Wednesday, December 23

Fragmenting News: "Driven Media"


Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? — Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University and author of What Are Journalists For? might have posed his question last April, but its poignancy will become front and center in 2010. Although people like to poke fun at "old media," there is no such thing.

Old media has gone the way of the dinosaur. And if you missed it during the last decade, it's because things rarely happen all at once. They happen slowly. Old media went out with a whimper, not a bang. And I suspect most people don't even know what we've lost.

I think about it all the time, given I'll be teaching Writing for Public Relations this spring. It will be my tenth year teaching this core requirement for a public relations certificate program, but it might as well be my first.

With exception to the AP Style Guide, the text I once required (Writing in Public Relations Practice: Form & Style by Doug Newsom) has become largely obsolete. I've decided to make it elective, but only because there has yet to be a textbook published that I can justify requiring students to purchase.

The change hinges on what has become the fragmentation of media. There are some remnants of traditional media, but the entire field has been fragmented and the lines between the various practices are blurred. Tomorrow's public relations professionals have to know it all, but even their days are numbered as 80 percent of them think social media is the answer to everything when it's only the answer for some things.

What has been propped up in the place of traditional media are six divisions of journalism-like content. (I'm only offering up six divisions to help people get their heads around it. Most are blurred, blended, or feature multiple content divisions.)

Six Divisions Of Modern Media Content

Editor-Driven Media. This is the last stand of anything resembling traditional or old media, which is still one step removed from objective journalism. The concept is simple enough. "Experts" choose the news, with the best of them following in the footsteps of their professional predecessors and the worst of them attempting to set an agenda or practice "he said, she said" journalism, which is something people like Rosen and myself have railed against time and time again.

Blogger-Driven Media. While the vast majority of bloggers have no intention of becoming citizen journalists, public relations professionals have given some of them the first call leverage they need to be popular (sometimes in exchange for positively slanted reviews). But even without direct intervention by companies, bloggers have filled various special interest niches with the only real requirement being the time it takes to develop, market, and nurture a blog. Like it or not, bloggers can set the agenda for what receives attention and what doesn't based on variables as varied as the topics they write about.

Citizen-Driven Media. While most bloggers never aspire to be citizen journalists, there are a handful who do. Some of them used blogs to share content that resembles, aspires, or even competes with journalism on networks like the fledgling BrooWaHa, The Blog Paper, or any number ofdozens of others. Crowd-sourced content, like the Wikimedia model, fits well enough within this division too.

Consumer-Driven Media. While it might resemble editor-driven media on occasion, the presentation of facts are biased to provide consumers with the "news" they're looking for and/or an affirmation of their opinions. While the editorial team still calls the shots, they skew to trump up their circulation online or off using any number of tactics. Two of the most common: news dictated by what's hot on the search engines today or simply building niche content for special interests, left or right, so people with specific opinions can tune in to find preset facts. (e.g., if you think the country is on the right or wrong track, there is a news program for you.)

Propaganda-Driven Media. Special interests have done an excellent job at shifting traditional news desks toward special interest agendas or creating entirely new media outlets predisposed to researching, sourcing, filtering, and presenting information that is designed to support nothing other than a point of view. Years ago, it was called yellow journalism. Today, it's called progress. It's also disingenuous to the public because important topics like health care reform no longer have objective forums to vet out the worst of it.

Advertising-Driven Media. I recently read a post (but forgot to bookmark the link and backtype didn't pick it up) where a public relations professional said that the separation of news and the advertising desk was no longer needed. He went as far to say that it is part of the evolution of journalism. Within his context, it's not an evolution but a regression. Sure, I support companies establishing their own content online (heck, that's what we do), but the other form is much less authentic. Specifically, advertisers are setting the news agenda at media outlets.

The net outcome, at least in the short term, will be exactly what Rosen framed up, except with many more divisions than "he said, she said" media alone. People will be asked to sort out who's faking it more, despite their current predisposition to choose based on nothing more than popularity, affiliation, and social media metrics.

Get ready for a bumpy ride in 2010. It seems increasingly likely that it will be the year when the public makes its choice: do we want to support what we and/or our associates believe (true or not) or do we want to support those who are attempting to objectively pursue the truth (even when we don't want to read it)? I'm hoping for the latter, but am tasked with helping public relations students understand how to work in a world based on nothing more than the former.

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