Back in February, PBS featured a four-part, 240-minute long documentary entitled “News Wars.” Through extensive interviews with many of the nation’s most well-known journalists, publishers, editors, media executives, and bloggers, “News Wars” seeks to unpack the meaning of journalism in a world that is slowly being upturned by advances in technology and the ubiquity of the Internet. Indeed, all 240 minutes of the documentary are available to watch, free of charge, on PBS’s website. “News Wars” begins with an analysis of the way in which the mainstream media has covered the Bush Administration, specifically highlighting the murky and scandalous affair commonly referred to as “Plamegate” and the War in Iraq. Both stories are relevant because they raise significant and pertinent questions about the media’s role and responsibilities in covering national security, terrorism, and an ongoing war. Those questions raise other questions: Who controls the flow of information? How can the media protect confidential sources? What are the effects of deregulation? Who defines “news?” What is journalism? How is the Internet shaping the news? How can mainstream media adjust and adapt to the world of online news and blogging?

For me, the documentary hits its stride when it begins exploring the proliferation of online news and the blogging phenomenon, juxtaposed against a fascinating story about the triumphs and tragedies at one of America’s most well-known newspapers, The LA Times.

Today, on a national level, more people in that “key demographic” are reading news online than in printed newspapers. However, the vast majority of online news is culled from newspaper-based journalism, and this can create problems for newspapers, many of which are owned by publicly-traded, profit-driven corporations. Online news is simply not as profitable.

The LA Times, for example, had to make numerous cuts to their news room after being purchased by the publicly-traded Tribune Company (which, on April 2 of this year, decided to go private). Despite the fact that The LA Times had won a dozen Pulitzer Prizes in recent years, the cuts were deemed necessary in order to maximize (not stabilize) profitability for Tribune Company shareholders. This is occurring throughout mainstream media.

Cuts to the news room directly result in cuts in news coverage, and the expectation of not only making a profit (The LA Times was already making $200 million a year in profit) but of exponentially increasing this profit every year has dramatic effects on the types of stories many major newspapers and television news programs choose to cover. Some dub this new brand of news as “infotainment.” For example, it’s when cable news decides to spend endless hours covering Anna Nicole Smith’s death or when newspapers decide to become “hyperlocal,” giving preferential coverage to banal local news stories over more important and pressing national or statewide news stories.

Some argue that the “hyperlocalization” of American newspapers is a positive development, that it provides a needed service to local communities. But others believe it diminishes the quality of the news and that it leads to a less informed public.

Central Louisiana has only recently experienced the growth of an online “news” and blogging community, and our local, traditional media outlets have attempted to adapt. Like many markets throughout the United States, Central Louisiana’s media is dominated by outlets owned by publicly-traded companies; Media General (NYSE: MEG) and Gannett (NYSE: GCI). KALB, which is both a NBC and a CBS affiliate, is owned by Media General, and The Town Talk is owned by the largest newspaper publisher in the nation, Gannett.

Gannett also owns and publishes USA Today, which has the widest circulation of any newspaper in the United States. For a company like Gannett, much like the Tribune Company, it makes little financial sense to encourage its smaller newspapers, like The Town Talk, to dedicate time and resources to national or international coverage, because they own USA Today. The hope is that the consumer will read local news in the local, Gannett-owned paper and read national news in the USA Today. And because Gannett owns papers in five markets in the State of Louisiana, statewide news is shared. Although Gannett does not have a presence in the Baton Rouge newspaper market, they do have a correspondent, John Hill, who practically writes all of the state political stories, which are then disseminated and published in Gannett’s five papers. For all intents and purposes, this means Alexandria no longer has its own on-the-ground political dispatcher reporting on the State’s capitol. We share John Hill with Shreveport, Opelousas, Lafayette, and Monroe.

It is not difficult to understand why this can be problematic. Every year, we send our elected representatives to Baton Rouge in order to work for the best interests of our region and our state, yet we fail to send a local reporter, someone who recognizes the issues unique to our region, to specifically cover the work and the progress of these elected representatives. None of this is to undermine the work of Mr. Hill. He is an excellent reporter who recently wrote some of the state media’s best analysis of the Vitter affair. This is merely offered as an example of one of the symptoms of media consolidation.

And, to some extent, this is where the blogs come in. As previously stated, online news and blogging are primarily recapitulations of newspaper reports. The vast majority of news journalism is done by reporters who work for newspapers.

However, blogging, as Markos Moulitsas stated in “News Wars,” allows the passive reader to become a participant in the story. It breaks down the fourth wall of the fourth estate. And sometimes, as a result of this participation, the blogosphere produces real journalism. It is little surprise that the Central Louisiana blogopshere is so active; the consolidation of our major media outlets and advances in Internet technology and accessibility have produced a space for people to write about the stories the media simply does not or cannot report. There are numerous examples of local bloggers “breaking” a story before it is picked up by the mainstream media, though the blogosphere is rarely, if ever, credited.

Because the blogosphere, by its nature, encourages anonymous commentary, many people are more likely to “leak” information onto an anonymous forum than pick up the telephone and inform a reporter under the condition of confidentiality (particularly after Plamegate). The problem, of course, is that anonymous commentary on the Internet, no matter how insightful or sensational, is still untrustworthy and often misleading. Without hard evidence or someone willing to go on the record, many stories are born and then die on the Internet.

In Central Louisiana, our mainstream media has attempted to adapt to these changes. KALB produces a VideoBlog, featuring interviews with political candidates and clips of City Council meetings, a WeatherBlog, and a section entitled “Viewer’s Voice,” which reminds me of The Town Talk‘s now-defunct “Sound Off!” KLAX’s Babs Zimmerman has her own blog. And The Town Talk, along with its Gannett sister papers, launched StoryChat last August, which is simply a moderated forum attached uniformly to its online content. While these features can offer interesting supplementary analysis and commentary, they have yet to augment or enhance news coverage, and moreover, they have not stifled or slowed down the growth of independent blogs, which brings us back to the problem posed by “News Wars.”

As long as mainstream media continues to be owned by publicly-traded companies who solely seek to maximize profit and sustain growth, the news business will continue to produce the stories people “want” to read, not necessarily the stories people “need” to read. Probing, investigative journalism will continue to take a backseat to “infotainment.” Television punditry will continue to operate in sound bites. Newspapers will continue to be forced to make cuts in their news rooms, favoring an alliance of disparate dispatchers to fill in the blank spaces.

Some will argue that these changes are merely the result of the capitalistic will. That may or may not be true. The news business is not like any other business; its core purpose is to deliver information that is relevant, interesting and important to the public. The erosion of this business directly affects the quality of our democracy on local, state, and national levels.

There are many newspapers throughout the country, some of which are even listed on the New York Stock Exchange, that are primarily controlled by people (typically families) who refuse to allow the whims of the market to affect the quality of their product. A quality newspaper with quality reporters can be an incredibly profitable business. (Again, before the Tribune Company purchased the LA Times, cut its newsroom, and repositioned its focus as “hyperlocal,” the paper was still making $200 million a year in profit). Many papers are owned by people who are not driven by the goals of market domination, yet despite this, they continue to remain profitable.

Before the advent of cable news, most television companies understood their news divisions to be “loss leaders.” Television news may have not been as profitable as soap operas or sitcoms, but a solid news division lent the company credibility that affected the value of the company’s goodwill.

If the Tribune Company’s recent decision to go private is any indication, we may be seeing a recognition of the inherent flaws in attempting to maximize (and not stabilize) a newspaper’s profitability. This could represent a sea change in American journalism. Websites like Craig’s List will continue to whittle away at the profit margin of the classified section. Bloggers will continue to offer commentary and news stories free of charge, and because of this, inevitably, mainstream media will have to change its approach. Media consolidation may present opportunities for internal synergies and it may make vast fortunes for a few people, but ultimately, it has not increased the quality of the product. As quality diminishes, readership diminishes. When this occurs, people are much more likely to log onto the Internet and read the news free-of-charge than buy a subscription to a newspaper that is overwhelmed with advertisements and underwhelmed with good reporting.

Update: A special thanks to the Los Angeles Times Pressmen’s 20 Year Club for referencing this piece as a part of their Saturday Night Links.

5 thoughts

  1. Extremely informative article Lamar, and I think something we saw in actiona locally this past week. Blogs scooped the local media on stories such as the Pineville e-mails, an armed robbery, the alleged Open Meetings Law violation of the Alexandria City Council, Joe Bishop criminal charges. Local blogs have been cited and linked in national online recourses. Tremendous efforts by local blogs have provided online video of Alexandria City Council meetings. All of this was a reult of local media not covering these stories or providing these services.
    It would be nice if blogs could return to commentary, and not have to spend so much time and effort doing the media’s job. Until such time, however, blogs are doing an important community service.

  2. In the past, when this blog was a little more active, we were receiving multiple visits from major news organizations like Reuters and from various political organizations and lobbying firms based in D.C., as well as visits from the offices of a handful of US Senators and Representatives. This, in and of itself, is a sign of a growing recognition that blogs can become vast depositories of information and commentary that can help to frame the tone and the content of the national discussion. But still, I do not want readers to get the impression that I am, in any way, arguing that blogs are a “better” way to receive the news. In fact, I believe just the opposite, which is why I am disturbed by the erosion of print and broadcast journalism.

    I had a long conversation with a friend of mine concerning this article and the basic thesis of the PBS documentary. He argued that blogs are in danger of replicating the same basic structures inherent in the mainstream media: a handful of national blogs directing traffic and “sponsoring” the work of local blogs. Due to this dynamic, he said, many bloggers rely on their relationships with national blogs in order to sustain traffic and readership, and this can be stifling. He also convincingly argued that many blogs “work” because, like some in the MSM, they are built around a cult of personality and the implicit hope, by one’s readership, that the blogger will continue to reaffirm their readership’s opinions.

    I do not think we are at that point in Cenla right now. This is, indeed, a very new experiment for us, but after hearing his analysis, I cannot help but wonder what the future of the blogosphere will look like.

    Believe it or not, I really want mainstream media and newspapers to work, and I fear that deregulation and vast consolidation have diminished the quality of reporting. This needs to be changed.

    I know this is a hot-button issue, and I hasten to bring it up. But it is worth stating, I think. Durign the lead-up to the Iraq War, many credible bloggers were reporting credible and insightful analysis about the claims being made by Mr. Bush’s administration in taking our country into Iraq. In many cases, these individuals, who were merely citing intelligence reports, UN reports, and various quotes from senior sources, were roundly dismissed as anti-American, but now, when one looks back, it is hard to argue that these people were not justified in their questioning; critical questioning of the government should be a hallmark of the fourth estate. The MSM failed us. There is no doubt about it.

    We have an opportunity to correct this by continuing to attract attention to the stories people “need” to read.

    I know some blogs, like some newspapers, magazines, and cable news shows, are more concerned with the sensational, even when it is completely unjustified and irrelevant. But there are others who take their work very seriously, and as long as we pay attention to their work, we can affect the stories covered on local, state, and national levels. This has already been proven effective on numerous occasions.

    As for the future, I guess we will have to wait and see. I predict the MSM will continue to contract out to serious bloggers, and I also predict that MSM journalists will begin to understand that when they use the word “blogger” as a perjorative, they are only demonstrating an arrogant dismissive attitude toward citizens who seek to engage in the democratic process. Many of us are not merely “bloggers;” we are concerned citizens with day jobs. Unlike journalists, very few of us are actually paid for our work or our research. “Bloggers” are doctors, lawyers, political officials, professors, and ordinary citizens who seek to simply express their opinions. When the MSM, including our local media outlets (though KALB has done a fair job crediting the work of bloggers), ignores or dismisses “blogging,” to me, they are only expressing a disdain for people who simply want to engage in the conversation. In my opinion, the MSM no longer has the upperhand, especially considering how often they surf and troll the commentary and analysis of bloggers in order to develop their own news content.

    On a side note, Drew Ward at Cenla Current has been consistently offering intriguing and solid analysis on his new website, Cenla Current. Kudos to Mr. Ward.

  3. Gracia for the mention Lamar.

    I have to say this idea is one I’ve been thinking about too. In a way my site, the Current is at least at present more of an interactive blog. That’s not it’s objective, but seeing as most of the posts are from me, it basically means that’s what it is. I’m hoping that will change as more people become members (hint hint).

    There’s a reason I like to think of the Current as an online new outlet and community. That is mainly that a blog by nature lacks a certain air of journalistic purity. Ok, basically that’s the story of the traditional journalists at least.

    Many old school print journalists have turned a scouring glance toward blogging. I like to actually use the phrase grassroots journalism over simple bogging. A blog is a structure, a manipulated bunch of software code that allows its contributors to post information without plowing through a line after line of HTML, XML, or Java script.

    This phrase grassroots journalism though is one that better labels the medium. It puts the ability to report the goings on of a community directly in the average Joe’s hands. But, Grassroots Journalism also means more than just a blog. There are dozens of blogs for Cenla. Many of them are very good. But, most are nearly 100% opinion driven. They are the opinions of their creators and rally the opinions of their supporters and detractors. But hey, they are discussions, and they get Cenla online and on the digital map. We’ll take em all!

    There are a few local sites — technically blogs structurally that go above and beyond the ‘blog’ label. They provide a wider spectrum of information, links to information and services, and variety in writing. Also, they let the reader know what is their opinion and what is reported information. CenLamar is a prime example of this. CenLamar’s not a blog, it’s grassroots journalism for CenLa. Its structure is that of a blog, and it certainly includes the opinions of its contributors, but there is never any doubt what you’re reading. If it’s opinion CenLamar tells you.

    And maybe that’s the reason that Blogs rub some traditional journalists the wrong way. Traditional media and online media really hold no unique features that assign them to opposing facets of the information world. But, blogs accept the fact that they support certain opinions. In fact, they strive on that fact whether is be underlying themes of progressive planning, transparency, or even biblical reference. Blogs say what they mean, and generally mean what they say.

    Newspaper and Television however, the supposed bastions of purity in journalism and equality in coverage have over the past two decades fallen prey to the many varied and twisted whims of their owners and editors. Extreme examples such as Fox News don’t even hide their bias in a shroud of integrity. But then again, even their more neutral competitors cater their center of bias to the political and moral moods of their viewers. Take for example CNN’s Nancy Grace who pronounces more people guilty during prime time than a panel of irate Texas judges does in a given year.

    Traditional media is just as much about attention and opinions as any vocal blogger. Recently the death of professional wrestler Chris Benoit (and his murdering his wife and son) made for hot journalistic business. Within hours every major outlet had a panel of experts to purport the negative effects of steroids as the cause of the whole affair. Of course, weeks later when police lab reports showed that in fact Benoit had no steroids in his system, only a handful of these same balanced sources bothered to mention that.

    The integrity and balance, the responsible research and fair reporting that print and broadcast media champion as their crowning achievement separating them from bloggers is simply a false claim. Perhaps it was true at one time, but history and traditions of yellow journalism and tabloids tell us otherwise. Even our local media falls prey to the whims and whiles of it’s corporate puppeteers. USA Today has a certain slant. It tends to be more conservative and to the right than would be considered balanced. But it sells papers. It’s Gannet’s jewel, and it’s a formula that has worked for them. Thus, all Gannet publications follow the steps of their corporate leader. So of course the Town Talk is also a bit slanted to the right.

    Is that wrong — not necessarily. And, as long as that’s common knowledge, readers can take a paper’s viewpoint for what it is. They can know that if the paper’s owners or advertisers don’t like certain topics they will simply be ignored, unreported, or downplayed. It’s business.

    But as Lamar has pointed out above — the business is changing. It’s the change in Journalism that the journalists aren’t liking. The internet and the blogosphere have for the first time provided a check to editorial direction. Calling for checks and balances in government has been a staple of newspapers since their modern establishment. Could it be that their ire toward bloggers is simply that they don’t like anyone checking their balance?

    Newspapers and TV News now have to deal with the reality that if they choose not to report a story, that someone else — possibly many some elses they don’t even know — will report it in their place. That’s a change, and possibly the one change in journalism that traditional outlets have brought upon themselves.

  4. Community Radio in central Louisiana?

    “This October, the Federal Communications Commission will open a one-week window, during which nonprofit community groups in the U.S. can file applications for their own noncommercial broadcast license. A coalition called Radio For People has formed to help groups through the application process.

    It’s definitely not prohibitively expensive to apply for these licenses. If you were to buy a noncommercial radio station in most places in the country, it would cost you millions of dollars. The FCC is handing out these licenses for free. The only associated costs are hiring an engineer and a lawyer to fill out your application for you and then, of course, the cost of building the station, which can run you between $20,000 and $200,000, depending on the size of the station.

    There’s a new point system that the FCC is using for one of the first times this October, and it’s much better than the system they had before. It does favor local groups (nonprofit), and it favors groups that don’t already own a radio station in a given market. So for groups that are facing competition from other applicants, they’ll go through that point system, and it will be to their advantage to be at least a two-year-old organization that’s headquartered in the community of license of the radio station.

    Don’t be intimidated by the complicated nature of this process. That’s what groups like Pacifica and Prometheus and Common Frequency and the rest of the Radio for People Coalition are here for. We are here to help community groups sort through the application and fill it out properly, so that they can get their own community radio station. All it takes is the desire, the inspiration and the willingness to act quickly, because this opportunity is coming up fast.

    This is a once in a generation opportunity for community groups in this country to get full-power FM stations. We don’t know if it will be happening again.

    And those who want to get more information on how they can get involved or go through the application process, who do they contact? They can contact Pacifica. They can contact Prometheus. There’s two great websites they can go to to get started. One of them is http://www.radioforpeople.org The other is http://www.getradio.org.”

    The above is from the Friday, August 10 transcript of Democracy Now (www.democracynow.org).

    While I realize this thread is on blogging, I am curious if the prospect of community radio for central Louisiana has piqued anyone’s interest . . . besides my own.

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