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b’more & the local news

Next American City just posted a quick review I wrote about a recent Project for the Excellence in Journalism report on the local news media in Baltimore. You can check out my post here. (Thanks to NAC for the nifty picture to the left, btw…)

The PEJ report is an interesting piece of work. Basically, it is a very ambitious attempt at taking a week-long holistic cross-section of all the local news media in Baltimore. It has limitations, outlined in a couple detailed blog posts a commenter referenced on NAC, but it’s still a useful piece of work. Put simply, for all the opinionating done by old- and new-media folks about the fate of local news, nobody ever takes the time to do real, empirical research. At least, that’s what I’ve been saying for years now…and now PEJ has at least tried to do so. I have to admit, I’m a little peeved – the PEJ report sort of steals some of my dissertation (and very, very slowly impending publication) thunder. This article – drawn from my dissertation and now in press with Information, Communication & Society – is sort of my take on the same ground that PEJ is covering, but in Philadelphia. My assessment of new media is a little more sanguine…

just a general nerd

Yesterday, as I rode the shuttle from Princeton’s campus to the main train station, I noticed the gentleman next to me start a crossword puzzle. I ignored him & continued reading…but after about 5 minutes of the ride, I glanced over.

Reaction #1: Hey, wow, that guy’s making good progress.

Reaction #2: Hmm – it’s a New York times puzzle those are hard.

Reaction #3: People around here are so smart! Shucks!

Reaction #4: Oh, wait, it’s Tuesday – NYT puzzles on Tuesday aren’t that hard. I’m not impressed anymore. Any dolt knows that ‘mint’ is a 4-letter answer for ‘breath freshener.’

Reaction #5: I can’t believe I just downgraded a stranger’s intelligence based upon the presumed difficulty of a crossword puzzle – and that I had a logical rationale for doing so. I need to make better use of my time. (You know, by blogging. Duh.)

another look at (simulated) local news

I’ve got a post that went up today over at Next American City that returns to the discussion of national news outlets targeting local media markets. I wrote about this before, focusing directly on the New York Times foray into Chicago and SF. This time, I’ve broadened the scope to include the Wall Street Journal and, more notably, ESPN. The gist of the piece is that folks in local media ought to be afraid of ESPN. Very afraid. Over the years, ESPN has succeeded in almost every initiative it’s undertaken: they’re good up there in Bristol. And, local sports coverage is really at the heart of what local media has to offer these days: nobody else can cover the home team like the home paper, right? Anyways, take a look at the NAC website for more…

Ask a Media Nerd

So, over the holidays a friend, and perhaps my only loyal reader, emailed me some questions about the modern media environment. I was hooked. I mean, it took me two weeks to struggle out of my vacation stupor to respond, but, here it is: the first edition of Ask a Media Nerd!

Quick backstory: my friend is an urban planner by trade who works at a foundation & was recently elected to city council where she lives, in the biggest town in a county of about 250,000 in the southeast United States. Below, I’m responding to my interpretation of two questions she asked (you’ll see my summary of the question followed by her descriptive query). Question 1: How do you reach scattered audiences? Question 2: As an elected official, how can I reach my constituents? Read more ›


2 Quick thoughts:

1. I’m reading a new book – published in 2009 – that capitalizes the word ‘internet.’ We don’t capitalize ‘radio’ or ‘television’ – can we all agree that it’s time to stop capitalizing internet? Even now, my WordPress spell checker is going nuts, telling me that internet needs, desperately needs, a capital i…

2. The NYT has its traditional ‘remember the neediest’ holiday message above its masthead right now. Updated for the digital age, it’s a hyperlink. I couldn’t help myself – I checked to see if it was a link to their subscription page…

what’s lost when audiences diffuse

One of my professors at Penn, Elihu Katz, had a very interesting opportunity during his career. In the late 1960s, Katz was already an esteemed professor at Chicago when Israel asked him to lead the rollout of broadcast TV in that country. Though TV was obviously invented decades earlier and was a cultural phenomenon in the US 20 years earlier, Israel had resisted introducing the medium. (I’m not sure exactly why they waited, but I suppose you could dig around online and find out…) At any rate, by the close of the 60s enough TV was bleeding into the country from outside its borders that the state wanted to take control.

A golden age of TV ensued. In essence, and from my memory of Katz’s description, the initial broadcast environment was dominated by state TV that was carefully programmed to serve society. There was a mix of news and entertainment broadcasting, but there weren’t choices for the audience. By this I mean: there was essentially one channel and if you wanted to watch TV in Israel, you watched what it was showing. (I’m probably simplifying this a bit, pardon my bloggers license.) In other words, when the news was on, everyone watching TV watched the news.

In a way, pre-UHF TV in the US was similar: there were 3 networks/channels that all showed the news at the same time: if you wanted to watch TV at that time, you were watching the news. When 60% of a nation watches your broadcast, you don’t need to worry about having an effect. In Israel, during the early days, after the news hour, suddenly the whole nation had consumed the same slate of information. In the US, even though the 3 newscasts differed some, the general news agenda was about the same & the audience (even of different networks) had an idea of the days’ events. This was the golden age of TV news – and it left some indelible, iconic moments in history. There’s some debate among political scientists about whether or not anybody actually learned anything from this news, but…let’s set that aside for a moment. Presumably, having a population that shares a general foundation for conversation is a good thing because that talk can underpin collective action – something that we encourage in democracies.

Another Katzism (drawn from Tarde): news –> talk –> opinion –> action

Things are different today. On one hand, there’s more news than ever – at least in some ways. On the other hand, lots of this news is commentary and no single news program has a commanding audience. The news – and media – landscape is incredibly fragmented and there is an avalanche of information that washes over all of us….All of which is a long prelude to a question: Does news still serve its social function? Read more ›

evidence of urban history

I like cities & I like history. In particular, I’m a big Philly fan – which makes sense since, as far as American cities go, Philly’s got some history. I also live in Philadelphia, so that’s nice for me. At any rate, I thought I’d quickly put up a couple sets of links that reflect my interest in Philly, cities, and history.

I’m not the first to notice that the internet is a fascinating repository for otherwise forgotten information. In my mind, one of the most amazing examples of a site that capitalizes on lost resources is phillyhistory.org. Somehow, under the auspices of the city government, an innovative, highly functional, treasure-trove of a website exists for collecting, organizing, and displaying historical images of the city. Not only is the collection of pictures great, but the interface and usability of the site is surprisingly well developed. For example, you can easily search the image repository for any intersection or address and locate pictures spanning the decades as buildings go up and down, street cars replace horses and are in turn replaced by cars, and so on. Or, you can search for things such as: pretzels. Do that, and you might find this picture: Read more ›

A failed NYT op-ed

I spent a couple hours last week writing an op-ed that I submitted to the Times with little hope of publication. Supposedly, they receive more than 1000 submissions a week. They only publish around 10 op-eds a week & many/most are invited from big-name folks. Just doing the math – and setting aside the likelihood that many other submissions will be better than my own – the chance of getting published in the NYT is tiny.

That said, the context of tomorrow’s local elections across the country, low turnout in NYC, and the media narrative about the election in NYC made me feel like writing something, so I did. And now, at the close of the third business day since I sent it in, I’m accepting the piece’s fate and posting it here. I’ll probably tweak this someday to fit another paper/context, but for now…

PS. They opted instead to publish this lame piece on…guess what? Bloomberg’s spending.

Overlooking Local Elections

News coverage of the 2009 election in New York has been dominated by the big-ticket item at the top of the ballot: Mayor Bloomberg and his spending. From coverage in the Times we know that Bloomberg has already spent “more of his own money than any other individual in United States history in the pursuit of public office” and more than either Procter & Gamble spent advertising Bounty paper towels or General Mills spent advertising Yoplait Light yogurt in 2008. Amidst the cries of democratic distortion and inequity, the real story about Bloomberg’s spending is how futile – at least in one sense – it is. Certainly, the mayor can expect a safe victory. But what all of Bloomberg’s money and all of Bloomberg’s men cannot do is stimulate a meaningful level of voter turnout. Instead, his mandate will come from a small fraction of New York City’s population because local politics is an afterthought for most Americans. Read more ›

Straying from the discipline…

This morning, the Vancouver Sun published an op-ed that I helped write. The piece is on the state of public education in British Columbia – clearly not my specific expertise. It is, however, my Dad’s professional domain, and he was the co-author. My role was primarily to haggle with him to help make his points clearer & to stop him from saying anything too extreme about social science and the move towards test-based standards in evaluating schools/teachers. Given my background as a quantitatively-oriented social scientist, we often have a fruitful dialogue regarding the merits of such testing and research. It was interesting to think about a different topic for a little bit & I enjoyed collaborating on something that people might actually read!

Admitting that local news might be a (small) niche product

Today, David Carr of the NYT wrote a piece about a long, foundation-funded report on the future of journalism. Nope, not the Knight Commission report I wrote about last week. Another report – this one out of Columbia’s J School & co-authored by eminent communication scholar, Michael Schudson. You need a scorecard for these things…

Anyways, today’s report from Columbia is a little more focused than the Knight report: it’s goal is to save American journalism, not fully tend to the information needs of communities. And, it’s co-written by Schudson, who brings a very nice historical perspective to the table. (I don’t know much about the co-author, Leonard Downie Jr., other than the fact that he was a newspaperman.) Rather than 15 recommendations, this report has 6 – summarized by Carr as:

Tinkering with the tax structure to accommodate nonprofit status for news-gathering organizations, persuading philanthropic foundations to fill the funding gap in more permanent ways, involving universities in news gathering, and opening up databases to make them more useful for both pro and pro-am efforts…

And two more:

Reorienting public radio and television to provide local news, historically not a big interest of public broadcasters…[And the other recommendation that will kick up some dust proclaims that it’s time for government to start funding local news, much in the way it enables the arts, humanities and sciences

Carr’s conclusion neatly echoes the conclusion to the post I wrote for Next American City last week – these are great ideas, but…good luck. Read more ›