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flatlander: Journalism’s "New Wild West"

Austin Richardson
Vail CO, Colorado

CYBERSPACE ” The landscape of media is changing rapidly.

That was the topic of the final installment of the Hot Topic lecture series hosted by the Vail Symposium held at Red Sky Ranch on Monday, Aug. 21.

Presenters Deanna Lee and Judy Muller shared some of their insight with a crowd of contributors, cameramen and fellow members of the press. Both Muller and Lee are highly decorated journalists. Lee won eight Emmy Awards for her work as a producer for both ABC and PBS. Muller is best known for her work on the O.J. trial, L.A. riots and earthquake with CBS and ABC. Muller continues as a contributor for NPR and is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

Instead of mountains of media stalwarts whom you can trust, media’s “New Wild West” instead has a bunch of people on the ‘net posting whatever people will look at. And come back to over and over again throughout the day. Oh yes, that’s good for ratings (advertisers).

But there’s a catch. News viewers on the Internet are much more skeptical of sources now, relying instead on several different sources for their news. Also, in our new, immediate arena of online news viewing, there are more chances than ever to comment on stories and question sourcing and motive on stories.

The age of the blogger is upon us and now that the cat’s out of the bag, sourcing and verification are more important than ever. Sure, facts are facts are facts, but online viewers of news are more shrewd and skeptical in nature. This is good for professional journalists, for weeding out the ill-sourced is what being an editor is all about.

It was once thought that the advent of the desktop computer (complete with a high speed connection) would signal the demise of the traditional newspaper. This fear came and went, but not without some residual paranoia.

Publishers see newspaper readership being diminished by the Internet and are reacting. Unfortunately, the initial reaction is to maximize profits in the wake of fewer eyes on their papers. Raising profits means minimizing expenses. And all journalists understand that the talent is the first to go. Not good, say the experts. For minimizing staffs results in less coverage and therefore the product suffers. Poor product doesn’t sell advertising, further reducing profits. It’s a vicious cycle, but one all good journalists realize and despise.

Newspaper publishers are witnessing revenues decline and are now towing the line in regard to profits. This comes with the territory when making decisions on behalf of publicly held companies, now having to demonstrate the viability of each property on a quarterly basis. Scary stuff to journalists who got into the business to help people.

It’s been the common cry of all capital “J” journos that what they do matters quite a bit. Well, yes and no. In our “feed me now” culture, journalists are at the whim of editors who feel pressure from a pay grade above them (publishers). This means “the man” wants interesting stories to get more eyeballs on the product. One of the quirks of web-based advertising is that it’s demonstrable (big word for “you can demonstrate it”). Quite simply, publishers can now determine where Internet readers are coming from, when they look at a particular site, how long they stay there and where they navigate within the site.

Wow. A demographics bonanza. That kind of data used to take all kinds of weird “Clockwork Orange” machines to determine. “Eyetracking” data is always sketchy. The “experts” would like to think they know what consumers are thinking, but they don’t. Tracking an eyeball and how long it stays in one place is cool, but it’s that comprehension and retention factor that’s nebulous. They’ve got an idea, but as for fact, the jury’s still out.

Nowadays, “gathering metrics” is up to some geniuses in a back room full of servers and wires making spreadsheets about Google’s algorithms. Their voodoo is figuring out how to trick the industry standard’s search engine ranking systems. It’s a solid tech job for former teenage hackers and 40 year-old gamers who’s prime motivators are Starbucks, jokes about fractals and which is better: Marvel, DC or Darkhorse?

The data is there now, it’s how the money folks read it that matters. And trust me, they will all tell each other that these are “facts.” Cold, hard facts with which we’ll determine whether or not that fresh-faced J-school grad will either get an entry level job or the grizzled newsroom veteran gets canned because he’s costing the company too much by way of psychotherapy bills and anti-ulcer medication.

The upshot of the “New Wild West” of media is that now, newspapers can compete with television stations. In the “old days” television and radio blatantly poached stories from the paper. Newspaper folks think they hold themselves to a higher standard, because they know their products are being “retasked.” It’s the same now with the Associated Press. Folks who hawk websites all day see the same stories on the evening news.

The 24-hour news cycle means more competition. But technology isn’t a wet blanket on news. Now, anyone with a camera, voice recorder and a Website is a journalist. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and the news will be safely in the hands of professional journalists. Yeah, right.

Austin Richardson is the flatlander. He’s affable at best, sour and caustic at worst. Contact him at arichardson@vaildaily.com


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