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Aug. 13 2009 - 9:17 am | 6 views | 2 recommendations | 10 comments

The dangers of media navel-gazing

Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...

Give this poor guy a break (Wikipedia image)

The media, collectively, is beginning to look like it doesn’t have the will to get off the psychoanalyst’s divan.

At a certain stage, it becomes counterproductive to self-analyze. The news media doesn’t seem to realize that, and it continues to collectively bemoan its lack of cash and jobs, share gossip about layoffs or incongruous-seeming successes, and generally engage in extended back-and-forths about how to “fix” whatever’s wrong.

I’m guilty of doing it too, here at True/Slant and elsewhere. At T/S, some of the most commented-upon and popular posts concern themselves with journalism’s woes or the latest example of a decline in media standards, ethics, and profitability. The Internet’s thick with media gossip sites (from pioneer Romenesko, to Gawker, to Media Bistro’s FishBowl line of blogs). An inordinate amount shows up on blog-curating sites (including the dominant ones), perhaps because they’re more than anything stables for journalists and writers struggling to make ends meet. Then there’s a slew of writing coaches, proposal workshops, jobs sites, and career counselors who specialize in hand-holding media types through inevitable career lurches. An incredible amount of coverage is being devoted to the news industry’s crisis, some of it constructive, most of it dispensable.

There’s so much coverage, I wonder if we’re overestimating its interest to the general public. It’s always going to be the case that a profession will have its water cooler talk, and with the Internet, much of it is going to be public. But there’s too much of it and too much of it is seeping into spaces where a reader or viewer might simply want to be informed or told a story. Instead, they’re forced to be voyeurs while journalists and writers whine and writhe anxiously. Understood– there’s a crisis. A certain amount of taking stock and re-jiggering is in order. Considered criticism and brainstorming has its place. But in the end, what pulls people and industries out of crises is action, not words. There are some positive trends emerging in media coverage– like a few articles (here, and here, and here) about what does work these days, instead of what doesn’t. The sky’s not falling everywhere; certain talents and skills will always be in demand. When I begin to tell friends about the industry’s problems, and I’m sure a tightness creeps into my voice, their eyes glaze over. When I begin to describe the latest story or topic I’m passionate about, they seem to light up again. It’s true the business model needs revamping, citizen journalism and blogging has hollowed out payrolls. But nobody’s gotten ahead anywhere by asking for favors or pining for bygone days. It’s not entertaining, engaging, or, finally, very productive. Perhaps we should focus single-mindedly on storytelling, explaining the world, making sense of things, learning to use new tools and styles. Much of the endless shop-talk, the doom and gloom, goes nowhere. Why don’t we break the cycle?


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  1. collapse expand

    The difference between journalism and other industries — while I take your point — is that people get their news and information from organizations going through some radical changes and re-shaping that affect what they know about their world. Accuracy? Sourcing? Sponsored content? When the most basic precepts of an industry that’s been in existence for a few centuries are so radically and quickly changing, some people beyond the boundaries of a newsroom are in fact quite interested.

    Say, for instance, you write for HuffPo, for free. Say your affiliations are opaque to your readers while you donate your skills. Is this cool? What if you’re covering your husband’s company in glowing terms? Who would know? Does anyone care? I sure do. When writers work without compensation, someone’s buying their time. As a media consumer, I want some idea who that might be so I can make decisions about the value of what they’re telling me. That’s just one media issue worth publicly discussing, in my view.

    You may well be right, that some people buying a car couldn’t care less about bailing out automakers or whether it’s getting great mileage, while others care deeply about changes ans challenges in the industry.

    Likewise, for everyone who’s bored silly by journo’s talking about what’s going wrong (or right) there are others who want to peer behind the curtain and (better) understand how their “news” ends up looking or sounding the way it does. For some, it’s a business story, for others, a look at the lens through which they see the world and what’s happening to that lens. People who consume media blindly or unquestioningly…that’s their choice.

    Handwringing seems a waste of time; trying to stimulate any sort of conversation about what works, or works well, and which works financially for those producing content is not. You seem to object (?) to that conversation being public (i.e. outside of the CJR, for example) and therefore boring to non-journos. I figure they can just stop reading it on their own. I’m not sure why this bothers you so much.

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    As someone immersed in Journalism maybe you’re just tired of hearing about it. As a consumer of news media, I really don’t think it’s over exposed. In fact, I’d say there is just enough of this coverage entering the media stream to maybe wake up more of the general population.

    While i don’t believe it’s necessarily [always] “misinformation”, mainstream media is motivated by profit and driven by big business, and that is leading to a set of real, practical problems. People (like me) are abandoning CBS/CNN etc for blogs as described in that nice harvard business article.

    In fact, that issue is at the base of many of the problems in our global economy as a whole. Everything is motivated solely by profit as a means to an end. And People don’t have real information they need to make educated decisions about their future. The average (American) is seeing quality of life decline, corporations gaining an ever increasing influence in Gov’t, and it’s disconcerting to say the least.

    But as you’ve documented, the problem is sort of self correcting. When people are immersed in shit long enough, they will become used to it and eventually will spread it on their morning toast. But show the people something fresh and real with facts and not spin, and they will seek it out of their own volition (quite enthusiastically).

    In conclusion, I only read what i want to! If the piece is trite to me, i simply browse, browse away…

  3. collapse expand

    Kudos, Marcelo! I agree – monopolizing the news cycle with news about the news is an exercise in self-indulgence.

  4. collapse expand

    A lot of journalists have a lot of time on their hands these days to participate in the navel-gazing. Interesting to see Andy’s comment, though. Would love to hear from others like Andy who are outside the navel gazing in.

  5. collapse expand

    P.S. A reader e-mailed me with this anecdote:

    … for me, the peak of ridiculousness was reading a NYT story awhile back on a NPR reporter who did a ten part or five part series on Americans losing their jobs. At the end of her series, she got laid off. So she made herself the fifth or the tenth part of the series. And the NYT quoted her saying something like, “I’m sure readers wanted to know what i was going through,” or some such nonsense. I wanted to vomit. I have never worked at a company that did not have layoffs … people move on.

    I think it’s an interesting case. Did this inclusion of a reporter’s own story in the series enhance or detract from its value– was it a case of what a commenter here calls media “self-indulgence” with news about the news? I haven’t heard the NPR series, but the reader’s point is not specific to it. Our professional travails and the industry’s larger misfortunes (and our oodles of free time to broadcast them) are not necessarily interesting. There’s a fine line between productive and open self-scrutiny and gratuitous public wallowing, even in our confessional culture. I’m arguing the line has been crossed, over and over again.

  6. collapse expand

    Good point, Marcelo. Here’s a similar post with a forward spin by media consultant Steve Yelvington, whom I’ve never met:

    Edward Iwata, journalist & blogger

  7. collapse expand

    Agreed. There are too many important stories falling by the wayside because of incessant talk about changes in the industry.

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    Readers, thanks for your eyeball time, please send tips, corrections, complaints, rants, etc. My email is ballve [at] gmail.com. I was born in Buenos Aires and raised there and in Atlanta, Mexico City and Caracas. I've written and reported on Latin America for almost a dozen years. I started out as an Associated Press reporter and editor in the agency’s Brazil and Caribbean bureaus. In 2007 I co-founded El Sol de San Telmo, a community newspaper in Buenos Aires. I am now a contributing editor for the nonprofit New America Media, Americas correspondent for Amsterdam-based Research World magazine (publication of the international association of market and public opinion researchers), and a 2010-2011 Lemann Fellow at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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