Wednesday, February 28, 2007

No News is Old News

I'm usually reluctant to look at any link that I get from one of those astroturfing blogger chain letters, because it is often contains a message totally irrelevant to the contents of my actual blog. However, I thought I'd respond to a pitch to check out NewsWar from PBS's Frontline, and I'm glad I did, because found Part Three about "What's Happening to the News" to be worth the ninety minutes of my time . . . that is, after getting beyond the point when I almost turned the TV during the opening, because it introduced itself with the same hackneyed assertions about The Daily Show as meta-media that I've heard a million times. (I think TDS does a better job of covering political primary sources -- including rhetoric on the floor of the House and Senate -- than any broadcast show currently on the tube outside of C-SPAN.)

In the big picture, NewsWar argues that the news business is suffering from many of the same problems as the entertainment industry, namely the audience's tendencies toward 1) free-riding or 2) consuming non-professional user-generated content. Based on the Frontline coverage, it appears that the news media is pursuing many of the same strategies for success by planning to deliver highly targeted, condensed, or transmedia stories to the public.

Much of the air time was spent on the fate of my hometown newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, which is being pressured by investors to close international bureaus and instead fill column space to tantalize readers with more fluff celebrity pieces, despite a Pulitzer prize-winning history and its billion gross and 200 million net, which works out to a robust 20% return (certainly, an enviable profit in comparison to my UC retirement fund). Historically speaking, wrestling over control of the editorial content of The Times is not that new: I still remember schoolyard gossip at my ritzy prep school in Pasadena after a publisher dad fired an editor dad in the eighties. But there's something new to this rapacity of investors for downsizing, an almost vengeful compulsion to denigrate Los Angeles as a major metropolis. One New York investor suggested cutting coverage of the Iraq war and instead substituting items that he thought airhead Angelenos would prefer, such as things he thought they would "care about" more: "Style, Hollywood, Entertainment."

What I find truly appalling is that even the paper that I loyally subscribe to can pull stuff off the web as a way to avoid the hustle of real reporting. Last year, Siva Vaidhyanathan noticed that he was quoted by The Times without actually being interviewed, because the reporter yanked phrases off the Internet. This week, after I wrote this posting about an LA Times article with an uncited quotation from a right-wing online source, the reporter contacted me to say that the quotation actually originally came from this other source, which ironically points to both the source of the original quotation and the inaccuracy of the words that the writer chooses to insert.

Frontline notes that other papers that are holding onto their foreign offices have adapted better to the needs of web audiences, like The New York Times or The Washington Post, which recently ran an editorial, "Blogger on Ice," about an imprisoned Egyptian blogger, that acknowledged a shared interest in a free press for both print news and Internet commentary. (By the way, in connection with this story, Reporters without Borders is calling for the UN to deny Egypt's request to host the Internet Governance Forum in 2009. Egypt was already on their list of "Internet Enemies" even before the blogger's harsh sentence.) Outside the realm of national or international coverage, there are apparently hight profitable hyper-local news sources being held up as models by investors, which include the Studio 55 "vodcast" in Naples, Florida.

One of the central questions that the show spent time on is whether bloggers are journalists. Nicholas Lemann's piece in The New Yorker, "Amateur Hour," has been a touchstone in this debate. There are bloggers with professional journalism backgrounds, like Siva, but even he describes his blogging as akin to a "Manhattan cocktail party" in comparison to his serious writing. Although I enjoyed having a very minor role in breaking the story of the Sonic Jihad fiasco that later reached the mainstream media, I wouldn't consider my blogging here at Virtualpolitik journalism either.

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Blogger Julia Lupton said...

This question of blogging as journalism hits home; I know that in my own (very domestic) blogging, I am often simply "reporting" on an article from the LA Times. I'll give it some minmal personal spin, but no way is it journalism!

5:24 AM  

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