team members describe how they review the website’s 200 community bloggers and then look to provide readers with fresh, engaging content.
“My challenge is to capture and funnel information from blogs, websites, legacy media (yes, even from our competitors) that will enhance our community’s experience,” team member Jeff Sonderman told Nieman.
Of course, all these efforts may fail, engagement may go the way of the pet rock (yes, I am dating myself) but don't bet on it. I’m looking forward to the growth of the Patch.com site that covers my neighborhood. Heck, I might even engage with the site.
I wonder what my reporter would say to that?
Plug in “pat-down procedures” in Google just for kicks. A recent search registered 290,000 results. Think the media have latched onto this one?
Sensing a growing public outrage, the media are covering all angles, from the “Don’t touch my junk” angle to the “Flight Attendants Union Upset over Pat-Down Procedures” angle. Media hype?
Polls certainly seem to indicate that the coverage is fueling the outrage as much as the outrage is fueling the coverage. According to the latest information, two-thirds of Americans support the new security measures the Transportation Security Administration is implementing at about 70 of the nation’s airports.
Yet the coverage creates the impression that the entire traveling sector is about to pack their toiletries and go home.
It didn’t have to be this way.
TSA chief John Pistole told reporters this week that he disregarded the advice of his media advisors and intentionally withheld advance warning of the new security measures. In other words, instead of working with the media to educate the public, he decided to spring news of the new X-ray and radio-wave imaging devices and “pat-down” policies on the public and then manage the reaction.
He worried that releasing information would provide a "roadmap or blueprint for terrorists" to avoid detection by using other airports where the new technology wasn't in place. Pistole made a calculated decision, weighing national security concerns against a pro-active approach with the media.
Predictably, Pistole’s approach was the equivalent to igniting a brush fire that gets out of control. The original purpose may be noble, but if you are not careful, the results can burn you badly.
Fueled by the flames of public outrage, the media continue to cover stories of individual dissent and personal outrage over private security images. Media will fill an information vacuum with the facts at their disposal. In this case, a surprised and outraged public is providing the facts. By the time Pistole decided to start educating the media and the public, it was too late. He lost control of the story, and he got burned. Badly.
(Update: Thanksgiving air travel went fairly smoothly as the public put up with new security measures in the hope of arriving at their turkey dinners on time. David Carr makes some excellent points about the pat-down coverage in this article in today's New York Times. As he lists the characteristics that made the "T.S.A. story so sticky and irresistible," he faults the "government’s below-the-radar rollout of the new protocol (Memo to the T.S.A.: never sneak up on the American public) that gave it a conspiratorial sheen." I couldn't agree more.)
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Add The Daily to the list of new media to watch heading into 2011.
Built upon the popularity of the iPad and the ingenuity of Rupert Murdoch, The Daily is expected to launch to the public in January. The digital news report will call upon 100 newly hired journalists (many of them freelancers) to provide a regular dose of news from our nation’s media centers and stream it directly to the growing population of iPad owners.
To create the necessary content of a regularly updated report, Murdoch has recruited talent from a broad range of organizations. Executives draw from experience at the New York Times, AOL, the New York Post, Viacom, ABC News and The Sun in the U.K.
In his coverage of this latest step in the news media's evolution, John Koblin details the topics The Daily will cover: politics, health, books, movies, pop culture, education and more. There will be video and opinion pieces aplenty.
One thing The Daily will not have: printing presses. These journalists will not write for a print product. Call it all digital, all the time. Yes, it will publish seven days a week.
Another interesting point Koblin makes. The Daily intends to staff the 2012 presidential election with daily political coverage.
It won’t be the only new media on the horizon. Just consider, one year from now, the other digital media that will have sprouted, either independently or connected to existing media, to cover the next big election.
It's mind boggling to think how far the media have come from the election of 2008. Remember when we thought Twitter was the latest, hottest platform in digital communications?