Trends in American Journalism
By John K. Hartman
Al-Jazirah Newspaper Chair for International Journalism
April 26, 2008
NEWS DEALERS LIKE CAR DEALERS
In the United States when a citizen goes to purchase an automobile, the automobile dealers usually offer to go out of their ways in order to make a transaction. It is not uncommon to hear an advertisement where the dealer’s spokesman promises to provide the car to the citizen however the citizen wants it provided. The dealer might say, “We will sell you the car, lease it to you, or rent it to you. You can come and pick up the car or we will deliver it to you. You can arrange for payment for the car, or your family member can arrange it, or a bank can arrange it or we will arrange it (such as a loan) for you.””
In other words in the United States today, there are many different paths that may be followed by the dealer and the buyer to complete the transaction of an automobile. One is not necessarily better than the other. But they are different. Yet the same outcome is achieved.
So it has become in the fields of journalism and media communication in the U.S. that like with car dealers, increasingly multiplying and diversifying means must be used to effect the transmission and transaction of news and information as well as entertainment to the consumer or customer. In fact, the lines between the three – news, information and entertainment – are increasingly blurred in what amounts to a new age of communication.
In the good old days of four decades ago, communication of news, information and entertainment in the United States was largely through four distinct media: Newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
Newspapers – ink on paper delivered to homes or purchased from a store or vending machine – were the dominant mass medium in both the compilation and delivery of news and information to readers through the use of journalists and the sale of advertising and subsequent delivery of its messages to consumers – that coincidentally might result in the sale of a car.
Television consisted mostly of large broadcast stations in big cities with powerful transmitters and most homes got fewer than 10 stations to choose from. Radio was widespread and highly targeted to specific formats.
Magazines, like radio, were widespread and largely served special interests of citizens, such as news, sports or music.
Television, radio and magazines existed mostly to entertain. People interested in news turned to the permanence of ink on newsprint of newspapers. Each of the four media enjoyed a monopoly of sorts and each had unique distinctions..
Forty years later in 2008, the monopolies and unique distinctions mostly have disappeared and journalism and mass communication have been turned upside down by the advent of the computer, the digital revolution, portability, customization, and the development of cable, wireless and satellite communication. Everything that newspapers, magazines, radio and television once offered distinctly to American consumers is now provided by the computer as messages are being converted to a digital code and delivered to the computer by some combination of cable, wireless and satellite. No longer must consumers wait for the newspaper or magazine to be printed and delivered or for the television or radio station to get its regularly scheduled newscast at 11 p.m. The computer reports instantly … in words … with pictures … with audio … with video … and with immediate feedback available from the source and the consumer, not to mention interaction about the topic and a myriad of links to other sources of information about the same topic and related ones. The once vaunted 24-hour news cycle for the daily newspaper has been replaced by instantaneously updated news via the computer.
In 2008 people have multiple choices and control those choices.
Take me, for instance. When I am in Bowing Green, Ohio, U.S., where I live, I read the print versions of 3-4 daily newspapers a day. When I am in Mount Pleasant, Mich., U.S., at Central Michigan University, where I teach, 200 miles away, I read those same newspapers online. On Monday, I read the print version of the New York Times. The rest of the week I read it online. I read the Washington Post online most every day. Michigan-based newspapers I read in print while in Michigan and online while in Ohio. What about while I am traveling – 3 hours one way? I listen to XM satellite radio, which picks up the audio of CNN among other cable and broadcast news stations, and I check my wireless Blackberry for any of the internet news sites previously mentioned and others that might be called blogs such as TalkingPointsMemo.com , DailyKos.com and DrudgeReport.com. I also check my email on my Blackberry, send brief text messages and use it as a cellphone. I, like so many others, want my news, information and entertainment at any time of the day or night and in the form and format that I find it most convenient at any given time.. I pay extra for the privilege of this access and convenience but because my job as a journalism professor requires me to be up to speed on all things journalism and mass communication, it is well worthwhile. Could I live without the gadgets? Yes. Happily? Probably not.
RECIPE FOR CONVERGENCEE
What are the implications for people working in the media and for students whom we are training to work in the media? Students must learn as many different forms of journalistic communication as possible. Being simply a reporter and writer may not be enough in the future, especially where one company or organization or government controls media across platforms, that is owns a newspaper, television station, radio station, magazine and web sites serving the same community. The reporter of the future must be able to gather the necessary information (sometimes called reporting) and then compile it (sometimes called writing) in a clear and succinct way that readers can easily understand in print. Then the information must be posted, and perhaps rewritten, for computer delivery. Then the reporter must cut an audio version for radio. Then the reporter must make a video version of the same information for television, computer viewing, and watching on handheld devices such as the Blackberry that I carry. Photos and graphic elements will need to be added where appropriate as will video. A longer more analytical version may be made for a print magazine and its online version. Then the reporter will need to go online for a live chat with readers to comment and answer questions. Call-ins through radio and television programs may be included.
The mastery of multiple delivery systems by individual journalists is part of the so-called convergence of the media and the desirable necessity of journalists to be able to communicate across platforms. However, convergence skills are not possessed by every journalist because some excellent reporters and writers for print and text simply lack the oral and video presence to be effective in those media and vice versa. The so-called triple-threat (this term alludes to an American football description of a versatile athlete who can run, pass and kick well) journalist of the future is not for everybody, proponents of cross-training in the United States are discovering. But for the small percentage of journalists who can do it, prestige and larger pay is quite possible.
In the United States, where the media is largely owned by private companies with some government oversight and regulation, narrowing profit margins appear to be promoting deregulation that would permit multiple ownership of media outlets in the same communities and the advent of the currently illegal situation of one company controlling cross-platform media outlets in the same city. For instance, the company that owns newspaper, magazine, television, radio and web outlets in the same market theoretically can save much money by using the same journalist to provide information across media platforms -- convergence -- and the same advertising salesman to sell across platforms. U.S. laws still limit such arrangements but appear to be falling by the wayside as it becomes harder and harder for a single media outlet to remain financially strong, and as the government leans toward deregulation.
BUGS BUNNIES BEDEVIL WEB
Americans have been turning away from the traditional media outlets such as newspapers, magazines, broadcast television and broadcast radio in favor of computer-media communication and this has severely impacted the bottom line of the traditional media, the once Big Four. The computer gives us what we want when we want it so why bother buying and reading a newspaper and getting newsprint ink on our nice outfits. Why wait for the news at 11 p.m. on the broadcast television station when we can get it anytime on cable news or via the computer? While folks used to stop in their tracks for a half an hour or more to peruse the Big Four, now folks jump from one of the millions of web sites to another of the millions of web sites like animated rabbits, -- Bugs Bunnies -- staying long enough to fill a fleeting need and on to the next one, etc.
The chaotic internet is a good environment for getting news quickly, but a bad environment for advertising messages because folks jump around too much, as the animated rabbits mentioned above. The Big Four – newspapers, magazines, television and radio – have developed their own web sites and some of those sites have big audiences, but few are making serious advertising money off their web sites. Google and Yahoo make the big money on the net through online advertising search that causes an ad to appear next to the word or words sought. But Google and Yahoo choose not to share only a tiny percentage of their revenue with the Big Four and choose not to purchase any of the Big Four either so far. Though I think they will some day. Google may well purchase the New York Times. The reverse will never happen. The Times cannot afford to purchase Google.
While major newspaper web sites are achieving hits in the millions every day, the time spent visiting most major newspaper web sites is dropping and the newspaper web sites are not attracting enough advertising revenue to replace the revenue lost from folks giving up the print newspaper habit and canceling their subscriptions.
NEVER HAD IT, NEVER WILL
Young adults, under 40s, are not dropping the print newspaper habit. They never had it. This disappearance of young readers, that I began noticing 30 years ago, is what led me to begin researching USA TODAY, when it was founded
Perhaps the most distressing trend of all is that young adults, even up to age 50, in the U.S. simply seem less interested in informing themselves about matters of current interest and politics and seem more interested in being off in their own little worlds of video games, video gambling, video dating, video movies, video music and social networking sites as Facebook and Myspace. The young live a virtual life through the interactivity, communication, and entertainment provided by a computer and through handheld wireless devices such as my Blackberry, the iPod and the iPhone. Many find it quite satisfying and stimulating to use these devices as a substitute for human interaction, exercise, communing with nature and having interpersonal relationships. They are loyal to relatively new web sites that meet their needs and the Big Four’s traditional media web sites are ignored if not castigated. One young adult told an interviewer a couple years ago: “I know newspapers are important; I am just not interested.” They steadfastly refuse to part with 50 cents to buy a copy of a local newspaper. The only way to get young adults to read print is to provide them with a free newspaper that meets their needs for celebrity news, entertaining things to do and personal ads to meet the opposite sex, find a job or find an apartment. In many big U.S. cities the local daily newspaper and-or its competitors have started a free product aimed at the young. In medium-sized cities the new free papers are weekly. In larger cities they are daily, including Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, Dallas. Web sites aimed at the young linked to the free new print products also have been created with sporadic success. Static print products cannot effectively compete with the abundance of the web in the eyes of the young. I imagine this phenomenon is not just being experienced in the United States, but around the world. I often take a couple newspapers into a coffee shop. The under 40s are toting computers with wi-fi connections.
FIRST PERSON, NOT NECESSARILY FAIRR
Allow me to close by discussing: What is journalism becoming anyway? Journalism was once defined as the fair and objective reporting of matters of current interest through the mass media to an interested audience. It was controlled by editors who supervised journalists. All were bound by rules of tradition and ethics. That was before blogs. Now one only needs a few dollars to set up one of the millions of blogs and become a reporter and commentator on all things under the sun. Lacking an editor, fairness and objectivity goes out the window. Having a point of view is what makes blogging attractive to many persons. Blogs can do all that newspapers can do in print and online and do it with a flourish and a personality that contains the humanity that highly ordered fair and objective journalism generally lacks. Because we have been conditioned by live television coverage of news that is told in the first person with the reporter’s emotions not necessarily held in check, young adults and even older ones such as I find the blogger’s style of first person, opinionated communication more attuned to present day needs and sensitivities. Hence, it is my opinion that third-person, objective, sterilized, homogenized news reporting -- the kind that newspapers were built on -- is quickly going out of style. First person, opinionated, subjective journalism is much harder to regulate and much harder for the public to scrutinize to discover the point of all journalism – getting at the truth. Yet that it is the wave of the future for newspapers, television, radio, magazines, and online is clear. Bloggers are replacing reporters in the new world of journalism.