The Media Revolution: What It Means for You

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As part of the University at Buffalo’s International Education Week, I gave a keynote address about what’s happening in the media world today — what we’re losing, what we’re gaining, and what the students ought to do about it.  I urged the students to “seize the opportunity to make contributions.  And take responsibility for the contributions you make.”

Here is the text:

University at Buffalo, International Education week, November 2015

“The Media Revolution: What It Means for You”

It’s a pleasure for me to be here as part of International Education Week. And I’m especially delighted that you have made media your focus. Nothing could be more essential to an understanding of this fast-globalizing world than media.

You know, we say that we are what we eat. More generally, we are what we consume. And that surely goes for media. Our media diet, like our food diet, shapes us every day – for good and for ill. If we select wisely, we nourish ourselves and contribute to good health. If we choose junk, we pay for it. Moreover, our society pays for it. Just as the nation’s health and economy are affected when people eat poorly, our democracy is undermined when people fail to nourish their understanding of the world around them. A government of the people, by the people and for the people is only as good as the thinking and participation OF the people. A democracy of know-nothings will get what it deserves: poor public policy, an inability to progress, a loss of international standing. You, individually, are part of the recipe for good health – for yourself, and for the society of which you are a part.

I want to say right up front that it used to be much easier to have a balanced media diet. You turned on the evening news. You picked up the newspaper. Other people did the collecting and the selecting for you. With minimal effort, you could keep up with what was happening in your community, your state, your nation, around the world. You could go to the polls with an understanding of what your candidate stood for.

 

We no longer have that top-down media model, and educating yourself has become harder. The opportunity exists to be BETTER informed than ever before, but more of the burden is on you – on each of us. Because we are putting together our own media diet, making it up for ourselves out of countless numbers of sources – a cacophony of information that runs the gamut from useless to reliable, from base to inspiriting. That’s why I’m here to talk to you this afternoon about the fast-changing world of media – what’s disappearing, what is being born, what that means to our society, and what you should do about it.

 

 

Let us begin by noting that we are in the middle of a great revolution in information. Many have said that it is comparable to the Gutenberg Revolution – when the invention of the printing press made it possible, for the first time, for information to come directly into the hands of the multitudes. For the past 500 years, that has remained true – but for most of that time, the information was expensive to assemble and produce, and therefore remained in the hands of institutions – book publishers, media organizations, governments. Thus it was that the great press critic A. J. Liebling said that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” But now, thanks to new technology, EVERYBODY owns a press. And now, thanks to social media, each of us has a limitless, unmediated space for communicating with one another.

 

This is exciting stuff, indeed. But before we dwell on its many benefits, we should think briefly about what we are losing. The institutions overturned by that revolution – the powerful daily newspaper, the near-monopoly enjoyed by your local television newscast: These organizations brought people together in a common body of knowledge. These institutions gave us three square meals of information without our having to put them together.

 

You know how people speak of a free press as the cornerstone of democracy? Well, that free press as we know it in the United States has seen its economic foundations broken into smithereens. Because of the fractionalization of people’s attention, the advertising model that paid for journalism no longer does so, and the results are dramatic. Let’s look specifically at newspapers, which used to get 80 to 85 percent of their revenues from advertising, but have been seeing drastic declines for years. According to the American Society of News Editors, there has been an almost 40 percent drop in newsroom employment at daily newspapers in this country over the last decade — from 54,100 to 32,900 today. That is a lot of reporters, editors and photographers, gone. That’s a lot of eyeballs no longer focused on your city hall or your local police force. That’s a lot of prisons, nursing homes and regulatory agencies no longer being investigated.

 

This dramatic downsizing of traditional newsrooms, we should note, does NOT mean the disappearance of newspapers. Indeed, more people are consuming what those shrinking newsrooms produce than ever before. But many are reading online, or on mobile devices, and that is not bringing in anywhere near the revenue the print newspaper long produced.

 

Meanwhile, digital ad revenue is growing – though nowhere near as fast as people once hoped it would. And the traditional news media are not getting much of that revenue. According to Pew research, in 2014, “five technology companies took in half of all display ad revenue, with Facebook alone accounting for 24 percent.”

 

As legacy media struggle to keep up with the revolution’s effects on their economic underpinnings, they are beginning (belatedly) to make changes in the way they relate to their readers and viewers and listeners – or, what has come to be known as “the people formerly known as the audience.” They are beginning to recognize the importance of community engagement, to collaborate with other organizations in ways that once were unheard of, to use social-media tools, to work with data, and to be interactive.

 

Network news viewership has actually been climbing slightly but steadily in recent years (although cable is struggling with substantial declines). Online radio listening is booming, with podcasts leading the way. It’s taken a long time, but legacy media are at last finding their way into a new world. We should, in my view, hope that they will continue to play a key role, for they remain essential – particularly in arenas such as local and state government coverage, watchdog and investigative reporting.

 

 

 

Now let’s look for a minute at what we have gained – or appear to be gaining – from this revolution.

 

The key development is that news is no longer a top-down stream from one organization to the multitudes. It’s now a multi-point system in which each individual – that includes you and me – plays important roles as both consumer and contributor.

 

There are, of course, still some principal actors, many of them fairly new. While legacy media revenues are drying up, cash is pouring into digital media companies like Vice, Buzzfeed, Vox and Gawker, which are also seeing enormous growth in their traffic. Some such sites may have begun with an emphasis on cat photos or “listicles” – articles made up primarily of lists, which are eye candy for most folks. But, happily, we are seeing a number of these sites move toward substantial news, including, in many cases, reporting abroad. These developments seem promising for national and international information in the public interest.

 

A bigger challenge is local reporting. Digital-native local-news sites have struggled with revenue-generation. Few have been able to figure it out. Many have given up; others plow on, with little profit in sight.

 

State reporting, too, has posed a challenge, though there is happy recent news in Politico’s opening of bureaus in the state capitals of New Jersey and Florida – with a reported “dream” of doing the same in every state.

 

In addition to the more familiar reporting models, there are new ways of reaching the public with important information. For example, consider the fact that it was on Medium — a “platisher,” meaning both platform and publisher – that the White House posted this year’s State of the Union speech before giving it to the press.

 

There are also many interesting new things happening in the arena called “civic tech,” which emphasizes tools that foster government transparency and civic engagement. There are tools that enable you to find out much more easily than before what’s going on in your local city council or state legislature. You can research crimes in your neighborhood, or report potholes to your local council member. You can track the progress of a bill in Congress or check the vote of your state representative. You can fact check a candidates’ debate and figure out who has donated what to a politician.

 

An organization called Code for America is seeking to make government documents more understandable. A tool called NextRequest helps streamline the public records request process. Some government agencies (though not enough, and not quickly enough) are beginning to present their own information more effectively to citizens, making government processes more open, and government data more easily understood and useful.

 

An especially significant development, of course, is that we – the people formerly known as the audience – are now also creators of content. We are all mobile and global, producing videos, sharing photos and links, vibrantly interacting with one another.

 

All of these changes mean that, when news breaks, what happens next is very different. Little more than a decade ago, we would have had to tune in at just the right time to see coverage on television, or wait until the next morning’s newspaper to read about the event in-depth.

 

Today, virtually instantaneous reports of the event are on Twitter and Facebook and other social media, enabling us to see video and hear audio. Live streaming gives us official reactions. People around the world take to social media to see what their friends have to say, and to express their own views.

 

But along with all this opportunity for good, this Wild West media world has created opportunities, also, for ill. There are fabrications and false reports. There is cyber bullying. There is appallingly prevalent hate speech on some social media platforms. And, sadly, the promise of democratization that the birth of the Web seemed to offer has not come about. Instead, we seem to be replicating online the old-media dominance by the white, the male and the wealthy.

 

Before we talk about what all of us can do to extend the gifts of this revolution and to counter its ills, I want to broaden the lens for a moment.

 

 

Let us look, just briefly, at what is happening globally.

 

We citizens of the United States can be woefully inward-looking. We tend, far too often, to think that we’re the ones inventing everything, and that we’re the best at all of it. That is a view that is utterly inaccurate, and one that robs us of the opportunity to learn from others.

 

A few years ago, when I was working in the Washington bureau of the Missouri School of Journalism, I held an annual symposium at the National Press Club on a topic connected with public affairs journalism. One of the best was the year that I invited people from various countries around the world to share their experiences in arenas where they were considerably more advanced than we were.

 

One speaker came from Accra, Ghana, from a radio station called “Joy FM” – an extremely lively news organization that was playing a central role in Ghana’s vibrant civic life. As I mentioned earlier, radio has been booming lately in the United States, but that came more recently. And the interactive role that Joy played in radio in those days was eye-opening for our audience, because it was uncommon here at that time.

 

Radio continues to be the primary news source in Africa – accounting for over 70 percent of the delivery of news across the continent, according to an Afrobarometer survey this year. But what is interesting now is that mobile Internet adoption in Africa is taking place at almost double the average rate in the rest of the world – resulting in remarkable advances in education, health and politics. IBM’s 2014 global consumer survey confirms that the percentage of Internet users in the three African countries it surveyed were among the highest of all the nations it looked at. Quoting from the survey: “In South Africa and Nigeria, instant messaging has become the number one channel to communicate with each other; in Kenya social networking is the number one communication channel. In fact, Africans are probably leading the major shift to mobile Internet use, with social media as its main drivers. Mobile broadband penetration is still low, but has by far the highest growth rate worldwide.

Interestingly, African news organizations are sending headlines out as text messages – a practice that African governments find hard to block, while blocking radio is easy.

 

Another speaker in my program came from Sweden, where something that is looked upon with aversion here, is embraced as good public policy: That is, public financial support for media. Smaller communities in isolated parts of Sweden are guaranteed continued high-quality sources of information even where it is not commercially viable – supported in part by a fee levied on television and radio sets. Sweden understands something that we do not seem to be able to see in this country – that public funding for media does NOT have to mean state CONTROL of media. Various forms of public support for media exist in many countries with a vibrant free press – including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. If they can all figure it out, why can’t we?

 

Back at the National Press Club, we also had a speaker from Canada. Every province in Canada requires media education in its curriculum, and they’ve done so for many years. Our speaker, an academic who has studied the matter, joked that one reason the requirement came into being was to protect Canadians against everything flowing across the border from its overbearing neighbor to the south! But the real point is that Canada had come to understand something that we very much need to understand, too – now more than ever, with the media world in revolution. And that is, that citizens need to be educated to consume and create media with discernment and understanding.

 

I want to talk bit more about media literacy, as we look at what you and I can do in this new media environment. But let me make two more quick points about the international scene.

 

We should note that there is, in many places around the world, a great deal of violence against journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1,150 journalists have been killed since 1992 – 46 already so far this year. Another 221 journalists were imprisoned last year. Countries like North Korea, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia continue to be black holes of information, and in places like Syria and the Philippines, doing the work of journalism can be a living hell.

 

Finally, you might be surprised to find where our own nation ranks in a listing of nations around the world based on their degree of press freedom. The most recent Reporters Without Borders ranked us, out of 180 nations – are you ready for the ranking? Not one or two, not 10 or 20 – the U.S. came in at number 49 out of 180. This ranking is due to pressure on reporters to reveal sources, aggressive prosecution of journalists, legal attacks on leakers, and hacking and surveillance of journalists.

 

There is work to do here at home, as well as abroad, to ensure that professional journalists can continue to make the contributions that remain essential in this fast-changing world of media.

 

 

Okay, so: What should we be doing about all this?

 

As we have seen, the news used to come our way in a reliably regular (if more limited) fashion. We got the basics if we just picked up the paper or turned on the TV. We didn’t have to worry about how to select it; it was curated. We didn’t pay much for it, either; advertising did.

 

Now, a much bigger supply of information is available to us, and a much wider variety, as well. But the consumer’s job has grown harder and harder, as fewer and fewer people do pick up the paper or turn on the TV news. Those sources are still available, but they are being diminished because the advertising that used to pay for them no longer relies on being connected to content. Now we can get news in countless places, but it’s up to us to curate it. We can be more widely and more deeply informed than ever – or we can know only what people who think exactly like us know. And that can mean, very little indeed.

 

So here is the counsel I would offer:

 

Remember that, as your own curator, you will be as healthy as the nourishment you choose to consume. That means you must be discerning about it. Seek opportunities to understand media better. When you find information online, consider where it came from. Go to the “about” section and see who funded the site, and what its goals and intentions are. Consider, for example that opinion can surely be as valuable as news. But opinion masquerading as news is deception. Be clear about what you are looking at.

 

Some people seem to believe everything they read on the Web, and some – at the opposite end of the spectrum – seem convinced that they can’t believe anything. Neither, of course, is true. I was once at an event where the veteran newscaster Marvin Kalb looked in amazement at new-media guru Jeff Jarvis, asking Jeff, “Do you actually BELIEVE what you see on the Web?” “Marvin,” said Jeff, “that’s like saying, ‘do you BELIEVE what you hear on the telephone?’ It’s just a tool, said Jeff. It all depends on who is saying it.

 

But if the Web is just a tool, it is a very powerful one, and one we could all use help in figuring out. There are many sources of this kind of help, from media-literacy courses in universities and communities to simpler offerings such as On the Media’s “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook,” which you can find online. It has a handy little guide that it suggests you cut out and tape near your computer. Here’s a sampling of that guide:

 

“1. In the immediate aftermath, news outlets will get it wrong. 2. Don’t trust anonymous sources. “ Also, “Look for news outlets close to the incident.” ”Compare multiple sources.” “Big news brings out the fakers. And photoshoppers.” And, my favorite – “Beware reflexive retweeting. Some of this is on you.”

 

It is also on you to think about whether you’re allowing a wide range of views into your diet. Are you following only the news that friends are sending you? Is it cast entirely in terms that you agree with? Are you learning, and challenging yourself? It is VERY easy to be lulled into narrow notions of the world – and, even worse, to be taken in by urban myths, or seduced by conspiracy theories. If it sounds too remarkable to be true, it probably is. Check it out.

 

And remember this: You are rewarding responsible producers of news and information when you click on their stories: You click; they get paid.

 

 

Just as what you consume matters, so does what you contribute. What YOU say, or link to, or send photos or videos of, matters – again, for good and for ill. What you create is the face you present to the world. Think about it. You are building a record. You are also shaping the debate – informing, or degrading, the public dialogue.

 

Seize the opportunity to make contributions. And take responsibility for the contributions you MAKE.

 

 

In closing, I want to say that I personally am very enthusiastic about this new world that the revolution is giving us.

 

Sure, I’m worried about the future of professional journalism, because its continuation is an essential element of the information universe. But I am also aware that we have the opportunity now, because of all the tools we have been discussing, to IMPROVE on what legacy media have done.

 

Consider, for example, that three-fourths of African-American news consumers and two-thirds of Hispanics have doubts about the trustworthiness of media report about their communities, according to a survey released last year by the Media Insight Project.

 

That must change, and you can help see that it does. We must create safe spaces for new ideas to be heard, for unpopular opinions to be voiced. We must ensure that ALL of us – women, people of color, the poor – are able to shape public policy, and able to work together to bring about a more just society.

 

I love that you have, as part of this week’s activities, the Dear World project. Reading about it –– an interactive photo shoot that celebrates the diversity and energy of the campus and highlights the message that there is much more that brings us together than keeps us apart – this is inspiring. You’ll be sharing your stories, focusing on international students, celebrating the differences and commonalities among us. Celebrating creativity.

 

This kind of thinking, and the world of ideas of which you are a part at this university – all of this is providing you with a terrific foundation to be the citizen consumer and creator that YOU are becoming.

 

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions and comments.

 

 

 

 

 

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