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June 28 2013

15:00

This Week in Review: The backlash against Greenwald and Snowden, and RSS’s new wave

glenn-greenwald-cc

Greenwald, journalism, and advocacy: It’s been three weeks since the last review, and a particularly eventful three weeks at that. So this review will cover more than just the last week, but it’ll be weighted toward the most recent stuff. I’ll start with the U.S. National Security Agency spying revelations, covering first the reporter who broke them (Glenn Greenwald), then his source (Edward Snowden), and finally a few brief tech-oriented pieces of the news itself.

Nearly a month since the first stories on U.S. government data-gathering, Greenwald, who runs an opinionated and meticulously reported blog for the Guardian, continues to break news of further electronic surveillance, including widespread online metadata collection by the Obama administration that continues today, despite the official line that it ended in 2011. Greenwald’s been the object of scrutiny himself, with a thorough BuzzFeed profile on his past as an attorney and questions from reporters about old lawsuits, back taxes, and student loan debt.

The rhetoric directed toward Greenwald by other journalists was particularly fierce: The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin said on CNBC he’s “almost arrest” Greenwald (he later apologized), and most notably, NBC’s David Gregory asked Greenwald “to the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden,” why he shouldn’t be charged with a crime. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple refuted Gregory’s line of questioning point-by-point and also examined the legal case for prosecuting Greenwald (there really isn’t one).

There were several other breakdowns of Gregory’s questions as a way of defending himself as a professional journalist by excluding Greenwald as one; of these, NYU professor Jay Rosen’s was the definitive take. The Los Angeles Times’ Benjamin Mueller seconded his point, arguing that by going after Greenwald’s journalistic credentials, “from behind the veil of impartiality, Gregory and his colleagues went to bat for those in power, hiding a dangerous case for tightening the journalistic circle.”

The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm argued that Gregory is endangering himself by defining journalism based on absence of opinion, and The New York Times’ David Carr called for journalists to show some solidarity on behalf of transparency. PaidContent’s Mathew Ingram used the case to argue that the “bloggers vs. journalists” tension remains important, and Greenwald himself said it indicated the incestuous relationship between Washington journalists and those in power.

A few, like Salon’s David Sirota, turned the questions on Gregory, wondering why he shouldn’t be charged with a crime, since he too has disclosed classified information. Or why he should be considered a journalist, given his track record of subservience to politicians, as New York magazine’s Frank Rich argued.

Earlier, Rosen had attempted to mediate some of the criticism of Greenwald by arguing that there are two valid ways of approaching journalism — with or without politics — that are both necessary for a strong press. Former newspaper editor John L. Robinson added a call for passion in journalism, while CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi both went further and argued that all journalism is advocacy.

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Snowden and leaking in public: The other major figure in the aftermath of this story has been Edward Snowden, the employee of a national security contractor who leaked the NSA information to Greenwald and revealed his identity shortly after the story broke. The U.S. government charged Snowden with espionage (about which Greenwald was understandably livid), as he waited in Hong Kong, not expecting to see home again.

The first 48 hours of this week were a bit of blur: Snowden applied for asylum in Ecuador (the country that’s been harboring WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange), then reportedly left Hong Kong for Moscow. But Snowden wasn’t on a scheduled flight from Moscow to Cuba, creating confusion about where exactly he was — and whether he was ever in Moscow in the first place. He did all this with the apparent aid of WikiLeaks, whose leaders claimed that they know where Snowden is and that they could publish the rest of his NSA documents. It was a bit of a return to the spotlight for WikiLeaks, which has nonetheless remained on the FBI’s radar for the last several years, with the bureau even paying a WikiLeaks volunteer as an informant.

We got accounts from the three journalists Snowden contacted — Greenwald, The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, and filmmaker Laura Poitras — about their interactions with him, as well as a probe by New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan into why he didn’t go to The Times. In a pair of posts, paidContent’s Mathew Ingram argued that the leak’s path showed that having a reputation as an alternative voice can be preferable to being in the mainstream when it comes to some newsgathering, and that news will flow to wherever it finds the least resistance. The Times’ David Carr similarly concluded that news stories aren’t as likely to follow established avenues of power as they used to.

As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple described, news organizations debated whether to call Snowden a “leaker,” “source,” or “whistleblower,” Several people, including The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta and Forbes’ Tom Watson, tried to explain why Snowden was garnering less popular support than might be expected, while The New Yorker’s John Cassidy detailed the backlash against Snowden in official circles, which, as Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post pointed out, was made largely with the aid of anonymity granted by journalists.

Numerous people, such as Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast, also decried that backlash, with Ben Smith of BuzzFeed making a particularly salient point: Journalists have long disregarded their sources’ personal motives and backgrounds in favor of the substance of the information they provide, and now that sources have become more public, the rest of us are going to have to get used to that, too. The New York Times’ David Carr also noted that “The age of the leaker as Web-enabled public figure has arrived.”

Finally the tech angle: The Prism program that Snowden leaked relied on data from tech giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, and those companies responded first by denying their direct involvement in the program, then by competing to show off their commitment to transparency, as Time’s Sam Gustin reported. First, Google asked the U.S. government for permission to reveal all their incoming government requests for information, followed quickly by Facebook and Microsoft. Then, starting with Facebook, those companies released the total number of government requests for data they’ve received, though Google and Twitter pushed to be able to release more specific numbers. Though there were early reports of special government access to those companies’ servers, Google reported that it uses secure FTP to transfer its data to the government.

Instagram’s bet on longer (but still short) video: Facebook’s Instagram moved into video last week, announcing 15-second videos, as TechCrunch reported in its good summary of the new feature. That number drew immediate comparisons to the six-second looping videos of Twitter’s Vine. As The New York Times noted, length is the primary difference between the two video services (though TechCrunch has a pretty comprehensive comparison), and Instagram is betting that longer videos will be better.

The reason isn’t aesthetics: As Quartz’s Christopher Mims pointed out, the ad-friendly 15-second length fits perfectly with Facebook’s ongoing move into video advertising. As soon as Instagram’s video service was released, critics started asking a question that would’ve seemed absurd just a few years ago: Is 15 seconds too long? Josh Wolford of WebProNews concluded that it is indeed too much, at least for the poorly produced amateur content that will dominate the service. At CNET, Danny Sullivan tried to make peace with the TL;DR culture behind Vine and Instagram Video.

Several tech writers dismissed it on sight: John Gruber of Daring Fireball gave it a terse kiss-off, while Mathew Ingram of GigaOM explained why he won’t use it — can’t be easily scanned, and a low signal-to-noise ratio — though he said it could be useful for advertisers and kids. PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott argued that Instagram’s video (like Instagram itself) is more about vanity-oriented presentation than useful communication. And both John Herrman of BuzzFeed and Farhad Manjoo of Slate lamented the idea that Instagram and Facebook seem out of ideas, with Manjoo called it symptomatic of the tech world in general. “Instead of invention, many in tech have fallen into the comfortable groove of reinvention,” Manjoo wrote.

Chris Gayomali of The Week, however, saw room for both Vine and Instagram to succeed. Meanwhile, Nick Statt of ReadWrite examined the way Instagram’s filters have changed the way photography is seen, even among professional photographers and photojournalists.

google-reader-mark-all-as-readThe post-Google Reader RSS rush: As Google Reader approaches its shutdown Monday, several other companies are taking the opportunity to jump into the suddenly reinvigorated RSS market. AOL launched its own Reader this week, and old favorite NetNewsWire relaunched a new reader as well.

Based on some API code, there was speculation that Facebook could be announcing its own RSS reader soon. That hasn’t happened, though The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is working on a Flipboard-like mobile aggregation device. GigaOM’s Eliza Kern explained why she wouldn’t want a Facebook RSS feed, while Fast Company’s Chris Dannen said a Facebook RSS reader could actually help solve the “filter bubble” like-minded information problem.

Sarah Perez of TechCrunch examined the alternatives to Google Reader, concluding disappointedly that there simply isn’t a replacement out there for it. Her colleague, Darrell Etherington, chided tech companies for their reactionary stance toward RSS development. Carol Kopp of Minyanville argued, however, that much of the rush toward RSS development is being driven just as much by a desire to crack the mobile-news nut, something she believed could be accomplished. RSS pioneer Dave Winer was also optimistic about its future, urging developers to think about “What would news do?” in order to reshape it for a new generation.

Reading roundup: A few of the other stories you might have missed over the past couple of weeks:

— Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings, who had built up a reputation as a maverick through his stellar, incisive reporting on foreign affairs, was killed in a car accident last week at age 33. Several journalists — including BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman, Slate’s David Weigel, and freelancer Corey Pein — wrote warm, inspiring remembrances of a fearless journalist and friend. Time’s James Poniewozik detected among reporters in general “maybe a little shame that more of us don’t always remember who our work is meant to serve” in their responses to Hastings’ death.

— Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism issued a study based on a survey of nonprofit news organizations that provided some valuable insights into the state of nonprofit journalism. The Lab’s Justin Ellis, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, and J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer explained the findings. Media analyst Alan Mutter urged nonprofit news orgs to put more focus on financial sustainability, while Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center called on their funders to do the same thing.

— Oxford’s Reuters Institute also issued a survey-based study whose findings focused on consumers’ willingness to pay for news. The Lab’s Sarah Darville and BBC News’ Leo Kelion summarized the findings, while paidContent’s Mathew Ingram gave an anti-paywall reading. The Press Gazette also highlighted a side point in the study — the popularity of live blogs.

— Texas state politics briefly grabbed a much broader spotlight this week with state Sen. Wendy Davis’ successful 13-hour filibuster of a controversial abortion bill. Many people noticed that coverage of the filibuster (and surrounding protest) was propelled by digital photo and video, rather than cable news. VentureBeat’s Meghan Kelly, Time’s James Poniewozik, and The Verge’s Carl Franzen offered explanations.

— Finally, a couple of reads from the folks at Digital First, one sobering and another inspiring: CEO John Paton made the case for the inadequacy of past-oriented models in sustaining newspapers, and digital editor Steve Buttry collected some fantastic advice for students on shaping the future of journalism.

Photos of Glenn Greenwald by Gage Skidmore and Edward Snowden stencil by Steve Rhodes used under a Creative Commons license. Instagram video by @bakerbk.

February 09 2012

00:00

Are You Part of the 2% (of People Who Get Campaign News From Twitter)?

Many of you are, like me, among the proverbial "99%" when it comes to economics and income. But if you regularly learn about the 2012 campaign from those you follow on Twitter, as I do, you're in an elite class of a different sort.

A new report out from the The Pew Research Center for The People and The Press contains some interesting findings about the media outlets citizens are using to inform themselves about the presidential campaign.

Here are a few of the more surprising findings.

New Media: Not So Much

According to the study, while this is the first campaign in which the Internet has surpassed local newspapers as a primary source of political news, social-networking sites are largely exempt from this trend.

Very few Americans regularly get campaign news from social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter (6% and 2%, respectively). Even among people who report using these social networks, nearly half (46%) say they "never" learn about the election there. At first, these findings seem to fly in the face of the current craze around word-of-mouth or peer-to-peer campaign tactics. But when you consider the apparent influence of offline social networks (you know, friends and family and other relationships that transcend cyberspace), these types of grassroots approaches are doubtless effective.

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Cable rules

The study also shows that for the first time, more Americans regularly get campaign news from cable news outlets like Fox News and MSNBC than from their local television stations. This makes cable news the most popular destination for regular political news. Given the frequency and intensity of these channels' political coverage, this may not be surprising. It may also not be surprising to learn that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to tune into Fox News and Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to turn to CNN and MSNBC.

What does this all mean for the prospect of continued polarization in this country? What do we get when the increasing influence of cable news channels on the national debate mixes with the increasing partisanship of those channels' audiences -- and when more people are getting campaign news from the Internet (where, presumably, they can pick political news sites that align with their political disposition) than the local paper, magazine or radio station?

Moreover, what does it mean when the audience group that most commonly reported that they "enjoy political news a lot" (people who agree with the Tea Party) are also most likely (at 74%) to report that they see the news media as biased?

I spoke with Carroll Doherty, the associate director of the Pew Research Center for The People and The Press, who observed that Tea Party Republicans who reported seeing bias aren't thinking about Fox News, but about other media channels they're less likely to watch. My psychologist friends might chalk this up to a classic case of actor-observer bias, but no matter.

media channel breakdown.jpg

What? Mitt Romney is a Governor?

If it is the media's job, collectively, to educate voters about the candidates, their policies and issues, they're not doing a very good job of it. The report finds that the "general public's knowledge about some of the fundamentals of the major candidates' resumes, positions and the campaign process is rather limited ... 58% were able to identify Newt Gingrich as the candidate who had been speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Fewer than half (46%) knew that Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, and just 37% could identify Ron Paul as the Republican candidate opposed to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan."

This begs the question: If the various media aren't effectively educating the voters, perhaps we can find ways of educating ourselves -- and maybe we could start by using Twitter and Facebook?

Mark Hannah is the political contributor for MediaShift. Mark's political career began on the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, where he worked as a member of the national advance staff. He's more recently done advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign, the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House. In the "off-season" (i.e., in between campaigns) he worked in the PR agency world and conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and received a master's degree from Columbia University. His personal website is www.mark-hannah.com, and he can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com

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April 25 2011

17:00

A web community with a TV show: Inside The Stream’s efforts to turn broadcasting into a social medium

Al Jazeera English debuted the online edition of its show The Stream before an energized crowd last week at an Online News Association meetup in Washington, DC. A hybrid of high-velocity online conversation and TV analysis, The Stream’s TV component will broadcast out of the Newseum, starting in May, four days a week. And it will be complemented by a continuous online operation that will mine the social media ecosystem for stories of global importance.

Billing itself as an “aggregator of online sources and discussion, seeking out unheard voices, new perspectives from people on the ground and untold angles related to the most compelling stories of the day,” The Stream looks to be a distillation of Al Jazeera’s signature global coverage with an eye towards the social media reporting whose significance proved itself yet again during this spring’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Since The Stream’s online launch, stories have included the use of the hashtag #estadofallido (“failed state”) by Mexican Twitter users to address escalating drug violence; an Internet blackout in Nepal; Twitter’s capacity to save a dying language; and a Syrian revolt in (yes) Orange County, California. The Stream’s web operation is powered by Storify, the relatively new tool that allows you to curate social elements from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and elsewhere around the web. Everything from posts from a blogger in Yemen to snapshots of anti-Arab American graffiti in the OC are woven together into a evocative multimedia narratives.

A web community with its own TV show

“The Stream is reporting on and taking part in a global conversation,” says Andrew Fitzgerald, a senior producer for The Stream. “Our stories are about conversations being had online. When we talk about one of these stories on the show, we want to add to those conversations.” Derrick Ashong, The Stream’s charismatic host (and the subject of a viral video during the 2008 presidential campaign), explained to the assembled crowd that the program was “curating the kind of conversation that lots of us are having all the time.” Or, as he told Fast Company last week: “The concept of The Stream is actually a web community that has its own daily television show on AJ.”

The Stream seems like a logical next step given Al Jazeera’s newfound online clout. The network experienced massive digital growth during the Arab Spring, with web traffic exploding by 2,500 percent at the beginning of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as global audiences turned to Al Jazeera English for insight into the turmoil. When the network streamed Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, traffic jumped from 50,000 visitors to 135,371, with 71 percent of the increase coming from social media.

Overnight, Al Jazeera English became an essential online read for global affairs. (Its coverage was so widely praised that Hillary Clinton dubbed it “real news” — this despite its former status as network non grata in America during the Iraq War, when it fell into disfavor with the Bush administration over critical coverage of the war effort.)

Now, a whole class of young and tech-savvy American journalists has been reintroduced to the network through Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. At The Huffington Post, Michael Calderone rightly speculates that buzz surrounding The Stream’s online game will serve as a vehicle for Al Jazeera English’s adoption into the American cable market — via, in particular, a generation of younger, hipper news consumers.

Voice to the voiceless

Regardless of The Stream’s place in Al Jazeera’s larger strategy, however, the network’s English-speaking operatives have other reasons to celebrate the launch of the innovative new program. With The Stream, Al Jazeera may succeed where the majority of American media organizations have fallen short: not only in fully integrating social media into a news operation, but also in embracing the medium as an inherent feature of the new news programming.

“Social media has the power to break down the centralized control of what constitutes news. If enough people are talking about something on the Internet it IS news. Communities thus have the power to define their OWN news,” notes consultant editor and executive producer Stephen Phelps, who has worked as a producer for the BBC for the past several decades, in an email. “Our job is to find those communities who are saying something which fits the Al Jazeera vision of giving voice to the voiceless and looking at the world from every angle and every side. And to do this on a broad basis through empowering our own community to crowd-source the news. The network’s opportunities to fulfill that goal are greatly enhanced by a program which taps social media.”

In practice, the actual manifestations of the idea of “social news” in Western media outlets have been lacking, generally less focused on utilizing the latest tools for reporting and storytelling and more intent on widespread distribution of branded content. For many media organizations, Facebook and Twitter appear to be first and foremost infrastructure companies: They provide highly efficient channels for spreading content or expanding an outlet’s audience. And until recently, they’ve been treated as such: Virtually every media outlet, from your small-town paper to The New York Times, has a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and (increasingly) Tumblr for promoting their latest stories and soliciting feedback from readers. But very few make the content of social networks a feature of regular news packages. Andy Carvin’s frenetic Twitter curation of the Middle East uprisings has been the de facto example of social media’s newsgathering power; but it’s also notable for being exceptional — in every sense. When stories based on happenings in the social space are published by major news outlets, the outlets seem fixated on a narrow scope of “what’s viral” rather than “what’s vital.”

Social + broadcast

“This is not a show simply about the hottest viral videos or trending stories on the Internet. #8millionBeliebers and #TeamSheen will not figure on The Stream,” proclaims The Stream. “Instead, our goal is to connect with unique, less-covered online communities around the world and share their stories and viewpoints on the news of the day.”

For American cable news providers like Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, the underlying incentive to deploy social media in the service of marketing and traffic goals rather than as an all-encompassing editorial tool may be out of necessity; where cable news used to be the growth sector of the American media industry, it is now on the decline. CNN fared worst in 2010, losing 37 percent of its primetime viewers, while Fox News shed 11 percent and MSNBC 5 percent. The organizations that do try to embrace social do it with the hope of bringing in (or retaining) viewers than developing a new form of storytelling.

In contrast to the shrinking U.S. cable market, Al Jazeera’s sudden growth makes it the perfect network to be creative and innovative in social journalism as a legitimate accompaniment to its regular online and broadcast programming. It should be noted that this is only partially due to the network’s recent online coup: Planning for The Stream started in November, well before protests broke out in Tunisia. “It was generated from the realization within the channel that social media was fast becoming a really important element of global information exchange,” says Phelps. “The revolutions only served to convince us we were on the right track.”

Operationally, the focus of The Stream is “purely editorial,” Phelps says. “The program comes under the over-arching banner of Al Jazeera’s model, which is about offering a different global voice. We are not constrained by the necessity to generate advertising revenue.”

“We’d certainly like to see a lot of web traffic — but engagement is for us an important part of our editorial process,” added Fitzgerald via email. “The Stream is meant to be a participatory online newsgathering community — the measure of our success in engagement will be how good the stories we cover are.”

A “truly global perspective”

While the program intends on being digital (and social) first, The Stream’s online component will certainly benefit from the global audience that Al Jazeera English already enjoys. The entire Al Jazeera network broadcasts to more than 220 million households in more than 100 countries worldwide, compared to the BBC World Service and BBC World News’ combined 241 million viewers in 2010 (BBC World Service projected a loss of 30 million listeners in 2011 due to budget constraints). Long-term plans for The Stream involve incorporating more social tools and a vast range of voices in conjunction with multiple daily broadcasts. “In a year or two I’d like the network to be doing four episodes a day, seven days a week, from two broadcast centers — in DC and Doha,” Phelps tells me. “And that our community is driving much of the editorial. Social media is about community. We must build one, and listen to it.”

“Like the rest of the network, our programme is meant to reflect the truly global perspective of a truly global network,” adds Fitzgerald. “That said, we think you’ll find the stories we cover and the tone in which we cover them might skew a bit younger than the rest of the network.”

The only limitations for The Stream’s television programming lie in the limited blocks of airtime and, as Phelps says, “in the ‘linear’ nature of TV (as opposed to the ‘distributed/randomized’ nature of information on the Internet).” The source of stories, he explains, “are now almost infinite. We are no longer constrained by our ability to get reporters/crews/satellites somewhere in order to cover it in a media-rich way.” The Stream’s format and focus are entirely flexible, to the extent that most of the technical challenges have involved translating the sleek curation of Storify into a broadcast setting. “Our guests are live via Skype; we’re showing Twitter on screen, highlighting short clips of YouTube videos played online,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s a very true experience to the web, actually. It just happens to be occurring on TV.”

November 03 2010

18:00

Election night video streams: How TV-like is too TV-like?

If the 2008 election coverage was a coming-out party for social media, then last night was to some extent a party for live-streamed video. On news sites large and small, national and local, the red-and-blue infographics you’d expect to see stretched across homepages were often broken up by boxes of straight-from-the-newsroom, live presentations by reporters. Two biggies in that group came from two biggies in online news: The New York Times, building off of its TimesCasts experience, offered an occasional, from-the-newsroom live-stream — a first for the paper — while the Wall Street Journal, building off its daily NewsHub video, featured a constant, six-hour-long event.

Both “broadcasts” had a Wayne’s World-but-in-suits feel to them: fairly casual, conversation-oriented, and, most of all, markedly lo-fi in setting and aesthetics — a kind of cable-access-channel-like response to the ZOOM! POW! PLEASEPLEASEPLEASEDONTCHANGETHECHANNEL! pizzazz of cable news proper. It was a bit of a back-to-the-future move for news organizations that largely marketed last night’s coverage not in terms not of personality — “let Dan Rather guide you through election returns” — but of platform: “We have X graphic!” “Tune in for X interactive!” On cable channels, the anchors and reporters and news analysts and commentators were often framed not merely as authorities in their own right, but also as hosts for a pageant-like parade of pretty new technologies. (Check out CNN’s awesome new Hologram Wall! And, oh yeah, some reporter.)

The video feeds suggested a reverse of that: On the webcasts, technology became the conduit for the personality. The video brought bylines to life (so that’s what Jim Rutenberg looks like!); it humanized the otherwise extra-personal data and narrative that pinged around the papers’ sites last night. And while there’s something to be said for the lean-back experience of effortless immersion that is watching election results, as opposed to reading about them or hearing about them, online — for news audiences, passivity itself can be a selling point for content — it’s an open question how much room the web has for such straight-from-cable thinking when it comes to the content that lives on it. Which is to say, the content that’s created for it.

Last night’s webcasts, as informal as they felt, also had the feeling of trying to be cable news without actually, you know, being cable news: They took the mores of the visual medium — analysis, punctuated by banter, interrupted by breaking news — and adopted them. Instead of adapting them. The attempts to bring a new dimension to election coverage was certainly admirable, as most experimentation generally is. But they also begged an open question: With the web’s increasing ability to act like television…how much should it act like television? Why try to out-TV TV?

September 01 2010

14:00

All the web’s a stage: Scholar Joshua Braun on what we show and what we choose to hide in journalism

Joshua Braun is a media scholar currently pursuing his Ph.D in Communications at Cornell. His work is centered at the intriguing intersection of television and the web: He’s currently studying the adoption of blogging software by network news sites, and the shifts that that adoption are bringing about in terms of the relationship between one-way communication something more conversational. At this spring’s IOJC conference in Austin, Braun presented a paper (pdf) discussing the results of his research — a work that considered, among other questions:

As journalistic institutions engage more and more fully in interactive online spaces, how are these tensions changing journalism itself? How do the technical systems and moderation strategies put in place shape the contours of the news, and how do these journalistic institutions make sense of these systems and strategies as part of their public mission? What is the role of audiences and publics in this new social and technical space? And how do journalistic institutions balance their claim to be “town criers” and voices for the public with the fact that their authority and continued legal standing depend at times on moderating, and even silencing the voices of individuals?

The whole paper is worth reading. (You can also watch Braun’s IOJC talk here.) But one aspect of it that’s especially fascinating, for our purposes, is Braun’s examination of TV-network news blogs in the context of the sociology of dramaturgy (in particular, the work of Erving Goffman).

News organizations are each a mix of public and private — preparing information for a public audience, but generally doing so in a private way. As with a theater production, there’s a performance going on for the audience but a big crew backstage. Blogging represents a potential shift in this dynamic by exposing people and processes that would otherwise be kept hidden behind a byline or a 90-second news piece.

And the blogging interplay — between presentation and communication, between product and process, and, perhaps most interestingly, between process and performance — is relevant to any news organization trying to navigate familiar journalistic waters with new vessels. I spoke with Braun about that dynamic and the lessons it might have to offer; below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Megan Garber: I’m intrigued by the idea of theater dynamics you mention in the paper — in particular, the distinction between backstage and front-stage spaces for news performances. Can you explain that in a bit more detail?

Joshua Braun: This is Steve Hilgartner’s idea. He took this idea of stage management from classic sociology, which has normally been an interpersonal theory, and decided it worked for organizations. He looked at the National Academy, and noticed the way in which they keep all their deliberations effectively secret and then release a document at the end that gives the consensus opinion of the scientific community. And there are two aspects of that. One is that it’s intended to protect the integrity of the process. So when you’re a big policy-advisory body like the National Research Council, you have senators who will call you and tell you they don’t want you working on something; you’ll have lobbyists who’ll want to influence your results; you’ll have, basically, a lot of political pressure. So there’s this aspect in which this system of enclosure — in the Goffman/Hilgartner metaphor — this keeping of things backstage, really is meant to protect the integrity of the process.

But it also has the other effect, which is that it also gives the illusion of the scientific community speaking with a single voice. So basically, all the messy process of sausages being made — and all the controversial issues that, by definition, the National Research Council is dealing with — you don’t see reflected in the reports. Or you see it in very official language. So it gives them a tremendous amount of authority, this illusion of the scientific community speaking with one voice, and they cultivate that. I was actually a graduate fellow at the National Academies, and they definitely want that — they recognize that the authority of the documents rests on that.

And many organizations that deal with information and knowledge production, including journalism, operate in this way, frequently. The publication of the finished news item and the enclosure of the reporting process — there’s a very real sense that that protects the authority of the process. So if you’re investigating a popular politician, you need that. And at the same time, it protects the brand and the legal standing and the authority of the organization, and bolsters that. Those things are very reliant on this process of enclosure, oftentimes.

And so what you see in the new media spaces, and these network experiments with blogging, is that sort of process. They’ve taken a medium that they themselves talked about in terms of accountability and transparency and openness and extended it to this traditional stage management process. They continue to control what remains backstage and what goes front-stage. And there are good justifications for doing that. But they’ve also extended that to the process of comment moderation. You’ll get pointed to a description of why comments are moderated the way they are — but you’ll never see exactly why a comment is spammed or not. That’s not unique to the news, either. But it’s an interesting preservation of the way the media’s worked for a long time.

And this has been described by other scholars, as well. So Alfred Hermida has a really neat piece on blogging at the BBC where he talks about much the same thing. He uses different terms — he talks about “gatekeeping,” as opposed to this notion of stage management — but it’s a pretty robust finding across a lot of institutions.

And I don’t want to portray it as something unique to journalism. This process of self-presentation and this performance of authority is widespread — and maybe necessary to journalism. I think the jury’s out on that.

MG: Definitely. Which brings up the question of how authority is expressed across different media. Does broadcast, for example, being what it is, have a different mandate than other types of journalism?

JB: Right. One of the remarkable things about broadcast news is the amount of stage management that you see in the traditional product. So if you look at an organization like ABC News, for instance — before their recent mass layoffs — they have several dozen correspondents: 77 or so people. But they have 1,500 total staff. And when you’re producing for a visual medium, you’re very selective about what appears on front-stage — this mise-en-scène of network news: what appears on camera and what ends up on the cutting-room floor, and so on. The vast majority of their newsgathering operation — the desk assistants and the bookers and the people who do all the pre-interviewing and the off-air correspondents — are people who never appear on-air. No network is its anchor.

So there’s that aspect, in which a large portion of the news ecosystem isn’t visible to the public — and there’s an argument to be made that having a small set of news personalities with whom audiences can identify is good for the product — and there are a lot of organizations where the vast majority of people involved in things don’t really speak. So that was one of the interesting aspects of looking at the blogging efforts of network news: Once that somewhat natural distinction between on-air and off-air talent and support staff disappears, who becomes visible online?

And you do have a lot of producers, a lot of bookers and other types of professionals who appear on the blogs, which is a really fascinating thing. The blogs are an extension of the stage management thing, but also a challenge to that model.

Image from daveynin used under a Creative Commons License.

August 27 2010

16:30

ABC News teams with Facebook for Katrina coverage

If you go to the ABCNews.com homepage right now (12:30 p.m. EDT), you’ll see something unusual: the news network’s coverage of the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, streamed exclusively online — in real time. The coverage includes a couple of pre-produced pieces, but for the most part it’s live: ABC correspondents David Muir, Robin Roberts, and Bob Woodruff, on the ground in New Orleans, talking with residents, interviewing former mayor Ray Nagin, and otherwise employing shoe leather in the service of memory.

But the network’s coverage will be participatory and conversational in a way that TV news often tries, but fails, to be: ABC is using Facebook Connect to stream its Katrina coverage to its website. As a result, for the next half hour, “you’re going to be to see people liking it and commenting on it in real time,” says Brian Braiker, part of ABCNews.com’s social media team.

It’s not often, leaving aside CNN’s Facebook-hosted stream of the Obama inauguration (and Rick Sanchez’s “Latest from Twitter” shout-outs) that networks’ televised content and their online interfaces merge so explicitly. And ABCNews’s foray into the field of platform integration is very much an experiment at this point. “This is sort of like a trial run for the elections,” Braiker says. “We’re going to go really big for that…whatever wrinkles there are obviously will be smoothed out before the election.”

That doesn’t mean the experiment is casual. ABCNews’ Facebook partnership “is all part of a broader, more detailed and in-depth social media strategy,” Braiker notes, “in how best to tell stories through all these emerging media.” Today “is the first salvo in an ongoing experimentation with a lot of this new and social media stuff that we want to integrate as much as we can into our coverage — and make it different and better than everyone else’s.”

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