Journalism: The 4th Estate

Journalism is often called the 4th Estate because of it’s role in the political process. Historically the notion of press as the 4th estate is found in 18th century French writings. At the time the three estates were the aristocracy, the clergy and the bourgeoisie. In modern times we might think of them as the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government. While these bodies set policy, make laws and interpret the law, it is the press that reports abuses of authority and defends the rights of citizens. In essence the press allows all members of society to participate in the democratic process. Without a free press to examine and critique the political process, governments operate in secret and may easily subvert the will of the people.

The release of Scott McClellan’s book* this past week provided a reminder of the delicate relationship between government and the free press. Former White House Press Secretary McClellan served the Bush administration after Ari Fleischer and before Tony Snow and the current Press Secretary Dana Perino (CSU-Pueblo/MCCNM alum, 1994). According to press reports, McClellan now claims that the press shirked its responsibility in the months and years leading up to the Iraq war. Rather than serve as the nation’s watch dog, the press corp was too easy on the Bush administration. According to McClellan…

“If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq,” he writes.

He continued, “In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”

These quotes are from the man who, while press secretary, criticized the media for being too aggressive and for undermining the administration’s efforts to protect the country. Of course hind-sight is 20/20 and it is too easy to second-guess decisions that were made under very difficult conditions. Today members of the press continue to defend their performance in the period between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war. Here’s a video clip in which the three network TV anchors respond to the question. What do you think? Does the press fulfill it’s role as guardian and watch dog, or is it too easily manipulated by the forces that control wealth and power?

* What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. Currently ranked #1 at Amazon.com

Streaming movies to your computer, and to your TV

For years the movie industry has been trying to figure out how to distribute their products to consumers. Movies that have a theatrical release have film “prints” made, which are then shipped to theaters (BTW, printing and shipping can cost tens of millions of dollars), loaded onto projects, and presented to audiences sitting in the dark listening to cell phones and small talk while their shoes adhere to the floor. Although I’m exaggerating the down-side of the theater experience (and ignoring the positive aspects such as image and sound quality, the group dynamic that allows us to laugh, scream and cringe at exactly the same moment, etc.), the economic reality is that printing and projecting 35mm film prints is destined for the same fate as the broadsheet newspaper. But until digital distribution and projection technology (and security) improves, it is still the best alternative for the group viewing experience.

Roku's interface box for NetflixViewing motion pictures in the comfort of your own home on your Blu-Ray high definition, 5.1 surround sound home theater system is another matter. With gas at $4/gal and climbing, there’s got to be a better way than driving to your local video rental store to pickup and return a movie on DVD. Cable would like you to subscribe to their VOD (Video On Demand) service to watch something in their library. But that’s part of the problem…their library is limited. Netflix, on the other hand, has a huge database of movies available. While currently only a fraction (about 10% of their 100,000 title library) are available for streaming to your computer, the good news is that more and more movies are being added, and you can purchase a piece of hardware for $100 that makes your Netflix moves available for viewing on your big-screen TV. Think AppleTV but cheaper. The Roku costs less (Apple TV is $250), and there is no additional cost per movie if you’re on one of Netflix’s unlimited plans that starts at $8.99/month.

When broadband internet connections and large-screen HD displays reach saturation, all movies will be distributed online rather than on disc. And if you want that group-viewing experience, you’ll just have to invite your friends over to the house!

Fans Idolize American Idol

American Idol is a cultural phenomenon in nearly every culture in which the franchise has been licensed (about 40 to date). American Idol (AI) came to America from England in 2002, and has spread around the globe at the speed of sound, from Armenia to Vietnam. If AI were a book it would be a best seller– if a movie, a blockbuster–and if a record, it would have gone platinum! Season after season, AI ranks at or near the top of the Nielsen ratings. As we approach the end of season 7, the two Davids are set to take the stage for the final two nights May 20 and 21. But many are left wondering what is the appeal that keeps fans glued to their sets? Can it be the lure of imagining oneself taking the stage and finding fame and fortune? Or perhaps the guilty pleasure of seeing contestants humiliated week after week. Whatever the allure, AI is only beginning to show signs of ratings weakness. While Fox struggles to tweak the show’s format, fan continue to tune in and vote.

Another interesting thing about AI is the way that it so conveniently demonstrates some of the leading trends of TV programming, such as interactivity (phone voting), product placement (Coke, iTunes, Ford, AT&T, and even Kellog’s Pop Tarts!), and spin-offs (programs that are derivatives of the original program concept).

What do you think? What makes the AI franchise so successful, marketable, and universal?

GTA IV

GTA Video GameGrand Theft Auto, version IV, is out today and according to early reports is expected to break a few records (perhaps $200 million in US sales the first week). USA Today reports that the video game industry is already on a roll, with revenues up every month for the past 2 years and last year reporting record sales of $18 billion. BTW, that’s more than the film industry. Video game critics are also suggesting that the rich narratives and increasingly realistic visual effects of games like GTA are making video games the ultimate replacement for feature films. Why just watch a film when you can control one?! GTA highlights the power of interactive media to engage the player while creating a world in which anything…and in this case it really is anything…can happen. Will Wright, the renowned game designer, calls this the game’s “possibility space.”

Of course there are always social issues that accompany any new technology and the related mass media phenomena. Rockstar Games, maker of GTA, has been in hot water since the “Hot Coffee” scandal when an earlier version of GTA had hidden content that was, a) not very well hidden, and b) clearly Adult Only in nature. I won’t get into the raging controversy about the effects of video game play right now, but if you’er interested, check out this audio podcast from On the Media.  Or, if you want, take a look at the extended trailer and you’ll get a hint of what the debate is about. Be forewarned, it is rated Mature, and some of the content is clearly not appropriate for the younger teen crowd.

Seeing Red @ NAB/BEA in LV, NV

For the acronym impaired, the second part of the title refers to the National Association of Broadcasters/Broadcast Education Association convention in Las Vega, Nevada. I attended the conference this past week along with a couple of colleagues and several students from CSU-Pueblo. As always the NAB exhibit hall was daunting…too much to see and take in in the short amount of time that I had. And the BEA conference that followed the NAB presented its own challenges. I found myself wanting to attend two or three concurrent sessions and having to make some difficult choices on which one to attend.

So, what did I see in Vegas…besides the sad evidence of thousands of people trying to get lucky? Perhaps the most impressive new tools on the NAB showroom floor were the cameras by Red. The promise of electronic cinematography has been around for a long time…Francis Ford Coppola was a leading proponent back in the 80s…but this camera heralds a new age of electronic image acquisition. With over 4K pixels horizontal, the high resolution image is suitable for delivery on everything from HDTV to film projection. And with a camera body price below $18K, some are calling the Red, “the tipping point of the democratization of filmmaking.” This year Red intro’d the Scarlet…a 3K camera below $3K. Truly amazing! Check out the YouTube interview with Ted “Leader of the Rebellion” Schilowitz.

BEA also provided an excellent opportunity to find out what’s on the cutting edge of media production, research, and instruction. I had the opportunity to attend excellent sessions sponsored by the documentary division as well as several research presentations by colleagues and graduate students. All in all, a very interesting and informative visit to this dull, dusty town in the Nevada desert.

What does it take?

What does it take to be a journalist? What kinds of skills are necessary to succeed in the role of news observer/reporter? And perhaps most importantly–what kinds of character traits are essential? Ask five practicing journalists and you’ll get at least 10 answers. But I’m sure that most would agree on some of the basics, such as: curiosity (with a healthy dose of skepticism), tenacity, ability to tell a story, attention to detail, high regard for accuracy, moral fortitude, and the courage to question authority.

It doesn’t hurt to have an area of expertise. Business reporters, medical correspondents, and sports journalists tend to have backgrounds in those areas and have the necessary expertise to know what questions to ask. If you want to report on global events, a second or third language could come in helpful. And if you want to have a career that lasts beyond 2010, consider digital media skills such as photography, videography and multimedia. The days when you could count on having a staff at your side to handle the “technical” matters is long gone and the crew of one is the norm.

But perhaps my leading advice to someone who want to report the news is simply to start doing it. You have access to an internet-connected computer and know how to type? Well get after it. Get yourself a Blogger or WordPress account and start writing. Report on issues that concern you, and, to stretch yourself, address other issues that are outside of your comfort zone. But write! Take an issue, dissect it, and put it back together. Try to find the story in something as mundane as a mill levy hike or something as controversial as a proposal for drug sniffing dogs in the high schools. Invite readers and their criticism. If you push a few buttons inviting criticism shouldn’t be difficult.

And if after a few months you find that you’re not excited by the process of researching, writing, posting and receiving feedback, do yourself, and the world, a favor and consider a career in accounting.

The Social Media News Release

Over at MediaShift Mark Glaser has written a fascinating article about the latest trend in news releases…the social media news release. If you want to cut right to the chase, check out the image on the right to see what a SMNR might look like. According to Glaser, the venerable news release–the stock in trade tool of PR practitioners–is long past its prime. The all-to-obvious solution is to update the release to take advantage of the power of social media.

Glaser quotes Tom Foremski who had this to say about traditional press releases:

Press releases are nearly useless. They typically start with a tremendous amount of top-spin, they contain pat-on-the-back phrases and meaningless quotes…Press releases are created by committees, edited by lawyers, and then sent out at great expense through Business Wire or PRnewswire to reach the digital and physical trash bins of tens of thousands of journalists. This madness has to end. It is wasted time and effort by hundreds of thousands of professionals.

Strong words. But if these new-fangled news releases catch on, it means that PR practitioners will have to become more savvy about social media technologies such as RSS feeds and social aggregation tools. And as these news releases incorporate more and more rich media, i.e., digital audio and video, skill with digital media tools will also be necessary. If you’re preparing for a career in PR and thinking that your future includes faxing text press releases–you may want to think again.

Psssst! Wanna buy an energy drink?

Hype energy drinkHas anyone every tried to sell you an energy drink as you strolled across campus? Or perhaps a classmate pitched the benefits of a particular brand of energy drink and its positive effects as you were waiting for your 8am class to start. No? Well perhaps you just weren’t AWARE that someone was trying to get you to buy something! Crazy talk, right? Well, what if I told you that I know a University student who earns a commission from an energy drink company, and that he carries an energy drink with him to all of his classes with a goal of “promoting” energy drink consumption on campus. Surprised? Just the visual cue provided by the unopened energy drink can sitting on someone’s desk might be enough to trigger an urge to purchase a can next time you’re near a vending machine. That, my friends, is called viral, word of mouth, or buzz marketing…and it IS a reality on this campus, and across the nation.

This is clearly a growth industry. According to researchers, Americans engage in more than 3 billion brand-related conversations each day. In order to monetize this trend, marketers are looking for ways to buy and sell these conversations. They even have their own association…WOMMA, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.

And if you didn’t already have reasons to be skeptical of the contents of blogs, you should know that PayPerPost.com pays bloggers to promote products and services on their personal blogs…effectively making anyone and everyone an agent dispensing commercial messages. PayPerPost calls it “sponsored content” and says that they require disclosure in order to comply with FTC regulations. But full disclosure and transparency may be the exception rather than the rule since there is little practical oversight.

Want to get in on the action but don’t have a blog? No problem. The PayPerPost application can also be added to your Facebook page. Oh, and when you recommend a friend who adds the PPP application you earn $15.

Wow, who knew that viral marketing could be so…

profitable?
easy?
ubiquitous?
invisible?

Data Driven Decision Making

curry.jpgThe best arguments appeal to both reason and emotion. But if you have to choose one over the other, data-supported arguments that appeal to logic and reason are usually preferable. And while the idea of math is frightening to many mass communication students, the preferred method of creating and sustaining a rational argument involves the use of statistical analysis. So whether you’re taking my Audience Research class, or Marketing Research, or you’re thinking about signing up for Sport Writing and Statistics class offered this fall…sooner or later you’ll be face to face with stats. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Thinking and reasoning with numbers can be an extremely valuable skill set to bring to a potential employer, and once you get over the initial “fear of math” you may even find that you like it.

All of us use statistical reasoning on a regular basis…whether we acknowledge it or not. We talk about averages, percentages and even probabilities. Given a sequence of numbers we can spot a trend and most of us know about the basic concepts of central tendencies and variance…even if we don’t know the lingo. If you are going to be a news reporter or editor you’ll need to know how to write about events using statistical concepts that your audience will understand. Simple stats turn confusing sets of numbers into understandable concepts. For example, sports statistics such as FG% and RBIs reduce a pile of data into simple numbers that are easier to understand and compare. According to stats.com, Davidson’s Stephen Curry ended the season with 25 points against Kansas for a season average of 25.9 PPG and a 3P% (three-point-shot percentage) of 44.8%. There’s even an online stats resources that uses sports and exercise science examples to teach statistical concepts.

On 60 Minutes this evening, Morley Safer filed a report about Bill James, a statistician for the World Champion Boston Red Sox. The segment illustrated the importance of statistical analysis when making critical decisions. So whether you’re a media content creator or consumer, a sports fan or reporter, a basic understanding of stats will serve you well in the long run…and in the short term it may even increase your GPA.

Creativity: The Stuff of Advertising

Advertising is a very attractive career path because of its potential for creative expression. While only a fraction of jobs in the advertising profession mention creativity in their job description, the business itself attracts people with artistic and creative skills…nothing at all like the accountants and sales people that work for Dunder Mifflin. Watch the opening scene from The Office: Local Ad to see what I mean.

But despite their creative moments, advertising pros are sometimes faced with a different effect than intended. The Hillary Clinton 3am Spot raised a few eyebrows when viewers questioned her use of scare tactics and whether Senator Clinton really was the candidate best qualified to take those national security calls, day or night. But an interesting twist was added when the young girl asleep in bed turned out to be–8 years later–an Obama supporter.

Use of stock footage is not an uncommon practice, especially for those on a tight budget. However, in this case, it is a classic example of penny wise and pound foolish. (And if you don’t know what that means, ask your grandmother.)