All posts by choldenlewis

The Brave New(est) World of the 21st Century Media

I think that it’s remarkable how far human society (and consequently, its media) has progressed. However, what I find truly  amazing, as well as quite hopeful, is that our social and technological development is accelerating, and has been doing so for the better part of a millennium.

What began over 500 years ago as a trickle of technological, economic, and societal growth grew into a torrent. The first daily newspaper was founded not two centuries after the Gutenburg’s perfection of the printing press.  Mass circulation media and the telegraph both arrived under a hundred years after that. The first telephone call– under forty years after the telegraph.

Then it really took off.

Film, radio, television broadcasts. Networks, computers, satellite communications, the Internet. Cassettes, CDs, DVDs, Blue-Ray, Facebook, Twitter. All invented either after or just before the last turn of the century.

I won’t go so far as to say technology is the primary driver behind human progress–as the authors of our textbook emphasized, it’s far more complicated than that. But it’s had an undeniable role in facilitating the exchange of information on every scale.

What a time to be alive!

The connections that exist between everything and everyone in our society– the channels through which things shape and are shaped by each other– are diversifying, multiplying to a degree never before seen. Though some of the vestiges of old power and traditional media remain, the level of decentralization and the rise of  audience participation are astounding.

I think the diversification of media sources via the participation of the “people formally known as the audience” will prove a boon for democracy. People who may have been previously apathetic are finding–and creating–ways of receiving important information that were previously unavailable. The primary duties of the media in a democracy are  to monitor those with power and cultivate an informed citizenry; it matters very little if those are fulfilled by WSJ, CNN, or via newer players like Reddit and Imgur.

The new media is here to stay, and even the most robust of the old guard media outlets are facing steady attrition. The world’s most widely circulated newspaper, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, had an average  circulation of 9.9 million for 2011, down slightly from the previous year; Reddit, the sharing website, had 731 million unique visitors in 2013, up 83% from 2012. Things are changing in a radical way.

The transition will be bumpy and the product won’t be perfect. Some traditional media outlets will fade into obsolescence; perhaps some new media will overreach and implode. And we must be wary of, as Neil Postman puts it, our tendency “to adore the technologies that undo our capacities to think.”  But what’s important to remember is that this is not the first time the media has undergone monumental change, and we survived.

Today’s traditional media was yesterday’s new media. And as today’s new media matures and consolidates, and even newer media and technologies not yet conceived arise in the future,  the forms of media we currently consider cutting edge may very well be in the same position newspapers are in now.

Trying to predict the future is ultimately a futile exercise, but if I could articulate in a single sentence my outlook on the future of media, it would sound something like this:

“For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.”  -Winston Churchill

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Ideological narratives: American Exceptionalism

I chose a political rhetoric piece to examine, one rank with ideology and underpinned by various cultural assumptions. It seems the primary purpose of the piece is to reinforce the validity of the preeminent American meta-narrative: that America is qualitatively unlike any nation on Earth before or since its founding. It is an assumption so relentlessly and deeply seated in our culture that was, until quite recently, very rarely called into question. It’s a core facet of the American public’s worldview: we’re never really finished.

In January of 2012 Walter Russell Mead, editor-at-large of American Interest Magazine and co-founder of the New America Foundation, penned an editorial titled “The Once and Future Liberalism,” a purposeful conceptualization of American history and hegemony as a protracted phenomenon driven and sustained by liberalism. It is a powerful piece of rhetoric and one of my favorite ideologically centered op-eds, the core notion of which is that American cultural, technological, and geopolitical dominance have heretofore been the result in part of a progressive American spirit. I find his perspective both radical and inspiring, but that is probably because I am a member of the dominant culture–as are we all, to varying degrees– and am looking, consciously or otherwise, for some confirmation that our greatest fears of American decline are still unfounded.

What I find most fascinating about Mead’s article is that he challenges one of the dominant American ideological frameworks while tacitly remaining within the confines of another. Mead challenges the conceptualization of the American political landscape as a battlefield between liberals and conservatives, instead positing that the current political schism is really just between conservative champions of different eras: “until we remove the scales from our eyes and launch our discourse toward the future, our politics will remain sterile, and our economy will fail to provide the growth and higher living standards Americans continue to seek. That neither we nor the world can afford.” He calls upon Americans of all political persuasions to stop trying to “retrieve the irretrievable” and “get on with the actual business of this great, liberal, unapologetically forward-looking nation.”

This betrays the underlying American exceptionalism: the United States is not in decline, but its social model is simply undergoing a paradigm shift. Mead frames our current fiscal woes and societal uncertainty not as a terminal symptom of America’s imminent drop in global influence, but merely a hiccup in our great and proud American story. If that isn’t framing, I don’t know what is.

Frankly, I agree with Mr. Mead–partly because I want to, but also because I have to; as a proud member of this privileged dominant culture, I have to believe that America’s age of influence isn’t quite over, yet. If I chose to disagree with Mead, and take our current troubles as signs of the end, what good would it do?

Blunders in Citizen Journalism: the cost of gatecrashing in aftermath of Sandy Hook Massacre

With great power comes great responsibility. Jay Rosen was correct in describing citizen journalism as what occurs “[w]hen the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another,” and every day it grows more apparent that the paradigm of gatekeeping has shifted. Technological and social development have enabled us to employ those tools, and citizen journalism is here to stay.

However, with the sudden and drastic rise in its scope, exercise, and influence, we must remind ourselves that what we “report” as citizen journalists, especially when spoken in chorus with others, can have a very tangible and often serious effects.The propagation of misinformation  by acting citizen journalists in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, which transcended the usual confines of Reddit news and eventually received coverage from traditional media sources, exemplifies the nascent power–and potential for misuse–of citizen journalism.

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012 was, without a doubt, one of the most tragically heartbreaking events in recent American history.  The deaths of twenty first-graders and six school faculty, at the hands of a single disturbed gunman, stunned the nation and shook the collective soul of the American public to a degree of profundity eclipsing even the Columbine High School or Aurora theater shootings, and perhaps matched only by Timothy Mcveigh’s 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

With the nation reeling in despondence, confusion, and anger in the wake of the slaughter,  citizens around the country began a furious, self-accelerating collective search for answers. It was with intent to assist law-enforcement investigations and inform others that they coordinated online in the forums of news publications and on popular websites of user-submitted news and content, the most consequential of which would prove to be  Reddit.

While rampant speculation and countless conspiracy theories abounded across the online world,  one of these stories would gain enormous traction–eventually picked up by mainstream news outlets like CNN– and end up having very real consequences, damaging Reddit’s credibility (and by translation, that of citizen journalism) and nearly ruining the life of an innocent man.

In the first few days following the massacre, contributors to “the front page of the internet” mistakenly named the perpetrator of the shooting as Ryan Lanza, brother of the actual shooter Adam Lanza. Ryan, who was working and nowhere near New Town during the shootings, was named as the Sandy Hook shooter on mainstream national broadcast. Powerless to protest his innocence, Ryan was subjected to the unbridled fury of a grieving nation, receiving thousands of personal threats via social media platforms. Only after law enforcement exonerated Ryan did the media realize its mistake and momentum behind the gatecrashing finally begin to dissipate.

This debacle demonstrated just how quickly crowdsourced information can become “mob-sourced.” An even more frightening, or at the very least consequential realization from the incident was that citizen journalism, if driven by vehemence and recklessness, is capable–if even just for a day or two– of influencing and informing traditional media, reversing earlier conceptions of the relationship between the press and the public and turning the conventional conception of gatekeeping on its head.

That revelation is hugely consequential; with great power comes great responsibility. We now know that the power of citizen journalism can emulate that of the professional journalist; the question now is how do we get citizen journalism to emulate the professional journalist’s sense of responsibility, as well?

Video Game and Film Industries’ Self-Regulation of Content

For any industry, self-regulation is a prized and often fleeting privilege. Pharmaceuticals, energy extraction, news broadcasting– all were either never granted the right to self-regulate, or lost the privilege as a result of spurious or irresponsible business practices. Whatever its reasoning may be in a particular situation, the government tends to end an experiment in self-regulation when it feels as though a given industry is utterly–and sometimes painfully– incapable of monitoring its own behavior, and public costs emerge as a result.

A significant portion of media has been put under governmental regulation: news (both print and broadcast), television and radio have all been brought under federal and state regulation for both  control and content to a degree. Notable exceptions to this trend are the video game and feature-length film industries. These media industries, which are two of the most prominent and far reaching media industries in the country, consistently govern themselves primarily with regards to age-sensitive content. For them, the priority is not necessarily freedom of expression or advocacy of truth; what’s most important is the bottom line, and in the 21st century this increasingly necessitates pushing the boundaries of cultural sensitivities, as seen in the success of the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise and the works of Sasha Baron Cohen (i.e. Ali G, Borat, Bruno, and The Dictator films, known for their astoundingly offensive satirical humor).

The two regulatory bodies don’t censor content directly, but instead allocate potentially age-restrictive ratings, the more stringent of which dissuade producers from distributing particularly offensive or sensitive content (e.g., the producers of a film that receives an NC-17 rating for its first cut will often edit out the most offensive content from the film, in the hopes of receiving a more marketable rating).

The regulatory bodies of the video game and film industries began at very different eras in significantly different ways. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a consortium of Hollywood’s six largest studios, instituted the current rating system in 1968, replacing the far more censorious Hays code that had been in use since 1930. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), responsible for assigning age and content ratings to products of the video game industry in Canada and the United States, was established in 1994 as a reaction to consumer criticism of violent video games in the early 1990s. The exact stories are different, but the main intent remains the same: both regulatory bodies are industry efforts to stave off government intervention by demonstrating that such intervention is unnecessary.

Media producers, consumers and the government benefit from these self-regulatory bodies when they are properly functioning. Audiences are made aware of which media products are appropriately gauged to their personal tastes and sensibilities; the government enjoys the benefits of regulating the industries in question without the monetary and political costs of enacting that regulation itself; and media producers enjoy a significant level of autonomy–at least relative to what it could be– without sacrificing artistic integrity, creative license, audience appeal, or profitability.

I think the more industries that can effectively self-regulate, the better. If the video game and film industries can avoid wandering into press responsibilities (and consequently, press regulations), these two industries should continue to enjoy significant regulatory autonomy in the years to come.

Graham Holdings Company

In the fall of 2013, Amazon founder/CEO Jeff Bezos bought the financially struggling Washington Post from the Graham family for a paltry $250 million. The Washington Post is a respected and influential voice in printed political discourse and a member publication of the media’s old guard, but had fallen into dire financial straits in recent years. The Graham family, which had privately owned the paper since 1933, agreed to change the name of their holding company upon the conclusion of the sale, and on November 29th, 2013, the Washington Post Company became the Graham Holdings Company (GHC).

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A map of GHC holdings. An enlarged version of the chart can be found here.

The sale of the newspaper, which was a flagship holding of GHC up until that point, has changed the company in a large way; that said, GHC has had no problem staying busy.

The extent to which GHC has diversified its holdings is astounding: one would think that the former Washington Post owner would be more heavily involved in media holdings, but it appears as though GHC has a hand in several industries, with its remaining media holdings constituting a remarkably small part of its overall activities. While the Washington Post was the company’s namesake, the paper actually accounted for only a small portion of GHC’s total revenue, particularly during the last decade of family ownership.

Generally speaking, GHC’s media holdings have suffered diminished profitability in recent years–particularly those circulated in print, as well as several of the local TV stations. Its largest remaining media subsidiaries– Post-Newsweek Media, Cable ONE, and The Slate Group— are in various states of financial health: Cable ONE, perhaps the most robust of the three, is the tenth largest cable provider in the United States; the Slate Group is responsible for publishing several online political magazines; and  Post-Newsweek Media oversees the circulation of a number of regional newspapers and TV stations. Additionally, GHC still holds ownership of Trove, a news aggregation service, and SocialCode, a “leading developer of analytic and advertising management products for marketing professionals at major global companies.”

There is some degree of horizontal integration (shout-out to kcastaldo24, I totally missed it at first)–GHC owns the company that prints a few of its niche publications, and it does own several different types of media outlet–, as well some synergy between some holdings. A great example is of that between Trove and SocialCode. However, GHC’s media properties still comprise a surprisingly small portion of the entire portfolio– a portion that has shrunk more or less consistently over the past decade.

In order to maintain (or reclaim) profitability the company has been moving away from exclusively media holdings over the past two decades and, as a result, GHC’s largest and most profitable subsidiaries have come to be in industries other than news & media. Education technology/services giant Kaplan and its many subsidiaries posted a total revenue of $2.2 billion in 2012, accounting for nearly half of GHC’s revenue in the same year. Other significant non-media holdings include Celtic Healthcare, a provider of home healthcare and hospice services, and the Forney Corporation, a supplier of combustion components for clients in the energy, chemical, and cement industries.

Considered in full, all of this information paints a picture of a company with deep roots in news and media that has found it necessary to look elsewhere for financial feasibility. A legendary publication, profoundly affected by the advent of the digital age, that has decided to transition away from that honorable legacy in the hopes of adapting to, and learning to thrive in,  a post-print, post-television world.