James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘Web’

Obamatech: the presidential radio address & the presidential ride

Posted by James McPherson on November 14, 2008

A few days ago I noted that Barack Obama had used the Internet better than any candidate before him. In the comments section, reporter and fellow blogger Jeremy Styron wrote that Obama might take his weekly presidential radio address to the Web (thanks, Jeremy). I noted then that the address also could be posted on YouTube.

That is indeed the case, according to a Washington Post story by Jose Antonio Vargas, who also points out: “President Bush, too, has updated WhiteHouse.gov, which offers RSS feeds, podcasts and videos of press briefings. The site’s Ask the White House page has featured regular online chats dating back to 2003, and President Bush hosted one in January after a Middle Eastern trip.” Who knew?

Regardless of the Bush technology advances, Obama is likely to use the Internet to help govern in ways never seen before, even if it doesn’t reach the level of “the Internet-era version of President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous ‘fireside chats’ between 1933 and 1944.” On the other hand, with a new Great Depression perhaps starting, those who can still afford high-speed Internet connections may get some of the same reassurance from Obama that FDR gave people gathered around their radios.

Maybe Obama will even be able to broadcast from the new presidential limo–especially if it’s parked next to the White House because there’s no fuel to run it. I wonder if he’ll get the new car if Congressal Democrats fail next week to bail out General Motors.

Posted in History, Journalism, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Literary journalism follow-up

Posted by James McPherson on August 17, 2008

In response to my posts of Thursday and Friday, I received an e-mail from Norman Sims–who may know more about literary journalism than anyone else alive, saying I got it “pretty right” with my discussion (thanks, Norm).

Sims did note, however: “The only thing I would add is that books and magazines have the ability to pay literary journalists for the months and years of reporting that they put into a project.  Blogs and the Web so far do not have the financial power to reward the writers.”

He’s right, of course. That’s why I think that existing magazines (such as Time or Newsweek) have the best chance of engaging in the kind of literary journalism I recommended, spreading a lengthy in-depth story over several sections or chapters for a period of several days or weeks. One problem potential problem is that too many news organizations still treat their Web operations like abused stepchildren, separate and inferior to the printed product, and allocate resources accordingly.

Readers do the same, to some degree, which is part of the reason that books (even those written by the likes of Jerome Corsi) have more credibility than other media for many folks. The fact that anyone can create a blog, and because so many Internet sources are blatantly false and/or partisan, adds to the problem.

But it seems to me that a news organization with established credibility–and with enough money to back the experiment–might use a new literary journalism format to further enhance its own journalistic reputation and the reputation of Web journalism, while providing a great service to readers in terms of both style and substance.

Posted in Journalism, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part II)

Posted by James McPherson on August 15, 2008

As I noted with yesterday’s post, one of the most interesting things I got out of a conversation at last week’s Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication convention, combined with some other tidbits of information, was the idea that blogging might actually “save” the 1960s-style literary journalism, which has faded significantly from the types of magazines that most Americans actually read.

Literary journalism isn’t dead, of course, and may be doing better overseas than in the U.S. Just this week I got an e-mail promoting a new international academic journal titled Literary Journalism Studies, sponsored by the sponsored by the two-year-old International Association for Literary Journalism Studies. But this style of journalism (in-depth journalism with a point of view, in which the author is obviously involved) seems today to often be a result of an individual (perhaps not a “journalist,” but instead someone like a political insider) becoming involved incidentally, though his/her work rather than the result of an avowed journalist plunging into the issue. The result may be informative, but it typically isn’t “literary.” Those of us who appreciate good writing know that sometimes poetry offers more truth than statistics can hope to convey. The best literary journalism feels more like the former, while encompassing both.

Back to my conversation, which was with Norman Sims, the author of True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism and the editor of a couple of literary journalism anthologies. He noted that most of today’s good literary journalism came from books, though after I complained about the lack of such fiction in magazines he commented that some good work could still be found in magazines, citing Esquire as an example.

While I don’t disagree with Sims’ assessment, to me his example is the exception that proves the rule, demonstrating a problem with modern literary journalism. Most people (including me) typically won’t wade through the male equivalent of Vogue in search of journalistic enlightenment. The problem is similar to one I noted several years ago with magazine fiction: Some of the best short stories could be found in Redbook and Playboy, but as a male faculty member at a Christian university (and a rare member of a women’s studies program who has moral qualms about both of those publications) I am unlikely to find and read those stories.

When I asked Sims what he thought of the prospect of the Web enhancing literary journalism options, he expressed doubt. Most magazines and newspapers, he pointed out, are too often unwilling to go beyond two or three Internet screens, “and that’s too short,” he said.

True enough. But the very next day I happened to attend a luncheon intended in part to promote J-Lab, which just moved to American University and calls itself “the Institute for Interactive Journalism.” Its mission is to help “news organizations and citizens use new information ideas and innovative computer technologies to develop new ways for people to engage in critical public policy issues.” For many people at the luncheon, the means of engagement seems to begin (and perhaps end) with blogging. But as I’ve noted previously, everybody seems to be blogging, while most blogs are exercises in vanity and self-delusion.

Unrelated to blogs, but very relevant to modern journalism, was the recommendation (from Howard Owens of “content provider” GateHouse Media) to “print what you know, when you know it.” He was talking about breaking news, of course, and some of us who recognize how often journalists get the first reports wrong cringed a bit (though Owens cautioned about speculation on the part of reporters). Still, the comment reminded me that modern media users don’t “read” media–especially online–the way they once did.

Muckraking magazines once ran thorough investigative series over many issues. For example, Ida Tarbell (one of my heros) wrote am 18-part expose’ of Standard Oil–based on more than FOUR YEARS of research–for McClure’s. Lincoln Steffens wrote separate articles for the same magazine about corruption in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Will Irwin produced a scathing critique of journalism, titled “The American Newspaper,” spread over 14 or 15 articles, for Collier’s magazine.

Presenting information in small pieces may be what the Web does best. Not coincidentally, gathering small pieces from here and there is how modern news junkies “read” the news. Sims and newspaper publishers may be right that most readers won’t go beyond two or three screens. But why should they, given their current options?

It seems to me that a savvy producer of literary journalism might produce a site in which the story is spread out over many pieces. That would let readers read the story in bits, as if reading chapters, reflecting on the pieces, rather than trying to gorge on the whole thing (or, more typically, ignoring it and looking for a book review summary or two). Good writing–the kind that is the hallmark of literary journalism–would bring them back for the next segment, and the next, and the next. An existing popular magazine might use the strategy only on its Web site, bringing visitors back more often, while running a summary in the magazine itself.

Done right, such a site might produce a “new journalism” that would combine meaningful in-depth information with more interesting writing than most Americans typically encounter–a kind of journalism that might even make Ida Tarbell proud.

Posted in History, Journalism, Poetry | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Literary journalism & the Web: the newest “new journalism”? (Part I)

Posted by James McPherson on August 14, 2008

The print version of a recent Columbia Journalism Review article is subtitled, “A new kind of journalism takes root in a struggling Detroit neighborhood.” An interesting aside is the fact that the online version is titled “Crossing Lines” while the print version uses “Drawing Lines,” but the key point remains: that a Detroit News blog is going beyond tradition journalism to improve an impoverished Detroit neighborhood. In the words of CJR’s writer: They “aren’t just reporting the neighborhood’s story. They’re affecting the story. In some ways, they are the story.” (emphasis in original)

The activism draws criticism from even among others at the News, who worry that it compromises the newspaper’s credibility. The concern is worth consideration, complicated by the proliferation of blogs coming from news organizations throughout the country. But the fact is, for most of those organizations, credibility in a traditional sense is pretty much a lost cause for a couple of reasons. First, if “credibility” is code for “objectivity,” there’s no such thing as an objective reporter (or historian, or teacher). Second, Americans like the news media in general just a bit more than they like George W. Bush or Congress.

Journalism is changing, as it always has. The term “New Journalism” has been used most prominently with the journalism of the 1880s and 1890s and then again with the literary journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, but has also been applied to the Penny Press of the 1830s and the civic journalism movement of the late 20th century. “New” just keeps happening.

Besides, campaigns by newspapers are far from new. Newspapers have always advocated for issues they saw as being for the civic good (even if far too often their biases corresponded with the desires of the Chamber of Commerce). My own local daily, the Spokesman-Review, recently devoted an entire month of front-page attention to the issue of child abuse, and its own annual Christmas fund is front-page news every day from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas.

We know that bloggers are changing news, even if–as recently reported by a Poynter Institute columnist and others–the most popular blogs tend to look and act much like mainstream news organizations. That shift worries people on both sides, though a careful reader could be much better informed about issues by relying only on blogs than on a local newspaper or–God forbid–television news.

One of the most interesting things I got out of last week’s Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication convention was a discussion that–combined with the CJR article (which I read on the train on the way home from AEJMC) and some other tidbits of information–prompted the idea that blogging might actually “save” the 1960s-style literary journalism, which has faded significantly from the types of magazines that most Americans actually read. More on that in an upcoming post.

Posted in History, Journalism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

WOW! Young people access news differently than grandparents

Posted by James McPherson on June 2, 2008

Surprise, surprise, surprise–“The news consumption of younger readers differs profoundly from that of of previous generations,” notes Fox News reporting on the results of a survey apparently done by a research firm on behalf of the Associated Press. The story (from today, not from 10 years ago as might be expected from the “news” value) reports that the project “analyzed the news consumption patterns of an ethnically diverse group of 18 men and women in six cities between the ages of 18 and 34 in the United States, Britain and India.” Near the end of the article we learn that the repondents came from four U.S. area (Houston, Philadelphia, Kansas City and the Silicon Valley), Brighton, Britain, and Hyderabad, India. Why those locations were chosen isn’t clear–perhaps those are locations where the researcher had MySpace friends.

According to the Fox story (titled “Young Adults Hit by ‘News Fatigue,’ Study Finds”), the results were to be presented in a 71-page report “to media executives and editors from around the globe at at the World Editors Forum in Goteburg, southwestern Sweden.” What, the execs don’t have e-mail?

And pardon me, but EIGHTEEN people? I probably can do a more comprehensive survey than from one class at any major university in the country. And though we don’t know what AP paid, I’d probably do it cheaper than the Context-Based Research Group, a company formed less than a decade ago “to help marketers and product designers do better work through the power of ethnography.” By the way, this is ethnography without all the time and effort required through traditional research: “Context clients don’t have the luxury of spending years in the field, as traditional ethnographers do. We’ve developed a series of rapid information gathering techniques we call upon to make the most of every second we spend with a participant–to go deep, fast.”

The company’s husband-and-wife leaders apparently both did graduate research with the Sokamin hunter-gatherer community in Papua, New Guinea (no word on Sokamin use of the Internet for news content). Context also has a page listing various articles citing its research, producing such deep and/or fast quotes as, “People are slowly coming up with new ways of thinking about thin” (about technology); “Novelty is driving the market for virtual gifts and goods” about virtual gift-giving); and, “When people have kids, they want them to fit into their idea of who they are, of the identity they’ve carved out for themselves. ‘If I drive a BMW, my child has to have a Bugaboo stroller, etc.'” (about high-end baby haulers).

Actually I see why marketers rely on ethnographic research–it can mean big money, as “Frontline” documented in “The Merchants of Cool.” “The new core competency is ethnography,” BusinessWeek reports, while the Economist notes, that “corporate anthropology is now mainstream.”

But isn’t the Associated Press made up of news people, who might have been able to report the obvious on their own? Or AP could have just watched the Kansas State video I’ve shared previously–after all, it includes the feedback of two hundred young people, and reports such things as “I will read eight books this year … 2300 Web pages & 1281 FaceBook profiles.” Also, “I will write 42 pages for class this semester … and over 500 pages of email,” and “I spend 1 1/2 hours watching TV each night … I spend 3 1/2 hours a day online.” The students also added many other things that go into their day, totalling 26.5 hours per day, reflecting their ability to multitask. And of course the students did the estimates themselves, so some of the figures may be off a bit–but they paint a pretty good picture of the obvious conclusion arrived at by the Context researchers, which is that “participants were unable to give full attention to the news because they were almost always simultaneously engaged in other activities, such as reading e-mail. That represents a shift from previous consumption models in which people sat down to watch the evening news or read the morning paper.”

In truth, there was another key finding (which I reported here a few weeks ago, based on a single-class-period survey of one of my classes): “Participants yearned for quality and in-depth reporting but had difficulty immediately accessing such content because they were bombarded by facts and updates in headlines and snippets of news.” My students said, “The media should seek out and provide more contextual background information and critical reporting–that is … and engage in less speculation and infotainment.”

The Context recommendation? “The authors recommended that news producers develop easier ways for readers to discover in-depth content and to avoid repetitious updates of breaking news.” That has seemed obvious to a lot of us for a long time. But now that AP has paid for the information, maybe they’ll use it.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »