North Wind And Sun

CNN falls from grace, hits a few branches on the way down

Posted in journalism by Ricardo Bilton on 26-August-2009

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Here’s a question: If CNN.com is 52nd on Alexa’s search rankings, and Cracked.com is 1,505th, why is the former mimicking the later?

The Most Trusted Name in News recently posted (and then updated) an “article” presenting a list of “The 12 Most annoying types of Facebookers,” a list that, while arguably accurate, certainly speaks to a trend in declining standards for the news organization.

Of course the article could also speak to an increased awareness of CNN’s (and, indeed Time’s) part on what people tend to read online: Lists. List’s are a simple, and oftentimes controversial way, to draw in readers, readers who will , hopefully, in turn, click links to other lists, and (again, hopefully) eventually  read a substantial news piece. That’s how CNN envisions it working. And perhaps it does work out that way.

But it certainly doesn’t shine favorably on them. But times are rough and traditional news sites like CNN and Time are certainly taking a beating from more recent offerings like The Huffington Post. Still, there is something to be said about the recent taking to top-ten lists, not least of which being its the most annoying form of flattery.

Animal abuse and taking (a slight) issue with The Daily Show’s media commentary

Posted in journalism, television by Ricardo Bilton on 9-June-2009

I have been giving the John Stewart/Steven Colbert programming another go these past few days, and noticing  that, while it is likely a regular part of The Daily Show’s programming, Stewart spends an inordinate amount of time criticizing television news personalities, as well as the entirety of Fox News.

I get it. It’s funny. The Bill O’Reillys and Geraldo Riveras and Keith Olbermanns of the media world are untapped havens of comedic gold. They are pre-made caricatures, neatly wrapped in suits and ties and neatly-combed hair, wearing the masks “journalistic integrity” and “complete seriousness”  too tightly to be seriously considered either. They create that aura, and their viewers immerse themselves in it. Fox News as a whole, of course, is even easier, and it is more often that not painfully transparent their transgressions against the very profession they so adamantly profess to be protecting.

But in watching The Daily Show, I have come to the conclusion that it is perhaps a bit too easy to criticize the television media. The lines that the Fox and MSNBC personalities have drawn between journalism and entertainment have been doused with kerosene and smudged beyond recognition. These figures have opinions – strong opinions – and no amount of so-called journalistic integrity is going to give them adequate reason to relinquish them.

Stewart spent over a third of Monday’s broadcast criticizing them. It was funny, to be sure, but also slightly tiring: I had heard the jokes before, and Stewart is the one who told them. Fox News, at this point doesn’t even need Stewart to ridicule them. And yet he soldiers on, playing clips of Sean Hannity and company ad nasuem. The Daily Show crew isn’t reporting on news so much as they are reporting on the news media, a watchdog wrapped in the fleece of comedic ridicule.

I can only comment so much because, after all, the whole thing invaribly makes for good entertainment. But I would advise John Stewart to take to heart the following comparrison: Poking fun at Fox News is a bit like yanking a cat’s tail. Sure, it’s funny  and exciting the first ten times, but after a while you sort of feel bad for the poor animal. And cats have a way of causing the nastiest little scratches.

Wall Street Journal considering micro-payments

Posted in journalism, newspapers by Ricardo Bilton on 11-May-2009

…but how much are people willing to pay for information?

The Financial Times reports that the Wall Street Journal is in the process of implementing a micro-payment system for its website, a move that raises questions about the direction that these companies are going.

Similar to what I talked about yesterday, the newspaper industry’s future really hinges on how much people are willing to pay for what they currently get for free. How much value do people attach to be informed? Information itself, I’d wager, doesn’t hold the same amount of value for many people as music and movies do, so it would be risky for the Wall Street Journal to expect many people to flock to their site once the new system is implemented.

That’s a key point here: None of these measures will create new readers. People tend to avoid paying for things. These payment systems, as a result, are aimed at the people who care most about the information they are receiving – professionals, academics, etc. The Wall Street Journal’s site is currently subscription-based, which likely explains why I, as a Poor College Student, have never read an article on it.

Times are hard. The newspaper folk are going to be hard-pressed to find people willing to pay for what the Huffington Post Offers and other online newssources don’t charge a penny for.

Going, going, gone – are newspapers on their way out?

Posted in Internet, journalism, newspapers by Ricardo Bilton on 11-May-2009

It’s rarely a good sign for your industry when the U.S. government starts holding hearings questioning your future.

But that’s just the position the newspaper industry finds itself in right now. For a variety of reasons, some products of self-induced gunshots, some not, the newspaper industry  now finds itself  struggling for its survival.

But Frank Rich’s recent column raises an interesting point, one that is, while sobering, vital in the discussion over where newspapers and journalism are going.

In the Internet era, many sectors of American media have been re-enacting their at first complacent and finally panicked behavior of 60 years ago. Few in the entertainment business saw the digital cancer spreading through their old business models until well after file-sharing, via Napster, had started decimating the music industry. It’s not only journalism that is now struggling to plot a path to survival. But, with all due respect to show business, it’s only journalism that’s essential to a functioning democracy. And it’s not just because — as we keep being tediously reminded — Thomas Jefferson said so.

His point is essentially this: While the future of the newspaper industry is in doubt, that of journalism, the raw product that newspapers commodify, is noticeably less so.

I draw corollaries to the record industry, which finds itself in a similar position. Robbed of their power and influence by the forces of the internet, the gatekeepers at the record industry are, like the newspapermen, scrambling to find a business model that works in this new and rapidly-changing climate. The record industry’s raw product, however – music – remains as strong as ever. In fact, it’s easily arguable that the music industry has been strengthened by the Internet. Pull media is the future, a reality that the newspaper and record industry folk are only beginning to come to terms with.

The simple truth here is that the Internet has become a force that vastly overpowers what established industries want to use it for. Information has a tendency to go where it wants, and with people sharing it, there is little any of us can do to contain it.

But that reality casts into further doubt the ability for any of the newspapers to survive. Just because information has the inclination to be free, doesn’t mean it should be. Giving away content indefinitely inevitably means suicide – that is,  unless advertising picks up the slack. But in today’s economy,  advertisers aren’t doing as much business as they used to – hence why so many newspapers are in the red right now.

Some see the future of newspapers – or at least their online portions – within the realm of a paid service, where users pay for access to one or a number of sites. The inevitable question, of course, is whether customers would be willing to pay for what they at one point got for free.

I’ll be honest and say that, yes, I’d pay ten dollars a month for access to The New York Times. But  how many people would agree with me? That’s the billion-dollar question.

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The reporter, the blogger, and The Student stuck between – some musings

Posted in journalism by Ricardo Bilton on 23-November-2008

Thanksgiving break has given me a few precious days to do a bit of recreational reading, and the first book I turned to was Rosenberg & Feldman’s No Time To Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle. Fairly straightforward title, and the authors make no hesitations about making their points known.

In any case, I’m roughly at the halfway point of the book, just finishing the chapter titled Blog On!, and I wanted to make a few comments, more so for my own benefit than anything, on some interesting intersections that the chapter draws with my experiences writing for The Amherst Student.

A bit of background. The Student is Amherst College’s independent student-run newspaper. It circulates weekly, being delivered in stacks to Amherst students each Wednesday morning. Currently, the publication draws a fairly lukewarm reception from students, who largely see it is superfluous and lacking in substance.

The Student shares the Amherst College publication sphere with a few other entities, most notably, The Indicator, described as the “Amherst College’s journal of political and social thought.” Compared to The Student, The Indicator draws a more enthused reaction from students on both the reading and writing sides of things. One of the main issues that The Student‘s editors have to deal with on a weekly basis is the rather paltry staff of writers. The Indicator rarely has such issues and is usually able to procure enough willing writers to write pieces for their biweekly issues.

Which raises the unavoidable question of “why.” Why do so many more students seem drawn to write for The Indicator as opposed to The Student? This is a question that The Student staff has been trying to answer for a while now, in the hopes that an answer would inspire tactics to reverse the trend of waning writer support.

I can’t say that I’ve come to the conclusion myself, but I believe I’ve made some headway, due in part to the points made in the Blog On! chapter of No Time to Think.

A part of it, I think, has to do with the new and awesome sexiness of blogging, a sexiness that has somehow not managed to wane since the blog’s inception. There are over a hundred million blogs online right now, each with writers expressing opinions, hurling facts, and creating discussion. The fact of the matter is that people like expressing their opinions. Where The Amherst Student and The Indicator differ is that while The Student exists to cover news, the Indicator exists to present opinions, to columnize.

Thus, The Student/Indicator relation is a microcosm of the increased revulsion we are seeing towards traditional news media. People have turned from  straightforward news coverage to news with a twist, that is, news with opinion and glitz sprinkled liberally.

Case in point: A few Amherst students last year launched the Amherst Public, a blog network dedicated to giving Amherst students a central place to go in order to read the opinions of their classmates. The initial fervor of the site’s paid bloggers, as well as that of the regular ones, has since died down, giving way to a homepage that has not been updated in over a month and a seemingly nonexistent userbase.

Of course, the Amherst Public situation might be a result of a campus stretched too thin, or perhaps a campus apathetic, or something.  In any case, what I see when I look at the state of the Amherst College publication sphere is a relative lack of interest in traditional news writing. And, while we could make a case that there isn’t much news happening on a campus of 1,600 students, there is a notable lack of writer involvement even for a campus of its size.

Maybe the field of journalism has just lost its repute. Maybe College Students just don’t want to be journalists anymore; maybe Amherst College students are just inordinately busy. And, while I can’t say for sure what the causes of the situation are, the effects could not be clearer: The Student has certainly lost its place as a hub of information gathering. The next step would be figuring out how to reverse the situation.

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