The Genie’s Out of The Bottle: Has News Dissolved Into Nothing But Entertainment?

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Associate Professor Bala A. Musa proclaims, “the era of factual hard news is behind us.” This statement may be disheartening to some of today’s consumers. For others, it comes as no surprise and an inevitable phase of the business. In “News as Infotainment: Industry and Audience Trends,” Musa details the struggle of journalists balancing three components that form the foundational pillars of the field: public interest, profit and professionalism. It is not a hard guess as to which components are easily shoved aside as the attention span decreases and the Internet continues to grow at lightning speed.

I found it worthy of note that both Musa’s article and Markus Prior’s “News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge” were written a full eight years ago. Today, it is clear the epidemic of media choice has become widespread to the extent it is hard to make sense of what the public wants, needs or even who the public is at all.

Musa writes that today’s consumers gravitate toward “the bizarre, the sensational and the sleazy.” On a slow news day, journalists on a tight deadline may give in to temptation of an unethical quick fix and create their own story or simply twist a current story to meet the public’s craving.  In “Journalists Walk a Fine Line When They Act,” Diana Marszalek points out a rather unsettling reality that journalists are slipping into acting roles and raising a few eyebrows about where the line of credibility should be drawn.

My favorite quote from the article was from attorney Steve Dickstein who argues that journalists shouldn’t be criticized for landing acting gigs. “It’s silly to be sanctimonious in a brothel,” he says.  Well, when you put it that way…

We are deep in the trenches of a digital era where lies and embellishments can be created in a single second with the swipe of a keyboard. Journalists are under pressure to be the most credible megaphone out of the million voices screaming from Internet soapboxes. In this increasingly difficult fight for credibility and professionalism, journalists may lose readers and money. Obviously, in an ideal world people would consume the news they enjoy and the news they need all in one package and journalists would be praised for being expert jugglers of profit and social responsibility.

However, as Johanna Cleary’s study “The Family Business: Entertainment Products and the Network Morning News Shows” reveals, large news corporations are hungry for profit and power and are aware that without either of these compensations survival is unlikely. Cleary conveys that the public is unaware of what large chunk of their news is fueled by a desire for product promotion and ratings.  In response to this observation, Prior argues that we should not view today’s consumers as dumb but rather understand that they are simply motivated to watch what interests them.

Growing up, my only experience with political knowledge was dinner table venting sessions from my parents paired with the dramatic, sleazy television advertisements where candidates accused each other of scandal, lies and shady dealings. Prior confirms my experience by saying that many people’s political views are shaped through commercial intake.

Prior’s alerts us that as media hand out more choices with the hopes of keeping audiences intrigued, the result is people isolating themselves into tiny bubbles full of self-interest and no way to consume outside essential knowledge. He states, “even if a consensus emerged to reduce media choice for the public good, it would still be technically impossible, even temporarily, to put the genie back in the bottle.” So, how do we control this genie we have released into the wild?

My answer relates to nearly all the readings we have discussed in class. The secret to journalism lies in that delicate art of producing relevant, important information through a creative, accessible narrative. The information selection process is what an intelligent reporter gathers from the many voices of the public and through astute, objective observation.

Scandal, crime and celebrities will continue to dazzle audiences (myself included), boost ratings and produce profit. However, I think it takes a good journalist to risk the ratings and fanfare and do the extra work to produce quality work that both entertains and furthers understanding. Hopefully, profit will still be a result. It is not an easy task but I believe it is definitely a reachable goal for this profession.

Not Your Grandma’s Journalism: A Grim Look at Economics from a Doe-Eyed J Schooler

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In the first chapter of The Vanishing Newspaper, Philip Meyer states, “the best way to ensure the future of newspapers would have been to conserve their influence and pay the costs of the radical experimentation needed to learn what new media forms would be viable.”  I agree with Meyer’s statement but am also acutely aware that preserving influence in this new age of radical experimentation is easier said than done. Meyer asserts that while new technology does allow for a faster, cheaper, more durable product, it also leads to a confused audience lost in the land of sensory overload.

A central question that has formed in my mind: Can journalism still deliver a quality product using today’s electronic channels that is relevant, meaningful and profitable? There may not be a clear answer but possible solutions lie in the models and strategies outlined in Meyer’s The Vanishing Newspaper.

Meyer examines the societal influence model, which serves to provide an economic rationale for journalists’ fulfillment of civic duty. Through the investment of quality resources, publications are able to produce a quality product. This product either creates trust or strengthens already present trust and leads to increased readership, more advertisement opportunities and ultimately, the golden egg of profit. This model proposed by Knight Ridder’s Hal Jurgensmeyer is a logical business strategy but does not account for increased trust leading to monopoly and also neglects the reality that many newspapers no longer have the funds to increase resources.

Therefore, we transition into the goose and the golden egg scenario Meyer describes in the second chapter of The Vanishing Newspaper.  Meyer offers two models for newspaper owners. The first one is the harvest model, which focuses on short-term investments that have immediate rewards but future concealed costs. The second one is the nurturing model, which encourages owners to accept this new reality of competition and change and focus on improving their products to fit the electronic delivery market.

As the New York Times and more localized publications place their news behind pay walls, there is the concern that journalists will let quality suffer due to the fact that electronic distribution is produced at no variable cost. However, I believe in the future success of the entrepreneurs that view this change as an opportunity instead of a threat and are willing to take current risks and settle for rewards that may not happen for several years. I personally think journalists should accept that news is no longer a linear relationship and look for unique, creative ways to deliver news in this ecosystem of opportunity.

In the chapter titled “Saving Journalism” as well as in the 2013 State of the Media reports, it is clear that journalists have reasons to be optimistic but should know that the hard numbers don’t lie. Meyer points out that entrepreneurial risk takers need more than an income as compensation for their efforts. They need their news product to have value and meaning.  This balance of profit and public journalism is really put to the test on the Internet where, as Meyer puts it, there are “low costs and anyone can play.”

In “Newspapers: Stabilizing, But Still Threatened,” it is evident that while the new pay wall system seems to be working okay at the moment, it does not take away from the ugly reality that downsizing and cutbacks are covering the industry like an outbreak of weeds. Digital advertising does not seem to be making up for the loss of print advertisement, which implies a long lasting game of catch-up is set to happen over the next decade.

In looking at the television side, viewership and advertising are at low levels, which suggest that the Internet is consuming this form of media in the same way it did with print. An important factor in this digital shift is clearly the increased use of mobile devices to consume news. Not only are journalists going to face the pressures and difficulties of switching to electronic delivery in general, they will also have to acquire the in-depth skill sets that ensure readers can consume the news on phones and tablets. From an optimistic standpoint, I believe this need allows for more job opportunities for those who can master social media and other components that come with this digital shift.

The major concern always seems to rotate back to gaining profit without loss of trust. I appreciate Philip Meyer’s reference to Henry Ford’s sentiment that profit will be a natural byproduct of a well-performed service to society. I hope this sentiment will hold true as more and more doe-eyed journalists are hurled into this tumultuous digital era.