Average citizens feel a need to circumvent established media as well as traditional government and corporate structures with online tools. Their information needs are unfulfilled and voices are not being heard. So people activate themselves online to demand change and action, or to form new innovative ways of resolving their problems.
Thank you to Bill Farrar, Yan Jin, Jon Newman and the rest of the faculty at VCU for having me. And thanks to those of you who took the poll and answered questions on the challenges facing today’s communications students entering the job market.
The past month had two interesting data points on content: ProPublica noted that public relations professionals now outnumber journalists 3:1, which is changing the face of journalism. Then the FCC noted that the dearth of local journalism is, well, hurting journalism and local communities (a nice overview off the stories and the story is here).
Neither of these stories are surprising: the death of local stories has been happening for the past 10 years; it has less to do with the economy but more to do with the profit margins of the large media conglomerates – who are in business to make their shareholders (and owners) money. Picking up a local paper in the past five years, the steady decline of coverage – both local and of importance – is obvious and quite sad.
With journalism becoming a weakening industry, though, the obvious switch to public relations from journalism makes sense. Public relations has this aura of being a well-paying field, and that people still get to work with journalism and journalists in telling a story, and sometimes you get to change and help the world. While thought of as the dark side, there is value in the public relations world to get a story told.
What both these big stories ignore is the growth of the local website – Patch, et al – and the growth of the bloggers. Are PR professionals just outnumbering traditional journalists, or is that taking into account the growth of local media and blogs? Is the dearth of local journalism affecting the world, or has social media changed journalism so much that people no longer want differing opinions but only want to see similar opinions and viewpoints to show that “yes, I’m right!!” That narcissistic world-view is already amplified (and helped) by Facebook and Twitter streams – note that most people only friend and follow those with similar opinions, so the middle tends to get drowned out and disenfranchised as the right and left noise becomes overbearing.
The fact is that local journalism is hurt by the profit motive in journalism – but oddly enough, it’s not easier for people to hide the crisis because of the growth of the local social media person digging for the stories. Without social media, would the Representative Weiner story broken so quickly and so fast? But on the flip side, without the traditional, local journalists, stories like the Bell, California corruption scandal would likely never come to light.
The question for what is good for the public is becoming amplified with the army of PR people out there to hide the story for clients, and the lack of local journalism to uncover the dirt. Are the next Woodward and Bernstein going to be bloggers, or is there immediately going to be a call of bias because it won’t be the middle, but left attacking right and right attacking left?
That is the future of both public relations and local journalism: content. Both are going to be pushing to produce as much local content as possible to get results and be known as news, but it won’t be real news but product of our cult of personality culture that is ignoring or blind to the real big stories.
Moving from marketing to an entertaining delivery of useful information creates a much higher likelihood of successful communications between an organization and its stakeholders. Like gamification, storytelling entertains the online reader/viewer/listener, earning their interest. Compelling stories convert dry boring content into worthwhile time expenditures.
Success assumes a few of things: 1) That the storyteller understands what compels its stakeholders; 2) the information presented in the story is useful; and 3) the return on investment for an organization is asked for in a tasteful manner. Meeting those three fundamental building blocks empowers an organization to make storytelling work.
There are many approaches towards storytelling. Personification, third person storytelling, embedded journalism, and metaphors are just four ways to enliven content. Here’s a deeper look:
Personification: The old blogging method of personal storytelling can drive great interest. Well executed, the person and their audience can share experiences together (Example: Beth’s Blog). People want to understand how attending that event made you feel, or how that new technology changed your perspective. By sharing an event, an idea, or reflection, we identify with or at least imagine commonality about conceptual material, and content becomes interesting. There are certainly dangers to personification, including nihilism, over-reliance on opining, and personal branding that negatively impacts the organization.
Third Person Storytelling: This gets back to the basic elements of storytelling a la the original oral tradition of tales like Beowulf and the Odyssey. Third person storytelling is really good for causes and consumer facing companies that resolve problems. Showing how people’s lives have become better or enriched as a result of touching an organization is powerful. For many organizations, this is told via case studies, but there is nothing wrong with enlivening a story by weaving narrative elements into it or discussing trends (Example: Shel Israel).
Embedded Journalism: This approach seeks to provide a journalistic view into an organization or related external events and happenings. Similar to trade reporting, embedded journalism relies on facts, the ability to answer the 5 Ws in any good story (who, what, when, etc.), pyramid style structure, and a general tone that instills objective view points (Example: Invisible People). Of course this is the weakness of embedded journalism: By acting as a member of the Fifth Estate, companies and nonprofits immediately are suspected for pushing their wares and solutions. This means fact telling and objectivism has to be held to a higher standard.
Metaphors: Infusing metaphors into content empowers people to more easily imagine data and hard concepts. By using common metaphors that almost everyone has experienced, the ability to identify with the concepts behind a story become much more personalized. The long journey to successful metaphorical writing can involve wrong turns, potholes and flat tires, over-complication of storytelling route (plot), and more. But with practice, this can become one of the most powerful methods of communicating complicated concepts (example: Copyblogger).
What are some of your favorite storytelling methods?
The weak economy and the evolution of Internet media have done more to shake up traditional journalism than any other events in the past 60 years. Online news is now surpassing almost every media form in the United States with the exception of local TV, according to Pew. And in 2010, forty seven percent of Americans read news on their phones! As the traditional print, cable and broadcast media weaken, online content creators, the Fifth Estate as dubbed by Stephen Cooper in 2006 strengthens.
This has not been a pretty evolution to watch. The journalism field has yet to successfully adjust to the new economic realities of shrinking print ad budgets and online media consumption. Perhaps the greatest test of the new economic realities will be the NY Times paywall for their most loyal readers. In the interim, individual voices alone or in aggregate are stepping up to fill the void left by a shrinking Fourth Estate (a centuries old term for the press).
What does this mean for information consumption? So far, it has created a degradation of content with a smaller and increasingly inexperienced journalism corps that attempts to do much more with less resources. Yet several trends indicate the tide may be turning with a focus on creating stronger hybrid journalists and Fifth Estate voices.
Media companies are now investing in new tablet based start-ups and purchasing higher quality social channels like the Huffington Post. Further, next generation trade journals are moving online with the likes of POLITICO now rivaling the Washington Post. While some of these properties are social in nature and feature bloggers, they function more like hybridized journals. Only the best content is featured on the top layers, creating an expectation of quality.
More interesting are the pools of Fifth Estate bloggers and citizen journalists that use a variety of social media tools, including mobile phones, to report from the field. They are filling the void left by reduced journalist staffs. There is no better example than the job that citizen journalists have done in the Middle East, most recently in Benghazi, Libya.
Of course, citizen journalism of this sort creates questions about credibility and information quality. In many ways, the “Twitter (or Facebook) breaking the news first meme” has jumped the shark several times due to inaccuracies. This has in turn validated the need for fact verification and has contributed to a growing decline in peer trust. It seems as the Fifth Estate grows its weak underbelly of opinion and shoddy reporting has been exposed.
Andy Carvin’s well discussed effort highlighting the many brave people protesting and fighting for freedom in the Middle East blends the best of the new and the old. An employee of NPR, Carvin retweets and highlights news bits that trickle out on Twitter via his various sources and hashtag searches. But rather than blindly retweeting information, Carvin sources and triangulates data via his networks to ensure information quality.
In many ways, Carvin shares stories in a timely way while incorporating journalistic questioning. This method is creating a new paradigm for speed and validation. Yet not all people have these kinds of journalism skills.
Creating a wider field of hybrid journalists, or at least spreading the principles of journalism throughout our society via education and training remains the great challenge and key to an increased level of quality information from the Fifth Estate. Here are several organizations that actively develop citizen journalists:
Small World News is teaching citizens in the Middle East how to use mobile and social to report
Internews funds training and infrastructure projects across the globe for better media. Increasingly, their efforts focus on citizen journalists
Additional movements within corporate and nonprofit organizations have internal content producers increasingly called corporate journalists. While objectivity may be compromised from the onset, this career paid Fifth Estate member sheds a new more fact-based light on the term content marketing. And as former journalist and now corporate social media pro Ike Pigott likes to say, the trend provides a welcome return to a deserved salary for information producing skills.
What is clear is that the Fifth Estate is evolving with increased attention focused on quality information. How the media and these new voices evolve together remains to be seen. In the current online world the old and needed journalist mastheads and new roving citizen reporters are intrinsically tied. Watching them continue to influence and blend into each other will be an unfolding and captivating story.
What do you think of citizen journalism/media and its evolution?
There are many questions that have arisen about Julien Assange, primarily debates about whether or not Assange is a full-on criminal, a Fifth Estate journalist exposing a corrupt power’s broken methods of imperial influence, or both. With Asange’s arrest has come the vigilante cyberwar waged by international hackers against U.S. commercial web sites.
One thing has become clear in the past week about the entire Wikileaks situation, the United States reaction to the leaked State Department cables was swift and severe. Rape charges that were once dismissed by Swedish authorities suddenly became the cause for an Interpol arrest of Assange. As to the U.S.’s severe reaction — particularly statements from right wingers like Sarah Palin that he should be hung — have exposed the U.S. as a reactionary power. Shakespeare said it best in Hamlet, Act III, scene II, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Regardless of whether history writes Assange as a fighter of imperial ills or a terrorist (surely a question of which country tells the story), numerous questions still remain abut the role of media at the crossroads traditional and new citizen driven self-appointed journalists. The impact will be far reaching, forever changing the role of media in the new world.
Criminal Intent or Journalist?
Parsing criminal versus journalist is a troubling question. Certainly, getting secure documents and leaking them is a criminal offense. Whether it was the right thing to do, an act of exposing corruption versus terrorism clearly depends on a political views.
Many journalists go to jail in the name of exposing corruption and wrong doing. Most recently in the U.S., a national case that caused jail time was the Barry Bonds steroids scandal, which caused Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada an 18 month sentence (waived).
Assange and Wikileaks is the ultimate expression of the Fifth Estate. Full of shocking power, Assange has arisen to hold the U.S. Government and its partners accountable (right or wrong) because they will not act responsibly. Further, the media has failed to hold the government responsible creating the need for Wikileaks. When one sees the abuses exposedin Nigeria for example, it’s hard to turn a blind eye and say that Assange is completely off his rocker about U.S. corruption. Further, Wikileaks has demonstrated that the war in Afghanistan is not going well contrary to continuing White House protests that the conflict is winnable… 10 years after it began.
Consider Jay Rosen’s words at the PDF Forum this weekend on Wikileaks: “In my mind, Wikileaks is the world’s first stateless news organization,” said Jay Rosen, media critic and professor at the New York University School of Journalism. “You’ve heard of voting with you feet? The sources are voting with their leaks. If they trusted the newspapers more, they would be going to the newspapers.”
The only thing that could disqualify Assange’s status as a new 21st century journalist would be funding. If Wikileaks is backed by a foreign power (for example, Iran or China) or a terrorist organization (Al Qaeda) then one would have to write Assange off as a political puppet that needs to be treated like a spy or terrorist. Otherwise, America got caught with its pants down by a new jack that showed just how powerful digital media really can be in the modern age.
As to the vigilantes defending Assange, anonymous criminal activity is just that. People die in real wars. Cyberwar has its price, too, and while many of these young digital fighters will never see a courtroom, the romantic aura of their actions shouldn’t fool anyone. If one plays adult games, they should be ready to pay adult prices.