A Credible Faker–and A Future of Journalism

I’ve never been a fan of the term “fake news” because it over-simplifies the problem of poor instruction in critical thinking and media literacy. News stories have always been fabricated, and always constructed to persuade, disrupt, or otherwise confuse the audience or the reader. And honest journalism has long existed on the far side of the spectrum. Most of what’s in between is the mediocrity that describes most of the contents of a 24-hour news cycle.

It’s always been easy to print and publish truth or nonsense under an assumed or otherwise made-up identity. The now-esteemed Alexander Hamilton did it, and so did founding fathers James Madison and John Jay. In my early days of magazine writing, I sometimes wrote under an assumed name.

And, of course, we’ve been enjoying doctored photographs for a long time. If a friend cannot attend a wedding, he or she can be Photoshopped (a new verb?) into the image. We add sunrises and sunsets, make photographic models that much prettier, and so on. Many of us are now learning to do this with video as well. “I can’t believe my eyes” seems like a good way of thinking about what we see, especially on screens.

And that brings us to the fake news anchor, with the adjective fake referring not to the news itself, but to the anchor who is confidently delivering information as a kind of digital puppet (lots of connotations for puppet in that scenario). He can be programmed to read just about anything, from any source, but he looks quite human and his delivery, which will only improve, is already pretty darned good.

Have a look. And consider the possibilities for teachers, professors, and politicians, all programmed to say what you, or somebody else, wants them to say.

The News About The News

the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Kai Mörk

News coverage of a press conference, not a TV camera in sight. But most people still get their news from their TV sets. Attribution: Kai Mörk. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license.

During the past twenty years, each of the network’s evening newscasts have lost half of their viewers. These days, about 18 million Americans—that’s 18 million out of 240 million American adults—watch the nightly network news on ABC, CBS or NBC, with another 1 million watching PBS NewsHour. Still, most Americans still get their news by watching local and network television—that number hovers around 60 percent. If online is the second most popular source, it won’t be second for long, and it may have overtaken television in many peoples’ lives. Despite its convenience, radio is on a steadily decline; since 1991, it has lost about half of its role as a news provider. Its decline roughly matches the decline of newspapers, down.

For the most part, we pay for our news by watching and reading advertisements, and clicking on some, too. Advertising accounts for more than 2/3 of financial support for news. The second largest segment? Direct payments from the audience in the form of subscriptions, roughly 1/4 of the pie—the portion of your cable bill that pays for CNN, your subscription to a newspaper, your contribution to NPR or one of its member stations.

In the U.S., the news business is a very substantial: about $64 billion per year. That’s about 1/10 more than Google, which is, of course, just one company. Starbucks is about 1/4 of the size of the U.S. news business, but the global video game industry is about twice the size, so maybe Americans (alone) spend as much money on videogames as they do on news.

About 1/3 of all Americans now watch news video online, and that fraction increases to 1/2 for those in the 18-49 age group, but this is still a very small part of the whole news business—less than 10 percent of revenues, in fact.

Newspapers are changing—essentially eliminating their printing presses, trucks, ink and other 19th century concepts in favor of digital distribution. Among all newspapers, 1/4 to 1/3 of readers are using a digital device regularly, and among the 15 largest newspapers, nearly 1/2 of readers are enjoying their daily or weekly editions on screens, not on paper.

In just six years, Time Magazine and The Economist have lost about half of its newsstand sales—once a common model, picking up the magazine at the newsstand, now seems hopelessly old-fashioned. The New Yorker and The Atlantic have lost only about 1/4 of their newsstand sales. The decline is steady, and probably inevitable, but it’s difficult to explain why certain magazines have lost so much more than others. During the same period, revenues for Fox News Channel have doubled (but both CNN and MSNBC have shown only modest gains). In case you’re curious, it costs about $800 million a year to run Fox News, and about the same amount to run CNN (MSNBC costs less than $300 million.)

Five or six years ago, many journalists panicked because their industry seemed to be disintegrating. Some decided to take action. Since 2008, more than 100 digital nonprofit news outlets have popped up all over the country (in just about every state except Utah, the Dakotas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Utah. The San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston have been especially well-served. Some are sponsored by universities or nonprofits, some are independent, some are foundation funded. It’s certain a significant trend, albeit a new and fragile ecosystem. Many began with the financial assistance of a startup grant, typically under $100,000, that renewed only some of the time for a second go-round. Still, foundation funding is the principal source of funds for many of these fledgling operations. They deserve our support—especially during the critical early years. Happily, most surveyed felt that they would succeed in the long run through a combination of advertising, sponsorships, live events, individual subscriptions, and other forms of economic support. This an interesting phenomenon, and you can read more about it here.

The biggest change? Digital news sites are now strong enough to hire top journalists from newspapers, and entrepreneurs (Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar) are investing in the future of news gathering and distribution. The good news: this once-doomed industry is again showing signs of life, imagination and energy. As you time permits, I encourage you to fully explore the SPECTACULAR collection of reports that comprise the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project’s State of the News Media 2014 report. It’s all online. Or, download Overview PDF here.






What’s News?

Photo by Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany via Wikipedia –Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.
Charles Anderson Dana, American journalist, 1819-1897

News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.
Lord Northcliffe, British publisher 1865-1922

Okay, that’s a good start. We define news as information that is (i) novel, and (ii) potentially disruptive. A more modern journalist broadens the definition to its breaking point:

Well, news is anything that’s interesting, that relates to what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in areas of the culture that would be of interest to your audience.
Kurt Loder, American journalist, b. 1945

So I guess (iii) is, pretty much, anything at all.

Right now (8:48PM on the east coast of the US on Thursday, September 27, 2012), top news stories include:

  • A Florida woman who lost her leg to an alligator
  • A dog who is the only full-time employee (?)  of a New Mexico police force
  • Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s United Nations speech about Iran
  • The launch of a new Facebook service that allows users to send gifts
  • An office shooting in Minnesota in which two people where killed
  • Curiosity, the Mars Rover, finding an ancient stream
  • The imminent opening of the opera La Boheme in Philadelphia

Obviously, these stories represent a small sampling of the day’s news. Most of the stories are (i) novel because they don’t happen every day; but few are (ii) potentially disruptive in a meaningful way. And, per Kurt Loder’s definition, just about all of this would amuse an audience (particularly, and sadly, the alligator story). And that may the point: news as entertainment. Maybe a higher standard is unreasonable, and perhaps, undesirable, but just the same, let’s give the higher standard a try.

So about that alligator story…How many alligator-related accidents occur each year? Turns out, this woman was 84 years old, lived in a trailer park, fell into a canal, and the alligator did the rest. Accidents happen, but how often? The story tells of two other alligator amputations: one hand (a man) and one arm (a teenager), both earlier this year. Are there laws or common sense rules about living near alligators (beyond the obvious, don’t go near them). Why do we allow people to live near alligators? Why do we allow alligators to live near people? Is this a problem specific to Florida? Anyway, that’s what I want to know. But I’m not sure whether that’s news–and the likes of Yahoo! News seems happiest when there are LOTS of news stories, lots of spicy little items to peruse. All of it, you know, “new” because that’s what news (the plural of new) is all about. And I’m pretty sure “new” should not be primary criteria by which ABC News ought to determine the stories that should be told, or the resources it ought to muster in order to keep us informed.

What about highlights of Netanyahu’s U.N. Speech. Why bother reading it? It’s just the story of a politician going on about his country’s foe. Did you click on the link? I wasn’t going to click on it, but I did. And, it turns out, Reuters did a darned good job. Why? Because Reuters chose not to build the story from script excerpts–which is the normal news treatment. Instead, Reuters explained the story in context, and provided just enough history for me to understand why Netanyahu delivered the speech, why he did so today, what he hoped to accomplish, how the rest of the region would likely respond, and what it all might mean. It’s not just a headline with some bland repetitive crap underneath. It’s a story written by Arshad Mohammed and edited by Todd Eastham. Mohammed is a Reuters foreign policy correspondent, and you can read other stories he has written here. The page includes a small bio so that we know something about Mohammed’s professional credentials and their relevance to his written work. Much of what Mohammed wrote in this story is not new. Instead, he uses today’s significant event and explains its importance. This would be the high standard described earlier.

What might happen if every story, by some sort of people’s requirement, was as well-researched and well-told as Mohammaed’s? Well, for one thing, we’d know a lot more about the unfortunate 84-year old woman’s life, and life in a trailer park, and we’d know a lot more about alligators. The higher standard lifts the sensational “man bites dog” headline from the lowest level of human consumption (lust for the novel) to a far more interesting place where we learn something meaningful about the human and gator conditions.

Extend the high standard and the storytelling becomes rich and, perhaps, more deserving of our time. Facebook gifts–how is this likely to change our gift economy and the faceless interactions made so convenient by Facebook? What’s so special about La Boheme? What else does Mars Rover likely to find, and what does this mean in terms of our understanding of the universe? Should we be looking into the increase in public shootings, and insisting that law enforcement approach the problem in new or different ways, or is there reason to be comfortable with current practice?

I sure would like to know a lot more than I’m being told. If it’s new, I really don’t care. If it’s new and important, tell me why so that I will understand.

What’s the best way to accomplish this? (a) Fewer news stories, but more meat on the bones of the ones that are published; (b) More news stories, presented in greater depth and with greater attention to audience needs; (c) Greater attention to advertiser and funder needs? I don’t know, but there’s a lot to discuss in future articles.

The News from Camden

For the past month or so, I’ve been thinking about a series of articles about the ways in which we define news, and the purpose served by that definition. Earlier today, I encountered the article below. It’s written by a Jesuit Priest named Jeff Putthoff who does the Lord’s work by running a youth development center in Camden, NJ. Before you read the article, you should know that half of Camden’s children live in poverty, and that only half of Camden’s adults finished high school.  Once a thriving manufacturing city, Camden is located just across the river from Philadelphia–in fact, you can walk over the Delaware River, from one world to another.  Camden is a great American urban challenge–and  Reverend Putthoff is among those who believe in the city and its people. His view on the news is the subject of this essay, which appeared on Philly.com on August 19, 2012. I suspect most of my readers have not seen the article, so I am encouraging you to read the article by either clicking on this Philly.com link or reading the text of the article below.


Killings that don’t make news

The Rev. Jeff Putthoff is executive director of Hopeworks ‘N Camden

A few weeks ago, Camden had its deadliest July since 1949. That was the year that Howard Unruh, America’s first serial killer, killed 13 people on one day. This year, 13 people were killed over the course of 31 days. At the time, I commented on how differently the violence in Camden would be covered by the news media if it had been done by a single serial killer as opposed to many killers.

Amazingly, with the killings in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., we see how gripping one killer of many is to the country. We also now have a case of domestic terrorism – and significant international news coverage – with the horrible killings outside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin this month. Both of these incidents were unimaginable tragedies that have sparked hundreds upon thousands of debates and even more news stories. Both have elicited outrage and even responses from President Obama.

Here in Camden, where more people were killed last month than in either of the tragedies in Colorado or Wisconsin, there has been limited outrage and media coverage. In fact, there has been more attention and news about the new medical school than there has been about the people who are dying right outside its walls in the streets.

Just recently, I had in my office a young man who was speaking to his grief about losing a friend last month to a shooting. This was his second friend in a year who has been shot and killed. The loss is real, the trauma of the violence is deep, and most alarming is the lack of moral outrage that accompanies the “domestic terrorism” visited upon the people of Camden.

In State College, the crimes of Jerry Sandusky have been met with outrage. The outrage is not only about what was done to many young people, but the fact that so many people seem to have known or had some information about what was going on and chose to put Penn State’s image or football program first.

In Camden, murders are not being properly prioritized. Not only is our city being traumatized by ongoing, incessant violence and the trauma of losing life, but there is also a terrible public acquiescing that keeps it protected and perpetual. Such a lack of outrage is itself abusive. It “normalizes” the violence, making the unconscionable acceptable and continuing to wound the already wounded.

The question is, why do 13 murders in 31 days in a city of 77,000 find so little voice, so little reaction, in our world today? A movie theater, a temple, and a football locker room all engender a response that the streets of Camden don’t seem to warrant.

Camden is facing escalating crime and death. And yet the outrage is muted, the TV networks don’t send news trucks, and no memorial is held. It is the ultimate bullying: collusion with an abusive situation. In State College, such collusion is why Joe Paterno’s statue was taken down and why some officials may go to jail. As long as we continue to know and not act, the systemic and repeated abuse of Camden will continue.

The ongoing abuse and violence that are occurring in Camden need to stop. The lack of action around this issue is an outrage.

E-mail Jeff Putthoff at jeff@hopeworks.org.


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