Monthly Archives: August 2012

Profit, Technology, Democracy: The Decline of the Newspaper

The story of the declining newspaper has been a running saga during the last decade. Since the early 2000s, many newspapers have laid off workers, reduced content, outsourced content, moved partly or entirely to an online format, or folded production completely. This has been devastating for local news in particular because many towns and urban centers alike have (or had) one major newspaper to choose from due to monopolies established long ago.  Just recently the St. Louis Post-Dispatch laid off several managers with more cuts on the horizon.  The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, which earned an outstanding reputation for its coverage of the post-Katrina disaster, is also laying off hundreds–a third of its workforce–in a plan that will also reduce daily publication to three days a week (a Times-Picayune reporter voiced her disdain here). Newspapers in both St. Louis and New Orleans are terribly important considering the social and economic difficulties that residents there face, including high crime rates and severe economic disparity.

The most popular narrative for this decline is that newspapers are falling victim to the new kid on the media block: the Internet. Newspapers, it goes, must adjust to a new business model in order to evolve into a digital format, which has presented new challenges in terms of how to pay for content and staff. Why would readers want to pay for information (available in print or online) they can otherwise get for free? Also, the advent of “citizen journalism” provides a plethora of voices that did not exist in previous generations, as the Internet blurs the line between producers and consumers. Paid journalist must compete with people writing for free.

The Internet has certainly presented a challenge for print medium and paid content. However, the decline of newspapers–and journalism in general–is much greater than the creation of the Internet. As Juan Gonzalez and Joe Torres point out in their wonderful new book News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, the decline of newspapers is tied very much to the business practices allowed through deregulation enacted during the last few decades (much of which also led to the Great Recession). In fact, the newspaper industry has often had a high profit margin–upwards of 20% for many companies–but recently that hasn’t seemed to be the case. At the beginning of the 21st century, this was still the case. So how did such a profitable sector slide into crisis less than a decade later?

The answer, according to Gonzalez and Torres in News of All the People, is that “Old Media’s crisis [is] largely a result of self-inflicted wounds” (pg. 349). Since the 1960s, newspaper companies increasingly sold out to bigger investors, who in turn focused on the profitability of newspapers as opposed to the long-term vitality and journalistic quality, as the smaller owners had done. By 1977, two out of every three newspapers were part of a newspaper corporation. These corporations did not, according to Gonzalez and Torres, focus on the long-term survival of newspapers, but rather the short-term profit motive. This contributed heavily to the current inability of newspapers to compete with the Internet.

There is much more to be said on this topic, but for now I will stop there. I do not wish to simplify the myriad reasons for the decline of newspapers, but suffice to say that corporate culture–the focus on short-term profits–did an immense disservice to the newspaper industry. Corporate managers specializing in making money as opposed to making news were unable to prepare the industry against any sort of change, be it technological, cultural, or social, etc. If capital had its way (which it might), investors will choose to milk newspapers for every penny. As for the public, it will lose a vital source of information essential to a functioning democracy. (One response to this problem is providing the news industry with public subsidies, which I hope to cover at a later time.)

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Olympic Families Feel the Financial Squeeze

(Note: this post is somewhat off course of media criticism & commentary. My initial interest was due to the article referenced below about brand enforcers roaming the streets of London.)

Despite the Olympics in London being billed as an event to “Inspire a generation,” it’s hard to know who or what the Games are supposed to inspire. It could be the fans who come from thousands of miles away and all corners of the globe to witness not only their fellow citizens but also the athletic prowess of people at the top of their game. Or perhaps the Games inspire the athletes themselves to compete for a medal to bring home. Athletes must practice years with top notch coaching at state of the art facilities to make this happen. Or perhaps large corporations hope to inspire an event with ultimate branding potential, as thousands of spectators attend the events and millions around the world tune in. Of the three groups who may be inspired by the Games of 2012, group number three–corporate sponsors–profit unfortunately on the backs of thousands of athletes and their families.

Take two U.S. Olympic stars who have been in the news lately: swimmer Ryan Lochte and gymnast Gabby Douglas. Recently it was reported that Lochte’s parents have amassed so much debt that they are currently in foreclosure on their home. Gabby Douglas’s mom filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. The costs of being an Olympic champion are indeed trying. For example, The Daily Beast offered the following numbers: training costs can top $1,000 a month for gymnasts; leotards and warm-up suits costs several hundred dollars, and additional training costs around $600 a month. For parents to travel with their children, transportation can be run in the thousands. As for swimmers, access to top swim clubs can run up to $3,000 annually, equipment up to $500 per year, and swim gear retails around $395.

Sponsors also fork out money to help put on the Olympics. However, although sponsors will give a collective $1.4 billion, the money they give out is relatively small potatoes for them. As for the exposure that the Olympics brings to them, the benefits are huge. In terms of raw value, many sponsors such as Coca-cola and McDonald’s are raking in huge sums of money as the official drink or french fry of the Games. They also profit substantially from the marketing opportunity. Event spectators as well as viewers around the world will see their marks everywhere at the Games.

Furthermore, the host country, England, is tasked with enforcing sponsor brands. In fact, a full force of almost 300 were in charge of inspecting the cityscape for brand infractions. These included: using two words from a verboten list within the same sentence, words like “2012” or “games”; using the image of the Olympic rings themselves; or taking personal pictures of Olympic events. As hosts,  the people of London were essentially held hostage to the Twenty Twelve (2012) Olympic Games, where athletes competed for gold, silver, and bronze medal prizes. Corporate sponsors are determined to profit as much as possible from the games, and hundreds of brand enforcers will help the do just that.

Therefore, in spite of the lucrative deals that corporate partners receive, Olympic competitors and their families are suffering at the hands of a profit motive whose benefits vastly help corporate partners over the real center of the Olympics: the Olympians themselves.

Short: Nobody Likes the Pundits

In a recent poll conducted by Daily Kos/SEIU, it was found that over 3/4 of the population disapprove of the political news media. Is this a surprise? No. The “political media” is anything but a legitimate news source. One might expect to obtain something informative when tuning into the political media, but that’s not the point of its existence. And despite arguments to the contrary, they’re not fooling anybody. Political media is a game show  that masquerades around the media world as a legitimate source of news. Much of these types of media consist of talking heads–often time political insiders–spinning their tidbits of assigned talking points for packaged consumption by consumers. If its a television show, the host may ask some questions about political strategy, aka how a political campaign is spending the oodles of cash it receives via our corrupt and broken campaign contribution system.

Yes, especially now are the state of the media, elections, and democracy itself in peril. And they are all intertwined. Stay tuned next time for more discussion on the media!

Shorts: Press Freedom = Happiness?

Greetings on this (surprisingly) cool summer day! I wanted to mention a recent study that came out detailing the jolly good properties of a country’s free press. Graduate student Edson Tandoc, Jr. of the University of Missouri and his co-author Bruno Takahashi from Michigan State University looked at the 2010 Gallup Poll findings about the happiest countries on earth. They then compared the Gallup data to Freedom House’s press freedom index and found a positive correlation indicating that more press freedom equals more happiness. According to Tandoc, “The road to happiness isn’t direct; it is a complex path or web that includes many different influences and interrelationships. Things like improving the economy alone are insufficient for increasing happiness. Protecting press freedom is also an important component of the happiness web.” They hypothesis that the way this works is such that a functioning press informs and alerts it populace to stories that are crucial to happiness, such as problems of environmental degradation or perhaps social concerns.

Who Watches the Watchdog?

The U.S. political system is increasingly inaccessible to most Americans, both participating in it as a candidate for public office, in addition to the process itself. Media is at the center of this problem, as a democracy depends on the media for the people to obtain information about candidates running for office. Recently the New York Times reported that the Obama campaign has spent over $400 million on the campaign since it began. Much of the funds have gone towards advertising–about $86 million in total. In the New York Times article, Nicholas Confessore and Jo Craven McGinty spend most of the article outlining what this means for the Obama campaign in terms of strategy and future fundraising. They spend no time bringing in independent voices or even introducing the idea that perhaps such expensive campaigns might actually be a problem not just for the Obama campaign, but for American democracy as well.

The Times article is unfortunately reminiscent of the much of the mainstream corporate media. Let’s take a moment to break this down further. How about we start with a (rhetorical) question: who benefits from the advertising dollars coming from political campaigns? Indeed, the media! Seeing that the supposed watchdog, the fabled Fourth Estate, the great Bambino of information dissemination benefits from such a corrupt form of government, looks like the American public is in a pretty dire situation, no? How can the media be critical on a grand scale (sure, we may  see articles somewhat critical of the U.S. media system in the elite press, but they are few and far between and are more prone to nip instead of bite)?

Enter the need for media reform. One good piece of news to come out about the same time as the newest reports on campaign expenditure is that broadcasters are now obligated to provide information online about who buys ads on their stations and how much they spend. Thankfully this information has been available for a while now, but broadcasters have fought to keep them available exclusively on paper and at the broadcaster’s office. Free Press, a media reform organization, outlined in a post about the victory, “While the ruling is a crucial win for media transparency, let’s be real here: It’s still the very first step in a long and extensive process. There are over 2,200 broadcast TV stations in the country. This rule requires only 200 of them to put their political files online as of Aug. 2. And the rule doesn’t require stations to upload all of their old files retroactively — it applies only to ads purchased from today forward.” Perhaps a step in the right direction, but many miles to go.

A Strand of Culture Parts the Way for Capital

You may have heard of the recent debate surrounding a young gymnast named Gabby Douglas, the first Black woman to win the all-around gold in woman’s artistic gymnastics. However, arguably the most intense discussion surrounding Douglas’s superb performance is not the historic nature of the accomplishment, but rather her hair. The “story” originated on Twitter, where some individuals took to criticizing the young gymnast’s hair, which was apparently too unkempt for international television. Allegedly much of the criticism came form Black women themselves. At first glance, this “debate” surrounding her hair seems to represent the cruel intentions of a few individuals in a public forum. However, the “story” represents much more, namely: (1) in terms of U.S. society, it reflects the fault lines of power; and (2) in terms of the media, it reflects the “hype” culture of corporate media, a model where inducing the “right” kind of debate helps to drive internet traffic to commercial-oriented sites, which ultimately makes advertisers happy.

As for how the story originated, let’s take a look at that. About a week ago several Twitter users expressed disdain over Douglas’s hair, commenting things like, “In Olympic news, why hasn’t anyone tried to fix Gabby Douglas’ hair?” Comments ranged from being subtle to outright cruel. The story was picked up from there by both major providers of news as well as more niche-oriented blogs. There’s no denying that the debate is indicative of deep-seated issues within U.S. society, but much of the most popular coverage did not elevate the debate to that level. Much of the reaction stopped at something along the lines of “leave Douglas alone, she’s an Olympic champion.” I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the greater context surrounding the reactions to Douglas’s hair, but it’s important to mention some of it.

I think the story caught on as much as it did due to who did the criticizing. The fact that allegedly mostly Black women were doing the criticism is instructive. If White people had done it, the issue would have taken a particularly race-centric aspect, which arguably the media may have latched onto as well, but perhaps not to the extent that it did. That aside, the concern over Black hair rages much more in the Black community than outside it (see the Chris Rock documentary for a taste). Within the Black community, the fact that there is a debate is reflective of the overarching White narrative in the United States, a narrative that was made possible by the political and economic power of mostly European-origin people from the beginning of European colonization through the present day. How this affect the U.S. today is a problem: African-Americans, for example, have much higher rates of poverty as well as unemployment.  Obviously this is a very complex issue, but part of the reason the debate arose in the first place is reflective of what is “acceptable” in terms of U.S. (and even international) appearances. Therefore, a few comments about a Black woman’s hair could have been an opportunity to show how those sentiments could be indicative of a much larger issue in the United States.

However, don’t expect the mainstream/corporate media to provide such important context. Looking at major media presence on the web (there was certainly a number of good commentary, see herehere, and here), the reason for driving the story is to drive internet traffic for a website’s advertisers. For example, Yahoo! posted an article on its new Shine site, which caters to young and middle-aged women. In the posting, Lylah Alphonse points out the mean things people were saying, how we should focus on her Olympic greatness, and the raging hair debate in the African-American community.

Surely many people read that article, as one of Yahoo!’s niche’s is news–both aggregating and producing. Shine is a website created solely to bring young and middle-aged women to the site for the benefit of advertisers. According to Yahoo!, “Shine’s goals are to energize women and give them an environment to develop engaging conversations and learn from one another. Engage this highly interactive community, 57.5 percent of which is female, with advertising solutions that will best showcase your brand.” Shine is essentially an engine for driving advertising revenue. In fact, one of the ads that shows up on the site with the article defending Douglas’s hair is from P&G, showcasing a blonde woman with shimmering hair made possible by Clairol shampoo. How interesting.

So basically, in the case of Yahoo! Shine (and many other news websites), much of the hype surrounding the comments made by private citizens toward Douglas is due to the corporate nature of our media. When advertising revenue is central to the business model in the news business, I find it hard to take it seriously or to consider it as a source of good critique and commentary.

Wanna get Hydrated?

Today we take a look at a story that broke a few days ago by Mother Jones magazine, great investigative journalism magazine. (My only gripe is that there should be more content!) MoJo’s blog post, Do Sports Drinks Really Work?, discussed a recent series of studies by prestigious British medical journal BMJ (formerly “British Medical Journal”). Published on the eve of the 2012 Olympics in London, the BMJ discusses the viability of sports drinks. According to MoJo, “makers of drinks like Gatorade and Powerade have spent millions in research and marketing in recent decades to persuade sports and medical professionals, not to mention the rest of us suckers, that a primal instinct—the sensation of thirst—is an unreliable guide for deciding when to drink.” So the sports drink industry has been trying to prove that thirst is simply unreliable as a predictor of and predecessor to dehydration. We should simply drink endless amounts of liquid to keep ourselves hydrated–but not water, but rather the magical formula manufactured by multinational companies such as PepsiCo (Gatorade) and Coca-Cola (Power Ade).

Promoting this idea is exceptionally convenient for a corporation looking to make a profit on consumers who feel they not only  must purchase sports drinks in order to be hydrated, but drink lots of them in order to stay hydrated. Central to the BMJ studies were two questions: (1) Is pre-hydration necessary before strenuous activity; and (2) Is the excess of salts and sugars in sports drinks necessary, or is water fine? Answer: No, stick to thirst as an indicator of when to hydrate, and water is just fine. Furthermore, overhydration presents a much greater health risk than dehydration.

Great news for the rest of us. I’ll keep avoiding sports drinks, and hopefully people who hear about the study who do abuse sports drinks, stop immediately. If you stop and think about it, it’s really quite amazing what these large corporations have done–sports drinks are an approximately $1.6 billion business in the United States. Millions of people drink a manufactured product in order to satisfy a basic human need. And the thing most useful to quench our primordial thirst–good ol’ H2O–is viewed with derision and contempt (to prove my point). But is the news getting out?

Absolutely not. It is now three days after the MoJo article, and the mainstream/corporate media has said absolutely nothing about it. In fact, a Google news search yielded two full pages of articles, not all of which were in English. Non-profit news site MinnPost.com published a recap of the study. Furthermore, the leading conservative newspaper of Spain, ABC, published a lenghty article outlining many important points of the study, including the dangers of overhydration, financial links between drink companies and sport associations, and the adverse health effects of the contents of sports drinks. Furthermore, Der Spiegel, a leading German newsmagazine, reports: “Scientifically the alleged benefits [of sports drinks] is almost null… these products work best on the athlete’s wallet.”

I did find one story reminiscent of how multinational corporate products are treated in the United States media. In a recent article on Yahoo! Sports, it was reported that NFL cornerback Johnathan Joseph really likes the Gatorade situation in Houston. Good for Joesph, but will he think twice after hearing about the BMJ’s report? Happy hydrating people.

Quote Approval is Quite Atrocious

(Note: I’m a little late on this story, but I think it’s nonetheless important to include here.)

About two weeks ago the New York Times broke a story about the pernicious practice of “quote approval,” wherein a reporter covering a political official, staffer, or perhaps a candidate is allowed to vet the final version of his or her quotes for a news story. According to the article apparently this shameful journalistic process is practiced by the likes of “Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and The New York Times.” The reasons for this are various, such as to eliminate vulgar language or to streamline a message. Apparently in Germany the practice is quite common. According to Ian Taynor, a writer for the Guardian, if one were to include unapproved quotes, the German government would “write a letter to your editor [and] deny that [German Chancellor Merkel] ever said that.” That, in addition to not allowing access to future interviews.

This practice is toxic. In the first place, we already have a complacent news media that relies on official sources as the shining truth when discussing issues and policies that affect our lives on a day to day basis. Governments are little other than political entities that have control over not only the machinery of the state, but its anatomy as well. Assuming that they are objective purveyors of information is a practice that must come to a stop. I wanted to start with that as background, because that is the real backdrop on which this story is set.

Seeing that we are currently in a journalistic system that assumes the government speaks an objective truth, it is hazardous to allow officials to approve the content of an interview granted by them. The press is obliged to report the fact and context of a story. If the government (or staffers of an opposition candidate) wishes to respond to how one is portrayed in the media, then that is the course of action, not pretending that what was said does not exist.

The American Journalism Review posted a reaction to controversy calling for a unified response for reporters: don’t accept quote-approval. Bravo, thanks AJR. Several outlets have already pledged to not allow the practice. This will likely not happen, however, as access to important government officials and political spindoctors are important for the business model in corporate media. Only by understanding and confronting our failing media system will we be able to make a difference. Stay tuned for answers?