The Fox and the Hound: Day 3

October 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

After living underneath a rock for the past weekend, I turned on my telly today expecting to see Hugh Laurie diagnose yet another medical mystery with an endless array of quips and pseudo-American wit, but alas what I got was far less entertaining.

A Series Killer's Message. Get it?

It was a white screen with a Cablevision logo in the bottom right and a pre-recorded message that could basically be summarized as ‘Fox is evil’ or more specifically, News Corp. is making unreasonable demands for retransmission fees. Now the typical viewer will react with moderate indifference until realizing that the message is indeed a blackout.

Fox blacked out channel 5, along with My 9, to Cablevision customers for a third day in a row, leaving 3 million viewers in the NY metro area in the dark–or in this case, in the ambiance of a bright white screen with looping audio of an angry retort by Cablevision.

While television viewers are accustomed to such messages of thinly veiled threats concerning contractual negotiations on the air, this recent spat between Fox and Cablevision is perhaps one of the most nastiest to date.

In March, it was all about a rumble between Cablevision and ABC, owned by Walt Disney, which culminated in a truncated broadcast of the Academy Awards. The blackout in that case had only lasted about 20 hours before both parties caved in to pressure.

And therein lies the rub: such blackouts, though heated, are bad for both sides. The provider is unable to provide viewers with programming, angering and perhaps losing customers, and the network suffers losses in ratings, which ultimately affect how much they can charge for ads.

It’s a lose-lose situation, one that has a journalistic angle of course.

The so-called retransmission fees refer to how much a provider, like Cablevision, needs to pay a network, like Fox, to air the latter’s content. Such demands from networks to steeply increase retransmission fees point to an underlying problem of profitability.

Fox, which is asking for $150 million from Cablevision (up from $70 million), is not much different from other networks which have similarly put the pressure on providers to pay more for programs in an effort to decrease their dependence on ad revenue.

Retransmission fees as an alternate revenue stream may seem all honky dory aside from the fact that such networks, Fox in particular as one of the major networks, has a commitment to public service in the form of news programming.

Fox made the dispute personal when it cut off access to its content to Cablevision internet users on Hulu, angering not only the tv crowd, but the web geeks and nerds (a phrase that is becoming less and less meaningful as we are all begin to spend our lives living on the web).

While no one can say just how long this stalemate will last, I think we can all agree that it’s rather unpleasant when the news actually affects our lives–or at least our television habits.

An Endangered Species: Science Journalism Part II

October 16, 2010 § 1 Comment

Out of a fluke, I decided to attend a lecture series last night on campus after hearing word that one of the panelists was a J-school faculty member and also that the topic of discussion was the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill, also colloquially (and perhaps, unfairly) known as the BP oil spill of 2010.

[Note: I will be posting a full write-up of the panel meeting on The Stony Brook Independent, the student-run online news site that I work for as a copy editor and as a staff reporter.]

The lecture, which was part of a “Living World” series hosted by Stony Brook University, featured several environmental science faculty members as panelists and provided an ecological as well as biological look into the current and possible future effects of the spill on regional wildlife, businesses, and the overall oil drilling industry. James Klurfeld of the SBU J-school, also provided insights on the press coverage of the spill, which lasted 86 days and changed form from an initial report on the oil rig explosion as a breaking news story on the death of 11 people, to a full blown ecological disaster–the likes of which have not been seen since the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.

Klurfeld chalked up journalistic truth as a provisional truth dependent on the best available sources at any given time. He also pointed to the crunching media industry and the loss of scientific expertise within the journalistic community to provide well-trained science reporters.

While Americans may see the “environment” as a hot-button, partisan issue, as a person with a moderate background of environmental science (I was very much on the track to becoming an environmental engineer after having studied environmental science and urban planning the last two years of my high school career) I can tell you that the environment as a whole is not a political issue, but a social one. It dictates the daily lives of billions and is a local, national and international story. Similarly, it’s a hard beat to cover–one that requires a certain working knowledge of biology, chemistry, and familiarity with the scientific method.

As I mentioned in a previous post, science journalism is a necessity, not a niche field that can be relegated to so-called geeky magazines and elitist tiers. It’s a pressing topic that concerns all of us and it’s a topic that is in the most danger of being dropped from headlines and the minds of readers due to its technical nature. But like I also said, there is no reason why science journalism should be dry and technical. Tech writers are more in demand than ever and science journalism represents a more inclusive spectrum to that field.

Klurfeld also pointed out an interesting site called the Daily Glob, which is powered by the Society of Environmental Journalists and provides a comprehensive look at the spill from a reporting perspective.

Online Pay-Per-View

October 10, 2010 § 1 Comment

Ah, the internal memo.

I’m sure at some point in time that the internal office memo remained internally within the office and was a sacred part of office etiquette not to be trifled with.

Gone are those days (if they ever indeed existed).

This recent post on Business Insider features a leaked memo from Gawker owner Nick Denton concerning how much employees should spend when buying a “commissioned piece of content.”

In other words, how much should Gawker be willing to spend in order to introduce readers to Jenn Sterger?

While such tabloid-esque stories wouldn’t carry much clout in the straight news industry, the idea of this pay-per-view journalism is definitely catching on when it comes to the web.

Increasingly, websites take a similar approach to defining costs based on clicks–letting clicks determine not only a story’s worth and budget, but the worth of the journalist who wrote it.

On a hyperlocal site like Patch.com, where local bureaus can consist of nothing but a single editor and a handful of freelancers, contributors can get paid a whopping $30 per article (so say a few of my friends who contribute to the site).

While a published clip is a published clip and j-students are probably more than grateful to receive any kind of monetary recognition for their student work, a lot of these online freelancing gigs pay a rather microscopic nominal free or even pay you purely based on how much web traffic you direct to their site.

What you end up seeing are desperate status pleas from friends on Facebook asking you to bring them one click closer to the thousand or so views needed to generate a dollar.

The boom of the internet seems to have caused an exponential rise in information and news, but not necessarily original information or news.

Traditional print media has sort of always relied on a “build it and they will come” kind of strategy, using ad revenue streams to make costly newsprint profitable, often operating in the red for years before breaking even.

While the web is seemingly based on the traditional business model of ads, the relationship between news and ads and how they affect each other is a bit murkier online. What happens when journalists’ pay are in direct relation to how many views they get? Do the same standards of journalism apply then too?

Sebastian Rotella: ProPublica

October 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

 

From drug-fueled violence along the Mexican-U.S. border to uncovering global terrorist networks in the Middle East, reporter Sebastian Rotella has probably seen it all.

 

ProPublica.org

 

The ProPublica senior reporter spoke recently as a guest at one of my journalism classes. It was both sobering and uplifting–sobering because it further elucidated the shaky state of investigative journalism, and uplifting because his career represents my ideal prospects for the future.

Rotella worked his way through the ranks as a copy clerk in Chicago, eventually making his way to a stint at UPI, and later to the Los Angeles Times, where he spent much of his 23 years at the paper as an international correspondent with an investigative edge.

He still works on the hard-hitting, international stories that have built his career–only this time from the web. As a senior reporter at ProPublica, Rotella can continue the long-form, in-depth style of journalism that was once the crown jewel of major dailies.

ProPublica, a non-profit website dedicated to investigative journalism and funded by the Sandlers (banking industry), became the first online-based news source to win a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for a piece on medical treatment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The site is also unabashedly web while playing nice with print.

Indeed, as Rotella pointed out, much of ProPublica’s success has to do with its symbiotic relationship with traditional media [listed here], which significantly broadens the readership of what would otherwise be a primarily web operation.

It’s symbiotic because ProPublica gets the circulation that major dailies can provide, and in turn, newspapers and other outlets can get investigative reporting on the cheap–or rather, for free. [See their interesting “Steal our stories” clause here.]

As newsrooms continue to tighten their already narrow waists, whittling down staff and quality–expensive and time-consuming investigative reporting has also received the heave-ho.

But other than that, the transition to web hasn’t been all that big of a change for Rotella, who said that he still uses the same newspaper approach to investigative reporting, which emphasizes a multiplicity of sources.

It’s reporting that’s done with rigor. And sadly, it’s reporting that’s done less and less frequently.

Rotella, who said that he was growing “more and more depressed about the state of the paper [LA Times],” appeared more optimistic about the possibility of investigative journalism on the web. Specifically, Rotella said that ProPublica is “even better than the LA Times at its peak,” referring to both outlets’ trend of investigative reporting.

As a more than occasional reader of ProPublica, I was very much surprised to learn about how closely ProPublica works with traditional media in terms of free reign over publication of their articles in print or for broadcast.

It would almost seem counter-intuitive considering everything that I’ve been learning so far about the state of traditional journalism, but he brought up an excellent point about the clout and immediate impact that traditional media carries.

Come to think about it, big news doesn’t become big news until it’s carried on the evening broadcast or run in the city paper. Even websites seem to fall into certain credibility castes, with traditional media websites still leading the gamut alongside popular news blogging hybrids.

One thing’s for sure: while the current business model for journalism seems to be in need of a dire change, in-depth journalism itself seems better for wear.

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