Why didn’t I think of that?

From the students at the Columbia School of Journalism comes this insightful and interesting project on the future of journalism. Fast Forward News is the culmination of an idea dreamed up by 18 graduate students in a video journalism class and features interviews with industry leaders of the past and future.

I’m loving this project for three reasons. One, I, too am a graduate journalism student, although one at that other J-school. Two, I’m looking pretty carefully at the future of news since I’m soon-to-be over-educated and unemployed and because I subscribe to the notion that journalism is not slowly dying, but instead is in a period of great transition.

Which leads us to the third reason: This is something we should be doing at Medill. Yes, it’s self-serving and self-promoting. No one likes videos about journalists more than… other journalists. But it’s also an important look at how the industry is changing. And it’s an important message about how the great divisions between newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online journalism are falling away.

In my classes this quarter, we’re talking a lot about how the audience is changing both how much news they consume and how they consume it. We’re even talking about how previous ideas on audience are themselves changing. But what we’re lacking is a full discussion of what we can be doing to change with our audience, and that is where this Columbia project comes in. An innovative and easily accessible look at the changing world of media is just what I need to round it out. And it wouldn’t hurt to get picked up by Romanesko.

50 years of “A Vast Wasteland”

I had the honor (and the pleasure) of attending an event last Friday hosted by the Medill School of Journalism honoring Newton Minow, the FCC Chairman under Kennedy who coined the term “a vast wasteland” with regard to television programming.  The event was scheduled to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the speech Minow gave to the National Association of Broadcasters, during which he chided broadcasters for equating “the public interest” with whatever the public was interesting.

As part of the event, PBS NewHour’s Judy Woodruff, Virginia Heffernan, the New York Time television critic, and Torey Malatia, the president and CEO of Chicago Public Media talked about where the television industry has gone in the 50 years following Minow’s speech.  The news, I’m afraid, was mostly negative.  With the explosion of cable channels and the internet, the proportion of television and entertainment that does not need to hew to the public interest has grown, while broadcasters have mostly continued their policies of a few hours of children’s programming and a couple of news shows per week.  Radio has done no better.

Heffernan argued that there is television programming that exists that meets and exceeds the standards laid out by Minnow in his 1961 speech.  She went on to say that she hoped that people would watch more television, not less, and that the type and number of programs in existence today say a lot about our culture.

But perhaps the most entertaining and heartening portion of the evening came after dinner, when Minow’s three daughters stood up to speak about their remembrances of their father.  The three women, themselves highly successful lawyers and writers, remembered how their father always managed to get home in time for father-daughter time.

Martha, the dean of the Harvard Law School, remembered seeing questions about her father’s famous speech on her bar exam.  She and her father conferred after she discovered that she got two of the questions wrong, and sent a letter off to the test’s publisher questioning the “correct answers.”  They received in return a letter stating “We’ve been asking these questions for years and you are the first to complain.”

It was touching to see how close and connected this family remains, even with all of their various commitments around the country and the world.

In preparation for the event, I read the entire speech, as well as Minow’s update published in April’s issue of The Atlantic.

The idea that the airwaves belong to the public and that those broadcasters who “rent” space should program to the public interest seems almost quaint, given the explosion in the type and number of media.  But it is something that remains important, especially in the realm of public media, PBS and NPR.  For their commercial brothers, it seems that they are still hoping that they can do a little local news and a few children’s cartoons and call it a day.

The big question for me is does this still matter to people today?  Is it possible to have a public interest if the public isn’t interested?  If people can go straight to the internet or to niche cable channels to get news and information that speaks directly to their biases and interests, can local broadcast television even get through?

The most important news of the century, brought to you by Twitter

This post was adapted from a news analysis assignment in a class called “Building Networked Audiences”

When news started to slip out around 9pm ET on Sunday night that the President was making a big announcement regarding National Security, speculation was the game of the hour.  At first, people were assuming the big speech was to be on Libya, given that, about 24 hours earlier, the U.S. had announced that they killed Ghaddafi’s son in a mortar attack on the compound.

As the minutes wore on, key White House staff began to leak small details.  “Not on Libya” was the first word from journalists inside the press room.  Speculation then turned towards the “other war,” a war we used to call “the forgotten war” at internal meetings at my old job.  Could it be Afghanistan?

And then, like so many key aides before him, the leak came.  Donald Rumsfeld’s current chief of staff, Keith Urbahn, confirmed that he had heard “from a reputable source” that Osama Bin Laden was dead.

Nothing about this story, from the earliest speculation to the final, crucial leak, is unusual in Washington circles, except that all of this unfolded primarily on Twitter.

As the television networks scrambled to get a signal from the White House, reporters and producers tweeted out details they were hearing.  The TV networks, with the anchors in newsrooms in New York or Washington, then repeated the tweets, fueling the cycle.  The frenzy was aided by the fact that the Presidential announcement, originally intended for 10:30pm ET, actually took place closer to midnight on the East Coast, and so, network anchors had some time to fill.

On Monday, a Mashable.com poll asked readers “Where did you find out?” The response was clear.  Over 53 percent of the 19,900 responses were social media sources Facebook, Twitter, and Instant Messaging.

Mashable.com created a nifty interactive timeline of the some significant tweets last night, showing how the information spread from one key source through major news and opinion sites.  Twitter today reported that Sunday night’s announcement was the highest sustained activity ever seen on the micro-blogging site.

I was one of the people who found out on Twitter.  Because I used to work in Washington, I follow many of the DC Journalists that were at the White House last night when things began to stir.  In the coming days and weeks, I expect to hear many stories about where people were and what they were doing when they found out.  I expect many of those stories to include the social media that we all increasingly rely on for up-to-the minute developing stories.

I, for one, did my part, retweeting and posting to facebook as much information from as many reputable sources as I could gather.   The real news here is how one man, Keith Urbahn, who has less than 7,000 followers can become a celebrity overnight through reblogging and retweeting from his followers to their much larger networks.

Canadians’ tweets could violate 1930s law

This post was adapted from a news analysis assignment in a class called “Building Networked Audiences”

Elections Canada, the non-partisan agency that conducts Canadian elections, has announced that it plans to enforce a ban on tweets about election results based on a provision in a 1930s election law designed to prevent news agencies from announcing results before all polls are closed.

The penalty for the 140-character offense? Up to $25,000 or 5 years in prison, according to Mashable.com. The original intent of the law was to prevent radio stations on the east coast from influencing voter turnout on the west coast, where polls close up to 4 and a half hours later.

Ottawa Citizen’s political commentator Kathryn Marshall questions the necessity of characterizing tweets and Facebook statuses as broadcasts. Does it matter, she asks, if the Facebook poster in question has 10 friends or 1,000? She notes that the “twitterverse” is planning a “tweet-in” of election results in protest.

Of course, in the U.S., with our First Amendment protections, no such law could hold water. And, yet, major broadcasters have long had a gentlemen’s agreement not to “call” a race until after all of the polls are closed. In presidential races, this has the effect of there being no clear winner until sometime after 9 p.m. Eastern Time. The idea is that if a news network in New York starts telling people in California that one candidate has won quite a few eastern states, those voters in California may be less interested in voting.

I’m not sure that me tweeting out 140-characters about voter turnout in Chillicothe, Ohio, has the same effect.

Besides the obvious free speech argument, Elections Canada has admitted that it is impossible to uniformly enforce this law with the resources that they have. Not being particularly familiar with the Canadian election system, it is hard for me to imagine that anyone would have any reliable information about winners and losers that doesn’t have access to a massive polling organization, like the Associated Press does here in the United States during our elections. Assuming that Canadian journalists work within the same ethical framework as American journalists, what exactly are they afraid people will announce?

Unfortunately, I can imagine that there are political strategists out there trying to figure out how and what to tweet on May 2nd to either encourage or discourage western province voters from going to the polls.

The issue of Twitter and the Canadian election may seem like a parody of the web age, but it does bring important questions to mind. Who is controlling the news now, and to what end?

In an age before twitter and Facebook, mainstream news organizations could collude together to keep a story out of the press. This was sometimes used for political reasons, but more often was used for valid reasons, such as the safety of journalists in war zones. Now that the mainstream media has lost this option, there are conceivably things that will get out that maybe shouldn’t have. Is this a necessary evil of a democratic World Wide Web? What are the alternatives?

The days of “lady journalists”

Oh, to live in the time when women wore white gloves and hats and men drank scotch in dark, cigar-smoke-filled rooms.  Back when reporters were seen as romantic muckrakers who would do anything to get a story.

What’s that you say?  Those days never really existed?  Well they do in my mind and in the mind of many others thanks to Hollywood.

Through the wonder of Netflix, I have been watching a lot of movies that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about, including several that fall under the category “classic.”  For some reason, in this one-woman sample, I’m finding a lot of movies about reporters and newspapers back in the heyday of local news.

In the last week, I have watched “The Philadelphia Story,” “His Girl Friday,” and a modern take on the reporter story, “Morning Glory.”

One thing all of these movies have in common is a strong female journalist character.  I was surprised to find these women in movies from the ’40s and ’50s.

In “His Girl Friday,” the hard hitting reporter Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell, is the only woman in a room full of classic male City Hall reporters.  She’s leaving the profession to get married until she gets sucked in to one last story.

For those of you who haven’t seen the classic 1940 story “His Girl Friday,” you can actually watch the whole thing here on Hulu.

In “The Philadelphia Story,” also from 1940, Liz Imbrie, a staff photographer for Spy Magazine is forced to pretend to be married to a reporter, played by Jimmy Stewart, in order to get the story.  In the end, her independence and feisty spirit almost cost her her happiness (seen here as getting the guy).

It’s interesting (and possibly a reflection of the fact that every movie needs conflict and romance) that in each of these movies the women are forced to choose between work as a journalist and happy home lives.  This is something you expect to see in movies made in the 1940s, but is it something we still need to see in 2010?

In “Morning Glory,” Rachel McAdams plays a morning television show producer who is chained to her desk (or blackberry), at the expense of her social life.  Ultimately, the movie is about finding balance and a sense of humor in your work and life, but it is interesting to me that she finds her strength at work while leaving her love life largely up to the man.

These three portrayals of journalism show the romanticism that many people still hold for the profession today, even though polls show journalists to be only slightly more popular than lawyers and politicians. Journalism has always been a fast-paced, conflict-ridden profession. And that makes for good entertainment, then and now.

The future(?) of Journalism

I just finished reading The Death and Life of American Journalism by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols and that, plus the fact that I’m getting a master’s degree in journalism has me thinking about the future of the journalism industry on a grander scale.

McChesney and Nichols propose a government-funded industry based on existing non-profit business structures or on a new business structure to be created by legislation. Even when the book was written, they understood the bile that a specific subset of conservatives hold for public broadcasting, but with the current budget negotiations, along with the release of tapes that showed the now former NPR fundraiser slamming conservatives, which led to the resignation of NPR’s CEO, it seems that the United States Congress may have even less taste for government funding of journalism than ever.

Aside from the small subsection of conservatives, governments from coast-to-coast are looking to cut budgets, not add to their long-term costs. It seems unlikely that a government-funded system would be a popular choice for Democrats or Republicans, at least at this point. And news organizations are slowly, but surely, losing staff and money.

So, just a year on from the publication of McChesney and Nichols’ book, what can be done about the state of the media.

I don’t buy the idea that online-only publications, as they stand today, are the answer. Their newsrooms are too small, they don’t have the international bureau structure of the major news organizations, and they also don’t have budgets that allow for the kind of investigative journalism that democracy calls for.

I also think the idea of online-only publications is indicative of a decidedly old-school way of looking at the media. The media brand is far more important to today’s news consumers than the platform.

I do think a non-profit news organization structure is going to be one of the answers for the future of news, but I agree with McChesney and Nichols that there may need to be a legislative restructuring of the not-for-profit business rules to allow newspapers to continue to publish editorials and endorsements of local candidates, an essential function of many papers.

In a 24-hour news cycle, it’s easy to look only as far as the next big story. It is important to look for short-term and long-term solutions to what is a growing problem in the news industry. If the current system isn’t working (and it’s not), what next?

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