March 28, 2009

On Shoe Leather

High-tech tools are great for modern reporting. I love ’em. There’s much you can do with a computer that could not be done just 30 years ago.

But it’s never a good idea to give up on certain basic tools just because the you have new tools. A nail driver is nice, but that doesn’t mean you should toss out your hammer.

Sadly, shoes have become the forgotten tool of journalism. Try as I might, I have a damned difficult time getting my students to see that shoes can get them stories that computers cannot. They hear me say often in class: “Go downtown and talk to people.” I have to remind them that, yes, I mean actually go there in person and actually walk up to people in person and actually start talking to them in person.

But why should they listen to me? All they have to do is what I did this morning to see that shoe leather apparently matters little in today’s journalism. I opened TweetDeck and followed a Twitter link to a blog post about how “some” White House reporters found Obama’s high-tech town hall meeting boring.

Some pseudo-events are boring. Big deal.

My suggestion to mitigate boredom: Get the hell out of the White House (or any other place where reality is preempted by pseudo-events). Just walk away. Walk — on your two feet. If you find the president’s wonkishness boring, then go talk to the people affected by his policies. You know — real people, the kind who are not on TV.

I’m willing to bet real people scare these “pros” as much as they scare my students.

March 27, 2009

Replacing Local News

So the problem is this: If local a newspaper dies, what will replace the lost coverage? Jay Rosen asks an interesting, preceding question:  What are local papers producing now that will need to be replaced:

Once we know in a ballpark way what the newspaper journalism, replacement level is, we at least know how far we have to go in realizing some comparable framework for a new system. (An even harder problem: how do you get the news to the people the print edition once reached if it comes to the point where you do have to replace the newspaper? First step: how many news stories were those people getting?)

That’s where you come in. You’re here to help.

Enter in the comments:

I’m taking option #2: blog about it and leave a link in the comments at Idea Lab. Here’s the form:

  • Your hometown: Springfield, Missouri
  • The name of your newspaper: Springfield News-Leader (Gannett)
  • The url for its website: http://www.news-leader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/frontpage
  • Number of locally-produced NEWS stories for which original reporting is required, including business and features and news sections: 7
  • Number of locally-produced SPORTS stories: 2
  • Date and day of the week that you counted: Friday, 27 March 2009

This exercise necessarily leaves out much of what a newspaper does everyday. But the focus here is on original reporting — the very thing that is supposed to separate professional journalists from the rest of us.

March 26, 2009

Passing the Torch (and Pitchfork)

Long-time readers of Rhetorica may remember a time when a group of bloggers would meet for beers at the Patton Alley Pub. We called ourselves the Springfield Bloggers. And I often posted podcasts of our “meetings.” The agenda was always the same: drink and adjourn.

About a year ago that era ended. Bloggers just stopped showing up for meetings. But the blogging community in Springfield was growing in numbers and influence. Those of us who met to drink, I suppose, represented an old guard (many of us were certainly old, anyway).

Well, the torch and pitchfork have been passed to a new generation. Thanks to the efforts of Sarah Jo Austin (with encouragement from a few of the old farts), she has now planted the seed for a Springfield Bloggers Association.

Next meeting: Tuesday, April 14, at 7:00 p.m. at Patton Alley Pub.

Springfield is home to many serious and excellent blogs written by intelligent and dynamic people. With the troubles in the old MSM (and at some of our local news organizations), a Springfield Bloggers Association could become an important player in providing news, information, commentary, and entertainment to Springfield.

The point here is not that we’re going all serious on you. The point is that the number of bloggers in Springfield has exploded, so the old model of “drink and adjourn” no longer applies (nor is it attractive to some people). There will be room for everyone. And you can take it as seriously as you please.

If you are a blogger in the greater Springfield area, go to the new SGF Blogs website, and fill out the Submit Your Blog form.

See you on April 14th.

[Note to fellow bloggers in Springfield: Your links will return soon to Rhetorica. I am creating a separate page for them, and I will place the link high on the sidebar.]

March 20, 2009

I Prefer to Look

Facing the future is better than sticking your head in a hole or wishing for a return to the past. Xark! today offers to yank you’re head up and prop open your eyes with an interesting and cogent exercise in predicting the future of news.

The future is always a wait-and-see proposition. And the point of proper prediction is not to be right but to be thinking ahead of the future’s arrival. We get plenty to think about in this list of predictions.

I want to highlight one I find particularly interesting:

Predictive Intelligence. Modern journalism is based on the idea that impartially telling “both sides” of a story is more useful than “taking sides.” This approach has limited value in an information-rich environment where the goal is finding the signal in the noise. Credibility, therefore, is likely to move toward information sources that demonstrate their understanding of events and situations via predictive accuracy rather than claims of non-predictive objectivity.

Notice this folds in on what Dan Conover is doing here. He’s thinking about the future (because he must). He’s making predictions (something any scientist does). And we’ll know soon enough if some of what he’s saying comes to pass (predictive success). He should then reap some reward of credibility for this effort.

Part of what is changing in the current media meltdown is the concept of credibility. The objective stance of journalism (arbiter of the known) evolved in the age of journalism as lecture. That age died. Lecture-based news products are now dying.

The new media have been teaching a generation that they have the right to talk back to and to enter into a conversation with journalism. Further, members of this new generation understand themselves to be content producers. They are, frankly, uninterested in media that do not allow them to talk back, produce, and consume as they please.

News as conversation will operate with radically different understandings of what constitutes credibility. And I’ve gotta tell ya, I think “predictive accuracy” is a damned good standard. What might other standards be? Hmmmm… an interesting area in which to think and make predictions.

Predictive accuracy does not push out “truth” or factual accuracy. It relies on factual accuracy. Try predicting anything without having your facts straight. Good luck with that.

Predictive accuracy will require a greater sense of information, knowledge, and wisdom. It will demand a greater sense of irony, critical theory, and culture. Predictive accuracy will demand we be smarter, i.e. predictive intelligence.

The old MSM (television in particular) is the last bastion of predictive inaccuracy — a place where you can be wrong most of the time (in some cases spectacularly so) and still keep your job. The delicious irony here is that it is exactly the objective stance that protects predictive inaccuracy by privileging the idea that there are “two sides” to every story and reporters should not judge between them. Powerful civic actors and media actors (i.e. pundits) can hide their ideologically-driven nonsense behind claims of “my opinion” because old-school journalists will pass along their nonsense (i.e. stenography), sometimes without the slightest fact-check.

Imagine a world in which some these people (politicians, pundits, journalists, actors, etc.) would actually have to go slinking away when it is demonstrated how wrong they are and how they were wrong.

March 19, 2009

Paper in Hand

It’s always good to get it in writing. And that paper has arrived. I have achieved tenure and promotion at Missouri State University (pending approval by the Board of Governors). Rhetorica has played an important role in this achievement by offering me a popular outlet for my thinking, a good place to float ideas and mull them over publicly. Thanks to all my readers for helping make this journey interesting, fun, and productive.

Let the merriment begin!

March 16, 2009

Why It’s Not Cramer’s Fault

Robert Bianco, of USA Today, has some advice for Jim Cramer, re: his less-than-confidence-inspiring performance last week on The Daily Show:

1. Choose your friends wisely.

2. Know your enemy

3. Know when to shut up.

Actually, this is just good advice all around. It’s soild enough regarding Jon Stewart’s intellectual mugging of a hapless and ill-prepared Cramer.

Bianco opens with the statement: “You’d think people on TV would have a better idea of how it works.” And adds later on:

Well, despite what you may have heard from the lazily cynical, all publicity is not good publicity — particularly not when respect is your stock in trade. No one expects Cramer to be an expert in media relations, but when you appear this publicly clueless in one area, it makes people wonder how far that cluelessness extends.

I’m thinking Bianco is making a bad assumption here. First, I would ask: What is Cramer’s stock in trade? I’m not sure Bianco has an accurate handle on this. He seems to be assuming that Cramer and his ilk begin the day with some sort of general respect as financial journalists, or at least respect as dealers of important economic information. I think that’s wrong. Jim Cramer is an entertainer with a financial resume.

You see television has made entertainment out of nearly everything. Why should financial news be any different?

(Jon Stewart has made media criticism entertaining by using satire — a time-honored rhetorical technique of serious critique. I would argue that he’s more serious about his topic than Cramer is about his. Or, perhaps, more honest. Or, perhaps, more skilled. Or, perhaps, all of that and more besides.)

Cramer went on all those shows — Morning Joe, Martha Stewart, etc. — because that’s what an entertainer does. He promised Stewart to “do better.” (I’ll pause while you laugh your kiester off.) Think about Cramer’s show — all the literal bells and whistles. Now think about, say, the Wall Street Journal. See any similarities?

Of course you don’t (well, maybe I better be a leeeetle more careful with that implication).

Cramer’s performance had little to do with cluelessness and more to do with bad kairos in the wrong rhetorical situation. One might argue that that is a form cluelessness. I won’t bicker about it. While Bianco’s advice would surely have helped avoid a well-deserved take-down at the hands of Jon Stewart, it really does nothing at all for his larger problem, which is that CNBC has turned financial news into entertainment.

March 13, 2009

My Hot Buttons Pushed

I was not disappointed. Jon Stewart hit all my hot buttons last night in his “interview” with Jim Cramer of CNBC — especially the one about the proper stance of news organizations to sources and news makers. Stewart: “Who are you responsible to?” Answer for true journalists: The public. If we didn’t know it before this week, we know now that CNBC is not a news organization. Oh, and my hot button called a discipline of verification? He hit that one, too.

Because, as the authors of Xark! believe, there are no unrelated topics, here are two more interesting things to consider today:

1. High School Journos Take All-platform Plunge. Some news organizations need to pay for the college educations of Josiah Jones and some of his colleagues and then hire them upon graduation. That is assuming that won’t be too late. And if it is, well, these kids will simply build something of their own.

2. The Community Free Press is dumping its sports section in favor of an education section, according to editor Chris Wrinkle. I like this move (re: what I said the other day). Perhaps they can hire Jones to re-work the web site, which unfortunately sets new standards for putzy, e.g. I am unable to find the editor’s column in order to link to it.

For commentary on Cramer v. Stewart, check Romenesko. I especially liked this:

But what a remarkable public service the Comedy Central comedian performed in gutting Cramer, CNBC and parts of the business news press corps before millions of viewers. And this on a half-hour cable comedy TV show.

This event will make an interesting case study in rhetorical situation, kairos, and the appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos. What I’m wondering now: Did it work? Did journalism hear (and not just business journalism)? Will anything change?

Wait and see.

March 12, 2009

Apocalypse Now

Two stories deserve your attention today:

As Cities Go From Two Papers to One, Talk of Zero

CNBC’s Cramer to spar with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart is, according to former students in my media ethics class, a “medialitical infotainer,” i.e. someone who uses satire to deliver entertaining analysis of media and politics. I think that’s an accurate term. I have claimed that Stewart offers the best media criticism on television. His recent, and continued, take-down of CNBC points out things that should trouble us about the current state of journalism as delivered by cable TV.

Stewart is also doing an important job that journalism has completely abandoned: Keeping tabs on the ethical standards of news organizations. The irony, of course, is that a medialitical infotainer operates with an entirely different set of ethical standards compared to journalism. So while Stewart’s analyses are as cogent as they are biting and funny, he might not be commanding the kind of attention and respect that, say, The New York Times would command if it covered the very legitimate story of the excesses at CNBC.

News organizations should be covering the ethical and professional transgressions of other news organizations as a beat, as a routine part of news gathering.

But they don’t. They leave that job to the easily-dismissed, e.g. bloggers and ranters of widely varying talents and intents. Hmmmmm… Except for Stewart. He’s of a different kind. And tonight we might get to see just how seriously the media world takes him (which will depend partly on what he decides to do or how seriously he decides to take this) .

But remember, last night Stewart cautioned that tonight’s climax of the “War Of Words” is likely to disappoint.

Thanks for the dose of reality, Jon. Thanks for the reminder that it isn’t your responsibility to do the job that journalism should be doing for itself.

March 11, 2009

The Primary Purpose

I’ve quoted this dozens of times: The primary purpose of journalism is to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. I believe this. I act “as if” in my teaching in regard to it. And I know that journalism as currently practiced by the corporate model fails far more than it should to fulfill this purpose.

Along comes an interesting quote from a discussion between Jim O’Shea, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Russ Stanton, current editor of the Times. This is O’Shea speaking (the man fired for “resisting staff cuts”):

You know, people have to understand something: newspapers are a manufacturing industry. And there’s just, at some point, you’re gonna cut it to the point where you won’t be able to get the thing out the door because you don’t have enough employees. And they’re getting dangerously close to that point right now, and I think that people like Russ have to struggle with that everyday. And it’s quite a struggle, but I think you’re getting to a point where, you know, newspapers are going to be a different industry, and they aren’t going to be able to produce the news that’s vital to a democracy if this continues.

If by “different industry” he means newspapers will struggle to publish under something like the current corporate model but with somehow different content, then I think he’s right. But I’m particularly interested in his final assertion because he appears to be operating with an important assumption: That the standard corporate model cannot meet the primary purpose of journalism. I agree.

I cannot say if it is still possible to meet the primary purpose with a standard corporate business model. I only know that it seems unlikely to be sustainable given the evidence of the past 30 years. I wonder, however, if a different product — of a kind that could meet the primary purpose —  could be produced by the old industry through staff cuts. Let’s describe it this way:

1. No sports.

2. No movie reviews, TV listings, or celebrity gossip.

3. No puff features.

4. No comics.

5. No syndicated entertainment columns and features.

6. No special advertising sections.

7. No zoned editions.

I’m sure I could add much more to this list, but you get the idea. What if a newspaper were a vehicle for the kind of news that fits the primary purpose and only the primary purpose? How big would it be? How often would/should it be published? Would it stand alone as a business or be connected to some other type of organization (university, non-profit, etc.)?

What would happen to any given newspaper currently in deep financial trouble if the publisher decided to cut on the basis of journalism’s primary purpose, i.e. to protect that above all else (on the business assumption that important, serious news reporting is a product one can sell)?

I don’t know the answer. It may actually be too late. The damage corporate ownership has caused may be too severe.

I do know this: If people need a certain kind of information to be free and self-governing, then they will find a way to get it or produce it for themselves.

March 10, 2009

Changes, They Be Happenin’

KSMU recently interviewed me for its Missouri State Journal program. Topic: Changes in the news media.

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