Friday, April 21, 2006

The future of the BBC

BeebI like to keep tabs with what's going on with the BBC--the British Broadcasting Corporation--and this has been a big year for "Auntie Beeb". The UK government last month published a white paper on the BBC that basically guarantees its future as a public service broadcaster for the next 10 years (although with some significant changes. There's a lot of debate just now about what the license fee should be set at and just how commercialized the BBC should be allowed to get. But the Corporation's not about to be privatized . . . yet.

I must admit: I love the BBC. I particularly love the fact that, thanks to UK public funding, the BBC puts so much of its material on the web--for free. But I fear that with every time I get some wonderful new piece of information - in text, audio, or video - from the BBC's enormous free web archive, I (and millions like me) annoy numerous commercial operators who would like to charge fees for similar services, but who are unable to do so because of the BBC's dominant presence. I worry that the government, pushed on by the increasingly powerful commercial lobby, will continue to try to undermine the BBC's funding and its editorial independence.

Some background. Of course, the BBC has often had an antagonistic relationship with British governments over years. Margaret Thatcher and her "rottweiler press secretary" Bernard Ingham hated the BBC in the '80s, especially in light of its relatively balanced news coverage of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict and the IRA campaign (Click here to see how Peter Snow covered the Falklands for BBC Newsnight in 1982; and Gavin Esler's piece on the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA)). Thatcher's ideological opposition to public service broadcasting also led her to push hard for commercialization of the corporation in the 1980s - though the 1986 Peacock Report rejected that strategy and helped preserve the license fee funding model. (See this piece by Jean Seaton in British Journalism Review for some more context).

The BBC survived - somehow - the era of director-general John Birt and succeeded in having its charter renewed again in 1996. However, the Blair government itself became a source of opposition to the BBC, especially with the Iraq War. Blair attempted to use the Hutton Inquiry (into the suspicious death of a UK weapons inspector, Dr. David Kelly) as a stick with which to beat the BBC into quiesence. Again, Lady Luck was on the Beeb's side, and an outporing of public support for the corporation over the duplicitous government persuaded the Blair administration to back off (especially after the resignation of communications director Alastair Campbell).

Another source of attack has been the growing power of the commercial media in Britain. the private press has always been lukewarm about the BBC. But the proliferation of new over-the-air, cable, and satellite channels brings with it new battalions of media lobbyists committed to the U.S. commercial model and fundamentally opposed to the notion of public-financed broadcasting. In particular, the BBC's massive presence on the Web has drawn fire from commercial operations complaining about their inability to compete against this free treasure trove of news and information (and this has led to occasional calls for the elimination of the BBC's web presence. More broadly, commercial pressure groups have attacked the BBC and its license fee financing system. (To get a flavor of the debate see the following selection of articles from The Guardian and The Observer, tracking pro and con arguments: pro-license fee; BBC's excessive commercialism; BBC web operations; Channel 4 attack; anti-BBC.)

Despite the opposition, the BBC remains strong, and it's even getting more "cool" again. Most importantly, it still has strong public support - that's what has saved its bacon a number of times during disputes with the government - but the corporation amasses enemies all over the place. As a British Journalism Review editorial reminded us at the height of the Andrew Gilligan/David Kelly affair: "Among journalists who work for rival news media, the BBC has never had a great number of friends." And, to paraphrase Elrond's reminder to Gandalf in "The Fellowship of the Ring": The BBC's list of allies grows thin.

But Auntie Beeb battles on regardless. British governments setting out to hobble the BBC for one reason or another have usually pulled back from the brink. (Incidentally, for a quickie guide to BBC-government controversies down the years, check out this page, titled "BBC Controversy".) And the BBC's commercial opposition has failed - so far - to land a telling blow. The BBC is to get its funding renewed for another 10 years, taking the current system potentially to 2016. And the BBC continues to argue for its unique position in British society - and indeed, it is working to expand that role, most prominently in cyberspace (see the Beeb's own arguments in its Future of the BBC report.)

But here's what really worries me. The question arises as to how the BBC would fare if it came under sustained assault from the much more conservative global and especially U.S. political-business establishment. As the BBC expands its reach - geographically, around the globe, and rhetorically, through providing a broader range of opinion both from within its walls and from greater interactivity with its audiences - it is open to the threat of retaliation not only from domestic commercial media in the UK but also, increasingly, from global (mostly U.S.-owned) transnational media corporations. This is a potentially fatal development for the hard-earned integrity and political/economic independence of the BBC. It is not unreasonable to speculate that if the BBC continues to extend its reach into the U.S. market, becoming dependent on U.S. revenue and coming to be perceived as “domestic” U.S medium, this could have a deleterious impact not only on its “alternative status” in the States, but also on its independence from American political forces. In others words, if the BBC moves from being considered an alternative news outlet to being a mainstream outlet it risks being drawn into the same political-economic pressures that have so successfully constrained U.S. news media in recent years.

That would be very bad.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Free Newspapers: Another nail in the coffin?

For students (and faculty) attending SUNY Geneseo it might seem like newspapers are free--after all, piles of copies of the New York Times, USA Today and the Democrat and Chronicle are distributed around campus gratis every day, for anyone to pick up (all part of increasingly desperate efforts by newspaper companies to encourage young people to pick up the daily newspaper reading habit). But the fortunate situation here shouldn't disguise the fact that, for most people, newspapers cost money, and have to be paid for ... or at least that's the way it's always been, until now.

More and more, we're seeing the emergence of a whole new class of free daily newspapers that are undercutting the traditional, paid-for newspapers. Of course there are the daily or weekly shoppers that come in the mail, but these are little more than ad sheets. But recent years have seen the rise of a whole new class of free newspapers: the big city "Metro"-type papers (started in Europe) that are increasingly available to bus and train commuters in major metropolitan areas. These free commuter papers -- some started by serious media groups such as the Washington Post Co. and the Tribune Group -- have already spread to big cities like New York, Washington, Boston, and Chicago.

But increasingly, traditional paid-for newspapers are feeling competition in their last real stronghold: the stoops and porches of suburban America, where the delivery of the morning newspaper is still a ritual and a strong tradition. Traditional newspapers are starting to see competition from free daily papers. Bright, breezy free tabloids have already been introduced in San Francisco and Washington. Now it's Baltimore's turn, as the Wall Street Journal (paid registration required) reports. Earlier this month, the Baltimore Examiner, America's newest daily newspaper, hit 250,000 homes in the Baltimore area--instantly allowing it to boast a bigger circulation than the 169-year-old Baltimore Sun.

Of course, as the Benton Comm Policy listserv notes (drawing on the WSJ piece), "no one is sure what that quarter-million papers will really mean to advertisers because they will be delivered unsolicited and at no charge." But at a time when traditional newspapers are under intense pressure, this new development can only cause them further pain.

The Baltimore Sun itself, in reporting on its new competitor, drew attention to the Examiner's possible right-of-center tendencies and its lack of depth. The paper is owned by "conservative billionaire" Philip F. Anschutz and his Denver-based Clarity Media Group Inc. Apparently, a promotional issue delivered to Baltimore doorsteps noted the paper "will include columns by Morton Kondracke, a regular contributor to the Fox News Channel, and former longtime Sun columnist Jules Witcover." That same promo also boasted of the new paper's "devotion to brevity: It said the paper would be housed 'in a convenient package you can read in less than 20 minutes.'" Pointing to the Examiner's sister paper, the Washington Examiner, most of that "paper's local and sports stories were written by staff reporters, but its foreign, national and business pages were filled almost entirely with Associated Press dispatches."

Asks Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, in the WSJ: "Can a mature subscription-based daily paper -- even one as respected as the [Baltimore] Sun -- be vulnerable to an upstart that's giving news away? . . . It really and truly is a very interesting and open question."

Sunday, April 09, 2006

VNRs are back ...

Actually, they never went away. VNRs are Video News Releases, which are video versions of press releases, i.e., defined as "video clips that are indistinguishable from traditional news clips and are sometimes screened unedited by television stations without the identification of the original producers or sponsors, who are commonly corporations, government agencies, or non-governmental organizations." They're better described as "fake news"--because that's what they are. (Here's the Wikipedia entry on news releases and VNRs, and a backgrounder piece on the practice by David Folkenflik from last year's "All Things Considered" on NPR.) Those of you who think that TV news produces all its own material are in for a shock. A lot of it they pick up off the rack for free.

We're now getting a better sense of just how widespread this practice is. Last week the Center for Media and Democracy reported on the extent to which news stations are using this "fake news" in their regular nightly reports. The New York Times reports that "Many television news stations, including some from the nation's largest markets, are continuing to broadcast reports as news without disclosing that the segments were produced by corporations pitching new products." The Times report notes that although television news directors denied that VNRs were being used to any extent, CMD assembled strong evidence of such use among dozens of stations across the country.
    The report said none of the stations had disclosed that the segments were produced by publicists representing companies like General Motors, Capital One and Pfizer. The center also said that many of the 69 stations took steps to blend the fake segments into their news broadcasts. Some had their news reporters or anchors read scripts supplied by corporations, the report said, and many had altered screen graphics to include the station's logo. The report said that a few stations had introduced publicists as if they were their on-air reporters. Only a handful of stations added any independently gathered information or videotape, it said. The 69 stations reach about half the population of the United States.

David Folkenflik at NPR quotes Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the CMD, who tracked local TV news use of VNRs, finding "dozens of stations passing them off as actual news reports." Says Farestta: “'It was pretty amazing to me, personally, how willing TV newsrooms appear to be to keep all the product mentions, all of the obvious promotional aspects of a video news release . . . It’s a pretty damning look, to be honest, at television newsrooms.'” (Click here for the NPR audio piece, including a segment where Folkenflik "plays a local TV report from WBFS in Florida and the video news release it's based on... word-for-word copy.")

This might all seem depressingly familiar to those who keep a close eye on what our nation's pennypinching local news broadcasters are up to. A year ago VNRs were also in the news--though that time it wasn't corporate fake news that was the issue; rather it was fake news produced by the government. The Bush administration has been a big fan of VNRs. Last April the New York Times and other news outlets reported extensively on the aggressive media policy pursued by the Bush administration--a policy that focuses on the federal government's penchant for
    a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production.

So VNRs have been around for a long time. News stations love them because they cost nothing. And most viewers don't notice the difference--because local stations do their utmost to cover up the fakey origins of their fake news. But there's a price to be paid. And here's the thing. I don't like it when corporate interests or the government produce fake news (although it's even worse when the government uses taxpayer dollars to do it.) But at least if news organizations are going to use such material, they should state clearly where it comes from. But 9 times out of 10, they don't. They want to preserve the illusion that they are creating and presenting this "news" on their own. This is a basic issue of ethics for TV news station managers. Stations need to accept that they must acknowledge where they're getting this material from. It's inconceivable to me that any station manager worth her salt wouldn't do this.

As for the federal government, as I said last year: If it's so intent on producing this propaganda then they should put it on a government-run TV service and call it by its nice name: public diplomacy. At least then no-one would be under any illusions about where the information was coming from. And btw, the government already does this for people overseas. Government-funded instruments of propaganda/public diplomacy have been around for decades. You may have heard of them: Voice of America; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and TV/Radio Marti, among others.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

April Fool, UK media style

ColdplayThe British news media (including the "serious" press and even the BBC!) are well known for their April Fool's Day pranks. As the New York Times noted last year, "the fake April 1 article is a fine British newspaper tradition, befitting a country where the news media revel in not taking themselves too seriously." This year was no exception, as the BBC points out. Among this year's gags:
  • "The Guardian has Coldplay's lead singer, Chris Martin [pictured above], agreeing to release a version of one of the band's hits in an effort to persuade young people to vote Conservative. The song Talk has been renamed Talk to David, after Mr Martin's actress wife Gwyneth Paltrow met party leader David Cameron's other half Samantha at a yoga class.
  • "The Daily Mirror shows an oak tree with 'abnormal growths' in the shape of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales. But the exact location is being kept secret 'because of fears it could attract druids'.
  • "On a sadder note, The Sun shows a lone jackass penguin strolling along the south bank of the Thames, having been accidentally taken from his Antarctic home by fishermen. Straining the credulity of even the most gullible reader, it quotes "one joker" as say the creature was 'popping into Savile Row to p-p-pick up his penguin suit for a black tie do'."

It is, of course, all complete rubbish! When the New York Times looked into the April Fool traditions of the British media last year, it reported on the sorts of gags that would never be allowed in its own pages. "British newspapers are less serious than American newspapers," said Jonathan Brown, a reporter at The Independent, which ran an article last April Fool's Day claiming that the Conservative Party was then pinning its hopes not on Chris Martin, but on a new candidate for Parliament: the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. The Times noted some of best Brit press gags over the years, including a famous example from The Guardian, a newspaper that is high-brow yet famous for the numerous typographical errors that appear in its pages.
    In 1977, [The Guardian] printed a supplement extolling the virtues of San Serriffe, an obscure semicolon-shaped country in the Indian Ocean comprising two islands, Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Its capital was Bodoni; its leader was the authoritarian General Pica, and many readers, missing the printers' terminology that informed every aspect of the hoax, telephoned The Guardian to ask how they might get there.

The New York Times also mentioned what is perhaps Britain's most famous April Fool fake news story, which took place on--yes, you guessed it--the good old BBC, back in 1957. "That was when eight million viewers watched a BBC documentary showing a family in Ticino, Switzerland, harvesting spaghetti by carefully plucking cooked strands from a tree and laying them to dry in the sun." Apparently, according to the authoritative voice of the BBC's Jonathan Dimbleby, 'it was a good year for spaghetti, . . . because of the mild weather and the success of the Swiss spaghetti weevil eradication program. The BBC was deluged with calls'."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Peeking into Web surfers' brains

An interesting new study reported on in Sunday's USA Today purports to be "a sneak peek into people's brains,” according to the research firm's research director. The Nielsen Norman Group claims to offer companies an insight into what works and what doesn't with web site design. Their study underlines a key problem facing all web sites: the difficulty of finding a balance between good design and effective information provision. It points to web sites such as Jet Blue's, which they say get it right. On the other hand, one of Sony's websites (the report isn't clear which one) is apparently an example of ineffective web design.

The study's findings include the following:
    1.) "Individuals read Web pages in an 'F' pattern. They're more inclined to read longer sentences at the top of a page and less and less as they scroll down. That makes the first two words of a sentence very important. 'People are extremely good at screening out things and focusing in on a small number of salient page elements, says Jakob Nielsen, a principal at the firm.

    2.) "Surfers connect well with images of people looking directly at them. It helps if the person in the photo is attractive, but not too good looking. Photos of people who are clearly professional models are a turnoff. 'The person has to be approachable,' Pernice Coyne [the firm's director] says.

    3.) "Images in the middle of a page can present an obstacle course.

    4.) "People respond to pictures that provide useful information, not just decoration.

    5.) "Consumers will peek at ads in search engines as a 'secondary thing,' Nielsen says, since they usually have specific product targets in mind."

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Knight Ridder's woes and Excellence(?) in journalism

One of America's highest quality news groups, the Knight Ridder newspaper chain--owner of the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Miami Herald, is going away. Like many traditional newspaper companies, it's been underperforming for some time (see my Jan 17 entry, Can we save newspapers?), and it's finally going under--to be bought up by rival publisher McClatchy Co. for $6.5 billion.

Knight Ridder will be sorely missed. As American Journalism Review notes, Knight Ridder "was an amazing newspaper company. It was a newspaper company that stressed the newspaper more than the company. It really cared about the journalism. It made a lot of money, sure, but it invested enough in the product to do great work." Eventually, though, it stopped making enough money, and because it failed to squeeze out consistent 20 percent profit margins, it was ripe for cutbacks and then takeover.

Many see this as another body blow to solid high-quality American journalism--and a worrying development that is happening just as The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s third annual “State of the News Media 2006” report has been released. This is in effect America's annual report card for its media. And once again, the report is worrying.

According to Eric Alterman at the Center for American Progress, the report is very timely. With the McClatchy Co.-Knight Ridder news, "a new round of speculation about the health of the newspaper industry is well underway." Unfortunately, such bouts of anxiety about journalism's future are rarely misplaced. This time is no different, as "McClatchy immediately announced that it was selling off 12 of the 32 papers it inherited from Knight Ridder and the little-known fact reported by the San Jose Mercury News (one of the papers to be dumped by McClatchy), that eight of the 12 papers to be sold are union shops." While, as Alterman notes, this has all taken place since PEIJ study was completed, "the congruence of the two events simply added to an increasing sense of foreboding about the industry for nearly everyone who cares about its future."

Alterman notes that the PEIJ study confirms once again "something that many close observers certainly suspected: More and more news outlets are crowding themselves around fewer and fewer stories, hitting the public over the head with them until the blood flows from the cranium." This has little to do with the press acting as a viable Fourth Estate and everything to do with the pursuit of corporate profits.

The trouble, as I've written before in this blog, is that levels of public confidence in the U.S. mainstream media are rapidly declining, and this can be laid squarely at the door of corporate America's relentless desire to squeeze high profits from a medium that relies above all on its ability to function as a credible source of impartial news and information--and that requires investment. Last year at about this time I noted research by the Pew Research Center's Trends 2005 report, the National Opinion Research Center, and USA Today. (See here for a U.S. News take on the Pew report, by Jay Tolsen; and Nicholas Kristoff covered the issue for the New York Times - see my blog entry for a review on that piece.

It's worth reviewing again some pertinent statistics and points:

  • 1. 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago.
    Pew Research Center's "Trends 2005" report (available online).
  • 2.Between 1973 and 2002, confidence in the press has fallen sharply, from 85% to under 60% - and the press is now almost at the bottom amongst public institutions (only beaten by the legal system).
    National Opinion Research Center survey, 2004
  • 3. A 2004 survey of 112,000 American high school students showed:
    - 32% of them believe that there is too much freedom of the press
    - Only 10% believe that there is not enough.
    - 36% would prefer that the media be subject to government control
    USA Today survey

Some comments and insights:
  • "The public sees the [mass] media as self-centered and self-promoting."
    Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
  • "I think commercial factors are the overriding factor shaping the collapse of professional journalism.”
    Robert McChesney, professor of communication, University of Illinois
  • "Media companies are more concentrated than at any time over the past 40 years, thanks to a continual loosening of ownership rules by Washington."
    Ted Turner, CNN founder
  • "As people move online, the notion of news consumers is giving way to something called 'prosumers,' in which citizens simultaneously function as consumers, editors, and producers of a new kind of news in which journalistic accounts are but one element."
    Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writing in The State of the News Media 2004
    (Above comments all from U.S. News)

Monday, March 20, 2006

Ebert goes to the movies ... in Rochester!

One of the best things about Rochester is the George Eastman House and the Dryden Theatre. These institutions are devoted to film preservation and film presentation on the big screen, and the Eastman House's Motion Picture Collection is "one of the country’s five major film archives, alongside [the] Library of Congress, UCLA Film and Television Archive, Museum of Modern Art, and the Academy Film Archive."

I've been volunteering at both places for more than four years now, and every now and again I introduce one of the films in their excellent ongoing film calendar that includes classic and hard-to-find films (here's a list of the films I've introduced). But I try to get along to see films there whenever I can. Last week, for example, we went to see Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man, a fascinating 1957 sci-fi film I remember quite vividly watching on TV as a kid; it was great seeing it again--and this time on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen.

One of the best things about having the Dryden on our doorstep is that it attracts some pretty big names in the film world to this little corner of Western New York. Some of the Big Names I've got to see at the Dryden include John Landis, Jeff Bridges, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Last weekend it was the turn of film critic Roger Ebert to visit the Dryden. Ebert is one of America's foremost film critics, and he's seen just about everything there is to see--and he has a great perspective on the state of American film today (here, fyi, is his wikipedia bio). He was here last weekend to pick up an honorary George Eastman Scholar award and present and talk about some of his favorite movies. My better half and I were fortunate to be invited to a private matinee screening of the 1975 film Night Moves, with Gene Hackman--which Ebert is considering adding to his "Great Movies" series of essays (and which I would call a fine movie--not sure if it's a great one, though). Later that evening we went along to a public screening of Robert Altman's 1977 film 3 Women--which wasn't really my cup of tea, but was worth seeing just for the fascinating discussion with Ebert it sparked. I'll quote my wife's take on Ebert that night, as she got it just about right:
    Before each screening, Ebert held forth on the problems facing the movie industry today. He made what I thought were a couple of really good points about why movies are important and why they're sadly losing ground in terms of their cultural importance.

    "We are born into a box of space and time," Ebert began. "And that's all we have." Books, plays, paintings, operas, movies: they all allow us to temporarily break out of that box and experience the lives of people from different countries, different race or class backgrounds, different periods in history. But nowadays, complains Ebert, it's next to impossible to get a 20-year-old male to go to a movie that does not star other 20-year-old males. The movies are trapped in a self-confirming feedback loop, where all the audience gets to do is congratulate itself on how funny and cool we are for liking these funny, cool movie stars who are really "just like us." "When I was a kid, teenagers went to movies to see adults have sex," said Ebert. "Now adults go to movies to see teenagers have sex."

    He saved special vitriol for the film ouevre of Rob Schneider, whose Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo caused him to use the word "sucks" for the first time in a review. This brought Ebert to the second point about the flagging future of the movies: Columbia Pictures couldn't wait to finance Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo in 2005, but the studio ran a mile from Ray, The Aviator, Million Dollar Baby, Sideways, and Finding Neverland, the five films that the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences went on to congratulate itself for producing by honoring them as Best Picture nominees. "Ray took nine years to make," said Ebert. "And even after that success, it still took nine years to make Walk the Line. These movies cannot get backing unless they're tentpoles, franchises, star vehicles, and the like. Altman's 3 Women was made by a major Hollywood studio, with a major star attached [Cissy Spacek]. That would never happen today."