Friday, August 19, 2011

Troglodytes unite

I have been accused, rather often, of being a media troglodyte.

I protest. The argument has gone that printed media are inferior to the digital form for any number of reasons. It's old-fashioned. It's slow. It requires dead trees. It is favored among the old and decrepit. These are all true. They are also essentially irrelevant.

The greater issue is, what is the best way to learn, to become informed, to be engaged? Smart media managers say they are "agnostic" when it comes to the particular medium they want to use. What they mean is that anyone who still clings to print is a troglodyte.

As a newspaper publisher, I find many things about digital distribution quite enticing. The most compelling is that it's extraordinarily cheap. Many of us in the newspaper business, despite our reputations to the contrary, would love nothing more than to shed our images as ink-stained wretches and go all in when it comes to new media.

For better or worse, the Internet business models stink and, it turns out, printed media are still pretty darned effective -- both as a business and as a way to convey information. We now have some academic support.

Three doctoral candidates at the University of Oregon, people clearly way smarter (and younger) than I, have concluded that people who use new media tend to ignore their multimedia aspects. Moreover, they found that "...print subjects remembered more news stories than online subjects and suggest that the
development of dynamic online story forms in the past decade have had little effect toward making them more impressionable than print stories."

In other words, all of the effort we've all made toward utilizing the many bells and whistles of new technology are of less import than we had thought. I am not making this up.

In a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Mass Communication and Journalism, researchers Arthur D. Santana, Randall Livingstone and Yoon Cho. This research does nothing to counter studies that have shown that more people now get their news from the Internet than print, a process that took a mere 15 years.

However, the Oregon smarties cited research concluding that "print newsreaders remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders. Part of why online readers tend to scan stories while print readers tend to be more methodical might be explained by research that found newspapers offer news stories with more depth and breadth than online stories."

Not only are print sources more extensive, but Internet sources are "more opinionated" than print sources, they report.

There is nothing inherently superior to one medium over another, of course, and that's the point. The mere fact that information is distributed using the latest technology doesn't automatically make it inferior or superior to other methods. The current bias seems to be that the last 15 years portend the next 15. That isn't necessarily so.

News consumed in print is "more impressionable" than information found on the Internet. The researchers found that "online newspapers are apt to give fewer cues about the news story’s importance, thus giving readers more control over story selection. In this way, part of the agenda-setting function of the newspaper is lost in the online version. Online readers are apt to acquire less information about national, international and political events than print newsreaders because of the lack of salience cues; they generally are not being told what to read via story placement and prominence — an enduring feature of the print product." In fact, “...  what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation."

Of course, none of this suggests that either newspapers or readers should forsake the Internet. That would be stupid. However, as the Oregon researchers conclude, "The implications of the research should inform the resource priorities of newspapers as they continue to undergo sweeping changes in the readership habits of their print and online audience."

In other words, let's not rush toward embracing technology because it's there. Let's use it where it makes sense, but let's not be so quick to abandon methods that work.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Information junk food and bubble filters

It’s entirely possible that the more you use the Internet, the less you’ll really know about the world.
What happens over time is that algorithms used by Google, Facebook and other applications set up a “filter bubble” that constricts what you see online. In short, these applications keep track of what you search or talk about and start limiting what you see based on your use of the application.
Yahoo News does it. Some large newspaper web sites are doing it. Over time, this is shrinking your world.
At a recent Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, speaker Eli Pariser referred to this phenomenon as the emergence of “filter bubbles.”
When you use Google and other search engines, your results may differ vastly from those of others Googling the very same thing. What’s happening is that Google is filtering your results based on your previous searches.
Yahoo News uses 57 -- 57! -- different pieces of information to determine how it responds to your queries. These include everything from your previous searches to what kind of computer you use and where you live.
“This moves us very quickly toward a world where the Internet shows us what it thinks we need to see, but not necessarily what we need to see,” said Pariser.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said it more bluntly: “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”
In the world of filter bubbles, “You don’t decide what gets in, and, more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out,” Pariser says. “Instead of a balanced information diet, you can end up surrounded by information junk food.”
“What we’re seeing is more of a passing of the torch, from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones. The thing is that the algorithmic ones don’t have the kind of embedded ethics that the editors did.”
This happens despite our best efforts to avoid it. You may think you’re really digging through the Internet in search of answers and information. But your search is only as good as the algorithm that drives it, and those algorithms are keeping you in a box.
One of the most valuable and enjoyable parts of consuming information -- from newspapers, magazines, television, books, and, yes, the Internet -- is a sense of serendipity. We often learn things we hadn’t set out to search for. That is largely lost on the Internet, despite the sense of the Internet's vastness.
“We need the new gatekeepers to encode that kind of responsibility (followed by newspaper editors before the Internet) into the code that they’re writing,” said Pariser, to a standing ovation.
(Thanks to reader Robert Wright for alerting me to this presentation.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Criticizing journalism, one cartoon panel at a time

Eight or nine years ago, Brooke Gladstone interviewed me for her National Public Radio show, "On the Media."

Back then, the Post Register was one of a handful of daily newspapers in the U.S. charging for access to its online content, and this was her topic. I must have been boring or lacked insight, because the segment never aired, so far as I know. It’s moot, of course, because nowadays most small newspapers charge in one way or another for online access to their news.

Gladstone has written a new book, “The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media,” (W.W. Norton, $23.95) and it’s getting a lot of buzz. Well, “written” is too strong a word. It’s essentially a comic book, or “graphic” book, consisting mostly of pages of cartoons by Josh Neufeld and cartoon bubbles with commentary by Gladstone. Presumably she did this to attract a broader audience – people who don’t like to read, in other words.

This is an important segment of our population, so Gladstone gets kudos there. However, the book is neither profound nor important on a larger scale. That said, she makes some relevant points – not that I agree with all of them.

For example, she suggests that objective journalism is an impossible goal and should be thrown over in favor of transparency and disclosure. 

“The question isn’t whether (journalists) hold opinions, but whether they suppress those opinions – to the extent they can – when they do their work,” she writes in one particularly eloquent cartoon bubble.

Here, of course, she states the obvious. No one believes that journalists are automatons devoid of opinion or life experience that colors their world view. But just because pure objectivity can’t be achieved doesn’t mean that we should dump it as the ideal. Truth is, we should strive to be objective AND be utterly transparent in our process.
The ideal of objectivity came about as a business decision, not an ethical one, as Gladstone points out. Early in our country’s history, newspapers openly supported one agenda or another. Eventually, however, publishers learned they could sell more papers by providing a product that appealed to the broadest possible audience. It was well into the 20th century before this became an ethical ideal.

Gladstone uses up a good share of her cartoon panels trying to make the point that “media” is a plural noun and that there can be no monolithic “mainstream media” that wields powerful, coordinated influence. This would seem to be slap-yourself-on-the-forehead obvious, but perhaps it takes seeing it in graphical form to drive home the point.

If you have some time between dinner and bed time one evening and hate the idea of tracking footnotes, grab up the book and give it a read. Meanwhile, I’m going to drop her an email to suggest that I’m available to revisit the paid content issue.