Readers vs Editors

While it seems that social networking sites have become an integral tool for journalism and in the media these days, it’s quite extraordinary how the New York Times has adopted ideas to make their news website more socially interactive. An article from Poynter reports that the New York Times has come up with a new commenting system that gives commenting privileges to “trusted commenters,” where privileges include having their comments on a news article posted online publicly automatically without being first filtered by a moderator.

So, what is a “trusted commenter” again, and how can a reader become one? 

The New York Times has an FAQ page on “trusted commenters,” in which the terms and conditions for becoming one is stated. A “trusted commenter” is defined as someone who may “enjoy the privilege of commenting on articles and blog posts without moderation,” and are invitational only based on the record of a reader’s “high quality comments,” as stated by the New York Times. Poynter also reports that readers who want to be a “trusted commenter” will have to submit and verify real names, upload a profile photo and state their origins or hometown. While this feature was eventually brought to an end, the New York Times had also created a feature called TimesPeople Beta in 2008 which allowed for each subscriber to “follow” one another, read the content each person has read or recommended and the reviews they posted. Each person was allowed to select which New York Times reader or subscriber they want to follow.

Is this reminiscent of Facebook? And is that what the New York Times is trying to emulate? 

Apparently not. An earlier Poynter article from this past August clarifies the intentions of the New York Times in making their site more interactive. Marc Frons, the chief technology officer for digital operations, was quoted as saying: 

It has to do with increasing the sense of identity and reputation on the site, making it easier to find your social actions and follow others. At the same time, we want to be smarter about encouraging our best commenters, our best contributors, and figuring out how to recognize them on the website.”

This proves that the role of the reader over a newspaper or news site certainly has increased rapidly. Last year, AOL developed an algorithm to calculate and gauge which articles people are reading and how readers respond to the news. This obviously has a large effect on what kind of news gets published, as readership is a high priority of most news sites along with quality journalism. However, the point to focus on is that readers are indirectly dictating what the news will be.

While it is undeniable that reader feedback is important in the outcome of a newspaper’s content, just how much of a reader’s opinion should affect or determine what the news is? And to a certain extent, is the role of an editor in deciding what news should be run being diminished?

It seems that there is now a larger emphasis on the reader in shaping the face of newspapers and websites than there ever was before. Readers have a significant influence on what news pieces get reported. They are encouraged to comment on news pieces to provide debate and feedback to the journalist. In regards to the New York Times, readers get to have their name and face on the website when they become trusted commenters, not unlike having a reporter’s byline. All these seemingly elevate the status and role of the reader to make them feel included while reading the news and to be part of a virtual community.

In many ways, social media has certainly shifted some power from the editors to the readers in determining what defines news, as seen in more news sites taking on interactive features to keep their readers interested. News sites today are becoming more sensitive to what readers want, and try their best to cater to their needs, raising questions about whether the priorities of a newspaper or news site has changed, and what it means to be a reader or contributor to the news.

Government opPRESSion?

An article we read for class discussed the ways in which a government would employ to restrict the freedom of the press in their country. Titled “Repression Goes Digital” by Joel Simon, the article discusses how governments in developing nations have become increasingly stringent in oppressing the media, resorting to restricting the flow of information online. The Iranian government cuts off internet connectivity, Tunisians and Vietnamese citizens are faced with firewalls and Burmese bloggers have been jailed by their government. Governmental control and censorship over the media has been taken to a whole new level, especially with the collaboration between governments and corporate companies. But when happens when a government interferes with the media by actually owning the media?

China, for example, is a country where the government owns a fairly large representation of the media. Ranging from radio to newspapers and news wire services, the government has ownership in all fields of media, if not owning them at least having a large influence over them. A specific example of this would be the state-run XinHua news agency. When the government has control over a media outlet the way the Chinese government does over XinHua, it begins to become a mouthpiece for political propaganda, as mentioned in a Wall Street Journal blog post. The blog post mentioned that XinHua was intended to be a news source for other countries so that China could improve their image overseas. Hence, most of the news pieces reported by XinHua are usually in favor of the ruling party.

Having the government in heavy control of the media, however, did not deter journalists from speaking up. A Chinese friend of mine at Mount Holyoke told me that many Chinese journalists still write independently under pseudonyms, and have their pieces on unofficial news websites that are obviously banned and blacklisted in China. However, this does not deter independent reporting from reaching the Chinese citizens, as they typically find ways to overcome the firewalls. However, a good number of these journalists live abroad in exile, but some still reside in China, increasing the possibility of being arrested by the Chinese government.

Journalists in Malaysia have also found ways to overcome government oppression in the media. While the government owns all of the mainstream media in Malaysia, ranging from widely read English dailies such as the New Straits Times or The Star to the national news agency Bernama. While several independent online news portals have popped up within the last decade in attempts to provide unbiased news that was not subjected to the opinion of the government, they remain unlicensed and are not officially recognized by the government as “proper” news sources. On some occasions, the Malaysian government would ban reporters from independent news websites, such as Malaysiakini or Free Malaysia Today, from attending press conferences or parliamentary meetings. What happens then is that reporters from the mainstream media would share their sources and notes with reporters from the online news websites, so that they would be able to write about the controversial happenings that the mainstream media reporters would never be allowed to write about. This creates a sort of symbiotic system between reporters of the mainstream media and the alternative press. That way the story still gets out, but with the collaborative work of both the mainstream media and alternative press reporters.

This had led me to question, however, the definition of a legitimate news source? The government certainly does not regard the likes of Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today as professional news websites; they are not licensed by the government and they aren’t likely to be issued licenses anytime soon. The situation is probably the same for the alternative press in China. Yet the newsrooms of these alternative presses run like a proper newspaper would, based on my experience interning with Malaysiakini during the summer of 2009, and I can safely say that they conduct themselves as professionally as any mainstream newspaper would. How important is governmental accreditation? Is it really needed, seeing as most citizens of Malaysia (and my guess this goes the same for China as well) probably recognize these alternative sites as more credible news sources than their mainstream counterparts?

Perhaps it is through critical thinking citizens that governmental influence over the media can be eradicated. Despite governmental restrictions and ownership over the press, Chinese and Malaysian citizens have still been able to independently judge for themselves what is considered a reliable news source or not, proving that regardless of how much a government tries to interfere with the country’s media, perhaps the ultimate power still lies within the people after all.

The Dwindles of Print Media: Where is it going?

The opening lines of a Boston Globe article that was an assigned reading for this journalism class tugged at my heart strings. It was a reflection of an old lady’s thoughts on the shutting down of a daily local newspaper, simply stated: “It feels like I lost a good friend.”

Dating back to August 2009, the article was on the shutting down of the Claremont Eagle Times, a 175-year-old daily newspaper that covered local community news in Claremont, New Hampshire and Springfield, Vermont. A news report like that, however, is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the decline of the print media, especially when it comes to local newspapers. Since the rise of the internet as a new medium for news and information, newspaper circulations have been in decline. Another 2009 report, this one by the New York Times, stated that newspaper circulation numbers were at an all-time low then, hitting figures that have not been seen since the Great Depression in the 1940s. The article pointed to the collapse in advertising as a factor of lower circulation numbers; less advertisements meant less revenue for a newspaper, hence they would make up for it by increasing the price of a paper.

Statistics from the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) reveal a continuous increase in newspaper circulation expenditure since 1940. The prices steadily creep up year after year, slowly but surely and predictably, until 2004 when the circulation expenditure price dropped from $11,224,362,000 to $10,988,651,000. It has been dropping ever since.

Although I am not taking factors such as inflation and currency value into consideration for this particular statistical result, my guess is that this is probably related to the increased popularity of the internet as a news source. Perhaps newspapers just couldn’t afford to spend that much money on expanding their circle of readership anymore, and are gradually having to cut down on expenditure that way. Daily (excluding Sundays) newspaper circulation volumes been decreasing before 2004 though; numbers were at their peak in the late 1980s to early 1990s, well above 60,000,000 before steadily declining after 1992. The most recent statistic provided was in 2009, with circulation at 46,278,000.

This definitely reflects the increased dependency on the internet as a news source, as blogged about by news consultant Alan Mutter on his blog, Newsosaur. Mutter blogged about his observations based on statistics released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which found differences between where “young” people and “old” people get their news from, with the “young” classified as aged 18 to 39 years of age and “old” as 40 and above. Not surprisingly, the “old” people depended much more on their local paper for things like news, the weather, political and governmental updates, business and culture than their younger counterparts, who heavily rely on the internet for these things. Based on Pew Center surveys, 75 % of young people (age 18-29) said their ability to obtain local information would not be affected with the absence of a local paper.

All these reports point to the fact that the younger generation is relying more on the internet than their local daily to get information, leading to the decline of newspapers as time goes by. This, combined with the decline in the advertising industry and possibly other factors, is slowly but surely eradicating the need for newspapers. What never really crossed my mind, and never came across until the Boston Globe article reading assignment, was the role of a newspaper in each of our personal lives. Each article I have read on the decline of newspaper focuses on numbers and statistics. This was the first article I have come across that touched on how a daily paper affected a community in such a personal way. New media and technology and the business of the news print has made us all so fixated with numbers, convenience and profit that we forget about the very human role a newspaper plays in our daily lives.

But to look at the glass as half full rather than half empty, perhaps this shift from paper to the internet is advancement in our standards of living. When the Marriot hotel decided to cut down on newspaper deliveries to their guests in 2009, they estimated reducing newspaper distribution by 50,000 copies per day, equivalent to 18 million newspapers a year. This, in turn, reduces 10,350 tons of carbon emissions each year. When we live in a society that cannot afford to exploit the environment much longer, the turn to the internet as a news source could have more benefits than costs, as the important thing is to keep ourselves informed regardless of the medium.



The Internet and Social Media: for Better or for Worse

Much debate over the Internet has ensued its booming popularity in the 90s, and the argument of its pros versus its cons has yet to be settled. Technology enabled the progress of the Internet in ways we would have never imagined; it’s hard to see what downfalls the World Wide Web brings. As technology supposedly improves our lives through tools such as the Internet and different avenues of social media, we inherently become more and more dependent on it. Yet, how does the existence of the internet and social media and our dependency on it affect our society? Does it bring our society together in a tighter community or widen the gap between us, tearing us further apart?

At first glance, global events around us would make most inclined to say the internet unites societies for the better. No doubt the media played a huge role in the Egyptian Revolution, for example, as Facebook was the major medium of communication among the protestors along with Short Message Services (SMS) via cell phones. In this case, new media helped a society achieve the political freedom and choice that they had wanted for years; it united them in their common ground and purpose in wanting change.

Though that may be the argument for most, Neil Postman claims otherwise, implementing in his book “Technopoly” that there is no transcendent sense of purpose or cultural meaning left within a society because of technology. In quoting Postman:

“The milieu in which Technology flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.”

Postman views society as degenerating when technology progresses, and singles out the overflow of easily available information due to the sophistication of today’s internet and social media. The invention of the telegraph, for example, transformed the preference for news from accurate, quality reports to speed. Today, the quickest newspaper or online news portal triumphs the more accurate one. When time is a factor, the quality of the news piece inevitably gets compromised, and with this comes a misguided purpose in churning out news for the public, as the aim would be to produce news as soon as possible rather than to produce news as accurately as possible.

The increased use of the web and social media as the main method of obtaining news and information could possibly split a society if technology usage is concentrated on a single generation. As the younger generation utilizes social media more and more, the gap between their understanding of what news is differs even more from the older generation, who for the most part are conditioned to read their news off printed newspapers. Terminologies and technical jargon, for example, would also become more and more integrated in our everyday speech, creating barriers within a single language. The word “tweet” for example, has taken on a whole new meaning in the span of five years, as it no longer brings to mind animal and song, a point mentioned by Postman when he discusses how technology undermines an old concept by creating a new one.

Yet apart from linguistic and cultural decline, there is a deeper sense of deterioration with the advancement of technology, affecting societies regardless of culture, background and location. The advancement of technology has come to replace belief systems, and Postman believes that this reflects a loss of belief in ourselves. With more and more information at our disposal through social media and the World Wide Web, we begin to favor technology over faiths and traditions, pitting one against the other; if the media promises informational accuracy, we believe in it like how people from the Middle Ages believed in religion. When we believe in and trust technology more so than our moral values and faith systems, leading us to pick fact over truth, revealing a major change in attitude and a loss of faith.

And with the complete disposal of faith, the only thing we have left are cold, hard facts, leaving behind a broken society without beliefs, purpose and truth.