The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

How to be a rebel (and other myths)

I didn’t come back to graduate school in order to become a rebel. First of all, my hair is a bit missing to recycle the Ramones hairdo, and I never could get the hang of riding a motorcycle. But within two months, I had become a rebel.

I had turned on the establishment.

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August 25, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | 1 Comment

Politics schmolitics

Jeremy at AEJMCDateline AEJMC convention in D.C. …

I just finished the second of two paper presentations here at the AEJMC convention in Washington, D.C., both of them studies based on citizen journalism research. Both were very productive sessions, I met a lot of people interested in the topic; it seems as if cit-j has a little more traction as a research topic than past years.

One standout theme has been the surprise people express about research about blogging and citizen journalism here in America. Two research projects I’ve been a part of now have shown that politics is not a topic of interest for most citizen reporters, and this squares with the literature that shows that it’s not a major topic for bloggers anyhow (see Rodzvilla’s section in “We’ve got blog: How weblogs are changing our culture” for reference).

I thought this had been demonstrated a couple years ago, but even in sessions now we’re having to correct people by pointing out that blogs are not political. It’s shocking information for some and the level of surprise is, well, surprising. Maybe it’s because the popular media tends to cover political blogs more than other types of blogs, and maybe it’s because the scholarly community is guilty of studying mostly political blogs. But this can have a type of agenda-setting effect that makes us as researchers think blogs are political.

Blogs are mostly “I went to the store today, here’s what a I bought” or “Here are another 372 pictures of my dog.” There’s a wealth of research fodder there if we just open our eyes beyond the political, or maybe if we broaden our definition of what we call political.

August 10, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | Leave a comment

Rest in peace, Genius

Jeremy LittauAs a kid growing up in the Bay Area circa the 1980s, you pretty much had to idolize the San Francisco 49ers. To me, Bill Walsh was always the maestro behind the dynasty, the perfectionist genius whose master stroke turned a moribund franchise into a consistent winner.

No, this is not a sports post. To be truthful, though, the passing of Coach Walsh (who started his coaching career at my old high school, Washington High in Fremont) hurts a bit. I grew up idolizing both his sense of class and innovative spirit. And as I think about what he did for the NFL, I can see that the lessons found in his coaching career have been passed on to a generation of people like myself.

In honor of Coach, some Walshian lessons for the cyberjournalist in the middle of changing times. … Continue reading

July 30, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | Leave a comment

The Web and the “fairness doctrine”

I have found myself on the Republican National Committee e-mail list somehow, I suspect it was the result of a well meaning family member or something. Usually I click and delete, but the latest email (and these things often double as fund-raising calls, so putting two and two together I assume these are sent out what is considered the party base) was a call from John Ensign to get people to complain about Democrats trying to bring back the FCC “fairness doctrine” so that there are other points of view on the airwaves.

The email had a link and you can read more about what they’re pushing, but the gist of it is threefold:

1. Liberal talk radio cannot compete on the radio financially, and so forcing stations to air the content forces stations to lose money

2. Forcing stations to air liberal content is tantamount to censorship of conservative views because it limits the unfettered broadcast of conservative ideas. This violates First Amendment rights.

3. The Internet has increased the “marketplace of ideas” to the point that liberal views exist online, thus the Fairness Doctrine is not necessary.

I’m not going to get overly political on dissecting this, but it has a couple relevant talking points that are important to our field. The reason here is obvious: Even if this is merely political rhetoric (which it is), it references some media values here that could make it sound “right on” to the average viewer/listener/reader.

The first point is the subtle tie that is made with the first two points, that of unfettered capitalism and the First Amendment. What actually happens in that case is that Milton’s “marketplace of ideas” concept becomes a LITERAL marketplace, where speech is bought and sold. Milton was speaking more in terms of town squares and public squares, and the notion that the public can collectively come to decide on issues after a robust discussion. If discussion is tied to profit, then at some point the discussion will by definition become less robust because the more profitable discussant has a leg up. Minority views might be so because they are wrong, but they are not always wrong. Anyhow, even Milton said we need the wrong views as much as the right ones. This is a question of democracy, not capitalism. The health of our government institutions cannot rest on profitability.

Second, and more to the point of this blog, is the point that the Web pretty much negates the need for the fairness doctrine. This seems to assume that media are pretty much created equal, but it forgets some huge differences between the Web and radio/television. The Web is vast and limitless; if I want to publish something online, I can do it in 5 minutes (and for free!). The airwaves are scarce; if I want to broadcast a viewpoint, I need money, and a lot of it.

The fact is, the lynchpin of the Fairness Doctrine always was that the airwaves are a public trust because they are scarce. To say that the Web balances out this negative is a huge reach, because one voice on the radio is but one of a few compared to how a voice fits into the entirety of the Web. This is not to say that radio is better than the Web, obviously. I am merely saying they are very different in terms of reach and scope.

Obviously Ensign is spouting rhetoric you’d expect from a party man, but the casual mangling of some imporant press values affects us all.

July 26, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | Leave a comment

The “end” of journalism

Jeremy LittauA new publication launched here in town, an alt newspaper weekly like you have probably seen in your towns. This one is a mixture of staff copy and citizen submissions run side-by-side, and it has some decent advertising.

But what caught my eye was its declaration of the end of journalism. The reasoning in the cover story was that Web 2.0 is giving people access to daily journalism and will end professional (read: elitist) journalism as we know it.

As much as I believe participatory media such as blogs are changing the news business, I am a firm believer that professional news (in some form) is here to stay. If something big were going on in another city, I am more likely to trust a professional reporter than the average citizen. It is the mundane stuff where the citizen is more agile and able to compete.

People will buy political news when they care about politics; what are we doing trying to sell them stories about a local bake sale fund-raiser? Why would they want to buy something like that?

The rise of participatory media is not a function of technology, in my opinion. It really is coming on because the public are starting to see the farce of elevating mundane local news to the same value we give stories on Washington policy. The paper still comes out on a slow news day, and we charge the same amount no matter how much value we offer them. Doesn’t that really devalue the product when we charge the same for a slow news day as we do on a major news day?

Given the choice, I won’t pay for the newspaper with the bake sale on the front. I’ll get it from free media or go without, because it doesn’t have value for me. There are two scary thoughts that follow that statement. First, I believe in newspapers, so for me to go without is a big step. Second, I’m in the Gen X generation that publishers have been chasing, and I don’t think I’m all that different from my peers.

So maybe we’re not at the end of journalism. Maybe we’re at the end of watered-down products and bloated news organizations that produce more filler than news. Perhaps less — publishing less often, using less news hole on slow days, charging less on slow news days — really is more.

July 10, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | 1 Comment

“Different” vs. “Better”

Jeremy LittauSnobbery comes in all forms. The elitist snobbery that has plagued a sense of exploration and innovation in the media industry has led to a disconnect between media producers and audience, and we’re trying to catch up now. But the upstart kid, the new media ventures that are cutting into the media pie by connecting people in ways Old Media always should have been, has its own issues.

Andrew Keen, former founder of Audiocafe.com, recently ruffled more than a few virtual feathers by suggesting in his new book (“The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture”) that social networking sites and blogs are ushering an era where amateurism is valued more than expertise. This, of course, is sort of a twist on what drives citizen media; the amateurish is not so much praised as the amateur sharing what expertise they have rather than a journalist sharing acquired expertise. Keen’s work essentially criticizes an Internet movement whereby the amateur’s view is seen as more valuable than the expert’s. Keen describes his book as a “grenade” lobbed at those who somehow think social networking is a cure-all to media ills.

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June 11, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | Leave a comment

A new “vision” for Web news

Jeremy LittauI stumbled across something new when browsing for news on Google. Well, not new, just new for the news business.

We’ve been talking for a while in the academy about how the Web brings usability to those who are disabled. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in in practice until last week when I was browsing the Casper Star-Tribune, which is based in Wyoming.

Each story has a link across the bottom that allows you to download an ASCII file for that story. This would allow a blind reader to use the file to have their computer convert it into Braille. I’ve seen a few other publications incorporate the technology, but I’ve never seen one make it so accessible to each story. Usually you have dig for it, if it’s there at all.

This of course raises some questions about how usable is what even Casper has. While it’s good that the links are there for each page, it appears to be set up in a way that a person who can see still must download the file for a person with impaired vision. I couldn’t find a place to subscribe to a type of Braille feed for the site.

Presumably this is a first step, but it’s a good one. Why do we have to go online to papers in Wyoming, where there is less broadband access and technology penetration, to find such things. It would seem that newspapers, which traditionally assert they are a public service, would find the people and wherewithal to refine this system so that people with impaired vision can become news consumers again.

May 29, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | Leave a comment

The virtual reporter

Jeremy LittauPasadenaNow.com editor James Macpherson caused quite a stir last week when it was reporting he was outsourcing coverage of the Pasadena (Calif.) city council. Hiring freelancers? Citizen journalists?

Sorta, but think more globally.

Macpherson outsourced coverage of the Council to two reporters working India (see L.A. Times story). According to the story the feeling was that, since the Council meetings were already broadcast on video via the Web, what’s the difference between having someone watch it on the Web and having someone watch it in person?

The old guard’s response was fairly predictable, and the story has the stunningly vague “It just seems so fundamental to journalism to be there” comment from Rob Gunnison of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Pretty on par with the I-know-it-when-I-see-it test of obscenity and There-are-known-knowns test for figuring out what’s going on in Iraq.

Don’t get me wrong, there is something unique about being the on-the-spot witness of events we cover, I’m just not sure it qualifies as “better” all of the time. How many dull city council stories have been filed by people who were actually there? They litter the birdcages of American households. More to the point, how many times has a reporter covered a meeting and been up against a filing deadline that left them to do little more than cover the comments said during the proceedings. It happens all the time. I know it happened to me a few times.

But what about the flavor of being there, observing the audience? Here’s another scenario, something highlighted with some hilarity in a recent Daily show bit on the Republican debate last week. At big events, reporters often are shuttled to an adjoining room, forced to watch it on television, and then subjected to the spin in personal interviews afterward (if they can get one at all). On a much less serious topic, sports reporters have been forced to do this for years at major sporting events where press credential demand exceeds the space available in the press box. And so reporters depend on the television and quote runners to get what they need to construct a story. So what good is it to be there at that point?

Like I said, this is not to knock journalism based on empirical observation. Covering it from a far, with India being an extreme example, is just a different way of doing it. At the very least, though, we need to get over ourselves if we think that even in the bastions of journalism the “I was there” standard of reporting is practiced all the time.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | 1 Comment

iReport and the ‘Field of Dreams’

Those of us working on MyMissourian like to talk about the ‘Field of Dreams’ concept that seems to plague startup Web offerings in particular.Jeremy Littau

“If we build it, they will come.”

It sounds so simple that it must be true, except that it’s not. One of the biggest lessons we learned in the early stages with MyMo is you have to promote your new site. A lot.

The reason I am thinking about this now is because I’ve spent a lot of time today looking over some of the participatory journalism offerings on the Web related to the Kansas tornado outbreak. CNN, in particular, caught my eye with their iReport call for submissions right below a story about how 95% of Greensburg, KS is gone after a huge tornado:

“Were you near the storms? E-mail us”

Most of the homes and businesses in Greensburg were destroyed, so I doubt they have either the electricity or the Internet connection (not to mention the wherewithal) at the moment. And those from a few miles away are gearing up for another round today, doubt they’ll make the trip to be an iReporter.

What makes participatory media different is we can share different voices through it, but it seems that the more local to the big news (say, Greensburg), the better. If this had happened in Columbia, our system would be to go out and find people to submit, not post a note on the site and hope the content comes in.

In traditional media such as newspapers or television, we tend to think the big guys, the national guys like the NYT or Washington Post, have the advantage. They have the resources and the manpower, and they can cover news in far-flung places when stuff matters.

But in a medium where the people are being depended on to tell the news, not just be a source, the hyperlocal journalist has all the advantage over the national players. They can find people in the community, people on the ground who can tell the story. It is examples like Greensburg that make me wonder whether national citizen journalism will ever get the kind of traction it needs to flourish. Our experience here is that human relationships, face-to-face contact, not only increases the likelihood of someone submitting but also the quality of those submissions.

The first outcome is great, the second one is absolutely core to what we’re trying to do.

May 5, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | Leave a comment