Media Musings

A blog for students and stalkers of Brian Steffen, centering on issues of concern in media studies.

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Location: Indianola, Iowa, United States

Hello all... I'm a professor of communication studies at Simpson College and a junkie of all things media. I'm blogging on life on the faculty at Simpson and working with some of the best young future professionals in the world.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

For Newspapers, It's All Over but the Blogging

We've been hashing over in various classes the question of whether newspapers will continue to exist in another 20-30 years. Some of the folks at the Wharton School of Business say it's all over for the daily print product.

Wharton's Peter S. Fader

holds out little hope that people will continue to buy physical newspapers in large numbers in years to come. He likens the Internet’s assault on newspapers to the impact that digital downloading of music has had on compact discs: CD’s still have appeal but they are no longer the sole, dominant medium they once were. "I still believe that there’s a vital role for non-digital content in music," Fader suggests. "There’s a lot to be said for owning a CD and putting it on the shelf and holding it in your hand. Some people say that same thing about newspapers. I’m not sure I agree with that. It may be true, but newspapers are transient. They have no archive value. I’m not going to add a newspaper to my collection. They are a nuisance to deal with, especially since we don’t wrap fish anymore. When the Chicken Littles say, ‘The sky is falling,’ I think they’re right."

Another Wharton prof, Lawrence Hrebiniak, says the newspaper industry's biggest problem is that it's gotten fat and sassy:
If you look at the history of newspapers, they have been harassed for a long time [by emerging competitors]. Ever since the telegraph, radio and TV, everyone's been predicting the demise of newspapers. What have they done? They have adapted by being proactive. When TV and radio came along, newspapers bought them out. But I think the industry has matured to the point to where it has been a little lazy."

Finally, we get this nail in the coffin from Whartonian Joel Waldfogel:
"It's a generally declining industry. If you look across ages of people, newspapers are much more heavily consumed by older consumers than younger consumers. A few papers have been able to distribute themselves in multiple places, the primary example being The New York Times. The Times has been able to keep circulation figures up through broader distribution, but that's not a strategy that will work for many papers."

As a 10-year newspaper reporter and editor and then 16-year adviser of a student newspaper, I want the newspaper to survive. I still think there's nothing that can replace the experience of actually sitting down, blocking out distractions, and diving in to what's going on in my community and in the world. But even I have to admit that the temptations are great to rely on blogs, Web sites, podcasts and news aggregators. I've been using an RSS news reader on my laptop now for a couple of months, and I have to admit it's a pretty convenient way to keep up on the news.

But I also know that when I rely on those new-fangled ways of getting news, I skim more, read less and generally know even less. At dinner tonight, my 18-year-old knew more about the French youth-labor unrest than I did. And guess why? He still reads the newspaper every morning.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Apples and Trademarks

The BBC has a report on the beginning of trademark infringement suit pitting John, Paul, George and Ringo -- known to Baby Boomers as the Beatles -- against computer giant Apple.

The Beatles set up Apple Corps in 1968, and Apple Computer started in 1976 in Silicon Valley. The parties had a trademark truce of sorts, which lasted until the Apple starting selling music through its wildly popular iTunes service. The Fab Four's licensing firm claims that the two companies reached an agreement in 1991 in which Apple Computer agreed not to get into the music-selling business.

Given our recent discussion of trademark law in Mass Media Law, the issue arises as to whether "Apple" is an enforceable trademark. What do you think? Is the term generic, suggestive or arbitrary, as we've described those terms within the context of trademark law?

Partly due to the dispute, Beatles music has never been available for download through iTunes.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Getting to Know Rem Rieder

We'll be pleased next week to host Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, on the Simpson campus. He'll be speaking to several of our journalism and mass communication classes and presenting a Simpson Forum lecture on Thursday night, April 6.

Rieder has a number of pieces now at AJR that students in the Mass Media Ethics course should read before Rieder's appearance before the class earlier that Thursday. The required readings include:

The Knight Ridder Fade-out

Two Cheers for McClatchy

The Accidental Hunter

To Publish or Not to Publish

Monday, March 27, 2006

How the Theocracy Will Kill Us

I hate to offer a book review based on only a partial reading of the book, but I'm really taken with Kevin Phillips' new work, "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century." Phillips was an architect of Richard Nixon's political resurrection in 1968 and, in his first book, "The Emerging Republican Majority" in 1969, accurately predicted that the American political landscape would undergo a seismic shift that would bring conservative Republicans to power by the end of the century.

Unlike your blogger here, Phillips is no liberal. But he's aghast at what's happened in the political shift to the radical right in the United States during the past decade.

Here's a conservative with whom I can do business: He's intellectually conservative, rather than ideologically so. He relies on evidence and history to make his arguments, rather than the typical right methodology of screaming down opponents to silence.

So what's Phillips' argument this time? It's that there are three trends threatening to undermine America's status as the one true post-Cold War superpower of the world: Our addiction to oil (he builds the case that the time of both Holland and England as dominant world powers ended because of each nation's inability to recognize that its dominant means of energy production was no longer competitive in the world), the Republican Party's slavish reliance on the Christian right for its political muscle (and the resulting Armageddonish visions of the party and policy makers), and the nation's out-of-control public and private debt.

The war in Iraq is a product or cause of all of the above. And, chillingly, Phillips makes the following note:
Past leading powers have eventually suffered from imperial hubris--a misplaced cocksureness that leads them into a strategic overreach they can no longer afford. The result has often been a humbled hegemon, left with crippling debt burdens, lost trade advantages, a stricken currency, and increasing vulnerability as rivals increase their stature as creditor nations, financial centers, and technological innovations.

Can you say "Chinese century"?

Journalistic 'Sin of Sloth'

During my years of advising student media, I always groaned when I saw student reporters going to roommates, girl/boyfriends, even family members for quotes in stories. This apparently passed as reporting. Now Kelly McBride at Poynter has a new piece on this problem, which apparently afflicts even professional journalists at major news organizations.

McBride puts it pretty simply: "Plagiarism and fabrication are sins of sloth. So is quoting your friends."

Of course, there always are exceptions: When your friend from class also happens to have broken the school's scoring record in basketball, then you darn well better get a quote from her. But, most of the time, the reporter who resorts to "sources of convenience" are really guilty of journalistic laziness.

So get out of your dorm room and do some real journalism, y'hear?

Open Season on the War

The Bush public relations offensive notwithstanding, Howard Kurtz asks in today's Washington Post: "Have the media declared war on the war?" Now that most of the public agrees with the sense that the Iraqi war has become, at best, highly misguided or even an impeachable aggression against another country that has resulted in perhaps hundreds of thousands of deaths, Kurtz surmises that we've reached a turning point that may be difficult for the Bushies to fight against. "What is undeniable," he writes, "is that the tone of much of the coverage matches the public-opinion polls showing that a majority of the country has turned against the conflict."

Will this be enough for Americans to support more aggressive reporting and journalism that ultimately could end the disaster and perhaps even remove Bush from office? It's unlikely. Americans don't like Bush now. But they may also hate the press with even more venom.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

More Advice for the Young Journalist

Mindy McAdams, a journalism professor at the University of Florida who specializes in online journalism, has this to say on what today's journalism grads should have in their back pockets when they leave college:
Half a dozen or so good clips (of course).

Evidence of two or three internships (no surprise there).

Evidence of multimedia ability.

Mindy adds:
Our advisory council members [at Florida] told us they now would like "at least some HTML," as well as demonstrated ability to work with photography, audio, video and Flash. The strong message was that in any stack of résumés for a journalism job today, at least SOME of those résumés WILL have those "extras." All the applicants who lack them are at a disadvantage.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Media Case for Impeachment

At the risk of being accused of being a pointy-headed liberal college professor, I point your attention to Lewis Lapham's buzz-generating piece in the latest number of Harper's, "The Case for Impeachment."

Here we're less concerned with the politics of impeachment -- if you're interested in that stuff, I point you here, and here, and here -- and more with what is the proper role of the media in keeping the pressure on the Bushies in prosecuting a war that is likely to supplant the Civil War, World War I and Vietnam as the most divisive war in the nation's history.

Lapham, long a critic of sycophantic media coverage of Bush, particularly the failure of the press to expose the administration's deceptions prior to the invasion of Iraq three years ago, sets out a detailed bill of particulars on the administration's abuses and wonders why the press is only now discovering that there may be impeachable offenses in play here. He points specifically to the staff investigation of Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee:
The Conyers report doesn't lack for further instances of the administration's misconduct, all of them noted in the press over the last three years—misuse of government funds, violation of the Geneva Conventions, holding without trial and subjecting to torture individuals arbitrarily designated as “enemy combatants,” etc.—but conspiracy to commit fraud would seem reason enough to warrant the President's impeachment. Before reading the report, I wouldn't have expected to find myself thinking that such a course of action was either likely or possible; after reading the report, I don't know why we would run the risk of not impeaching the man. We have before us in the White House a thief who steals the country's good name and reputation for his private interest and personal use; a liar who seeks to instill in the American people a state of fear; a televangelist who engages the United States in a never-ending crusade against all the world's evil, a wastrel who squanders a vast sum of the nation's wealth on what turns out to be a recruiting drive certain to multiply the host of our enemies. In a word, a criminal—known to be armed and shown to be dangerous. Under the three-strike rule available to the courts in California, judges sentence people to life in jail for having stolen from Wal-Mart a set of golf clubs or a child's tricycle. Who then calls strikes on President Bush, and how many more does he get before being sent down on waivers to one of the Texas Prison Leagues?

Without getting into whether the president should be impeached or not (I don't know that there can be anything other than the usual 51-49 split on this), it does strike me as odd that Bush supporters can't see beyond their argument that opposition to the president and his undermining of the Constitution is motivated by nothing more than hatred of Bush and lack of patriotism by liberals.

The Lapham piece is a good discussion starter than could get us to the merits as opposed to the ideology of a Bush impeachment. The Web version of the piece is only excerpted at the Harper's Web site; you'll have to go to a bookstore of the library to see the whole piece.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Mass Media = Truth?

Time for a plug for the ongoing exhibit at Simpson's Farnham Gallery, titled "Mass Media = Truth?" It's a juried exhibition to which several artists have contributed works. From the promotional information on the exhibition:
Today's society has become unaware of the amount of media they are consuming on a regular basis. The exposure to media is incredibly convenient and has led to TV and media diets that become unregulated, resulting in Media Obesity and a search for truth.

"Reality as presented by the mass media is not a picture or reflection of 'reality,' but, rather, a constructed interpretation of reality. In the view of many representatives of post-modernism, juts about every aspect of reality seems to be considered a social construction."

Here's the carrot for students at Simpson to attend: Any student currently enrolled in any of my Spring 2006 courses may earn 2 extra-credit percentage points, applicable toward your final course grade, for attending the exhibition at some time prior to its closing on March 31 and then writing a 1-2 paragraph comment on the exhibition that will be posted on this blog. (Click on the "comments" button at the end of this blog item to post your comment.)

To earn your extra credit, you must post your comment no later than April 3.

Getting Tough on Indecency

Kevin Martin, the chairman of the FCC, is declaring war on broadcast indecency, with opening salvo being a $3.6 million proposed fine against the CBS program Without a Trace for airing "sexual situations" without either nudity or profane language.

John Eggerton in Broadcasting and Cable reports that the television's creative community is "seething" over the proposed fine:
As Hollywood tries to decipher the federal government's Byzantine findings, writers and show creators say the document has already begun to chill their appetite for edgier fare. Some stations and networks will appeal. CBS, for one, vowed to aggressively fight the charge for the recent fine and the more famous $550,000 fine for Janet Jackson's breast-baring dance at the Super Bowl two years ago, and the network will likely go to court to defend itself against such charges.

The indecency battle is a key First Amendment issue, and the Eggerton story will be a required read in my Media Law course within a few days. Stay tuned for details as to when you'll need to have it completed.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Now the Library Comes to You

Remember those funny buildings on college campuses called libraries? You know, the places where students would come and go day or night, weekday or weekend? Even I, as dreadful an undergraduate as I was, spent quite a bit of time at the library.

Now it seems entirely possible that you can get a college degree without ever setting foot inside of a library.

Sunday's Des Moines Register has this story on the decline of the library as a place for research and study. The focus of Lisa Livermore's piece is Iowa State's Parks Library. where, "about a decade ago, more than 1.8 million people per year streamed into the ISU library, according to university records. Today, the number is down 17 percent."

It's not that students are studying less. (Well, OK, maybe students are studying less, after all...) It's just that when they're doing research, they're doing it with the Internet, specifically Google. (So this really is a media posting after all, and not just some cranky professor's rant on how today's students don't deserve what we're giving them.)

This is more than simply a preference for ISU students to stay warm and cozy when doing research on a late-winter night. It can have real budget consequences for the library, as Livermore reports:

The ISU library currently ranks in the lower half of academic research libraries in North America, and library advocates warn that the university is likely to suffer if the library continues to lose support.

"We're at a crossroads," said ISU library dean Olivia Madison. "If we don't see an infusion of funds, we will continue to drop in rankings. We'll become a second-rate library."

So what to do about it? Some professors, such as ISU political science lecturer Dirk Deam, say they're opposed to encouraging student research on the Internet. The library is a facility that encourages the serious reading and study of serious academic works, and the 'net simply isn't policed enough for students to be able to sort the fact from the crap online. Plus the 'net encourages students to skim materials for quick answers to specific research or study questions without forcing them to process or critically evaluate the materials they're accessing.

Of course, the argument over whether students should use online sources as opposed to putting on their coats and trudging to the library is moot. The war is largely over, and the Internet and Google have won.

As is the question with all media usage, the question isn't whether students will use online research-and-study services, but whether they'll use them intelligently. Our job as faculty is to point our students as best as we can away from free-for-all sites like Google and toward sites, like Simpson's Dunn Library, that filter information in ways that filter primary and secondary sources.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Goodbye Journalism, Hello PR

Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine has ruminations on the death of journalism as a gatekeeper of public opinion and the consequent rise of public relations as a tool to guide what the public is thinking about people, events and issues. The latest incantation of this comes from Howard Kurtz's Washington Post story on how bloggers broke the New York Times' story on WalMart's employing of bloggers to spread the company message throughout the Web, thus blunting the impact of the Times' story.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Tom Cruise, Censor

First, Isaac (Chef) Hayes quit "South Park" in disgust over the Parker-Stone episode that took on Scientology. Now comes word from this morning's New York Post that megastar, Scientology devotee and Katie Holmes maybe-wannabe-husband Tom Cruise is ratcheting up the pressure on Comedy Central and the makers of the program:

"Hollywood bully Cruise got Comedy Central to cancel Wednesday night's cablecast of a controversial 'South Park' episode about Scientology by warning that he'd refuse to promote 'Mission Impossible 3,'" the newspaper reports, citing "insiders" as its source. "Since Paramount is banking on 'MI3' to rake in blockbuster profits this summer, and Paramount is owned by Viacom, which also owns Comedy Central, the tactic worked.

Has Larry King Lost It?

The speculation has been running the past few days that CNN is trying to figure out a dignified way to show the door to Larry King. The reason: King, who's been doing absolutely horrible interviews at least since I was in high school, is "increasingly frail" and is suffering memory loss.

Today's New York Post has a published denial from CNN President Joe Klein, but LK's audience is down and getting older at a time when CNN is increasingly chasing the audiences who favor prime anchor and Regis Philbin fill-in Anderson Cooper.

Poking Fun? Or Crossing a Line?

Ben Frotscher in the Media Ethics class posts a story on the annual Gridiron Club dinner and is wondering whether journalists might be crossing an ethical line when they get together on a social basis with the politicians they cover. Maybe the real outrage is seeing reporters dressed in chicken suits.

If you're in the Ethics class, you need to read and be ready to discuss this story by next Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

Where Did All the Reporters Go?

The biggest problem I've seen in my years of teaching journalism to young people at Simpson and elsewhere is that many of them are attracted to the field by the writing -- and they absolute hate to do the reporting. That, to me, means that not many of them are really that interested in journalism. Now Howard Kurtz reports in the Washington Post that the same mindset is overtaking "professional" journalism.

"Hundreds of cable and radio commentators, and millions of bloggers, can sound off about the news in real time," he writes. "But the number of old-fashioned fact-gatherers is dwindling, and will almost certainly continue to shrink."

Where did all the reporters go?

Kurtz's take comes at the same time that the Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual State of the News Media report, which comes to much the same conclusion. "The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories," the report finds.

The Smart J-Major is Looking to the Web

Anthony Moor has a new piece at OJR in which he argues that the earnest young journalism major of today is looking more toward careers on the Web than in either newspaper or television.

"One major newspaper chain was just frog-marched to the auction block by grimfaced money managers. The others have watched their stock price slide for two solid years like a metro daily tossed onto a pitched roof," he says. And things aren't much better at the big TV news organizations. "Network television doesn't even have all its anchor chairs filled -- forget about a clear mission. The cable outlets have hired talk-show screamers and now follow car chases and kidnap mysteries 'live.' Much of local TV long ago gave up the ghost."

So as we move toward implementing convergence next year at Simpson, you're all going to find that more will be demanding of you -- more skills, more critical-thinking and more monitoring of the skills that you'll need to succeed.

CBS News President, Heal Thyself

Andrew Heyward, with CBS still smarting from Memogate but actually getting some traction off the ascension of Bob Schieffer to the anchor chair, says presenting facts will still be an area of opportunity for news organizations in a splintered media future. Whether CBS, with or without Katie Couric, will be part of that future remains to be seen.

Maybe They Can Post Their Award as Bail Money

We've been talking in my classes about the rumblings that the Bushies might prosecute James Risen, Eric Lichtblau and others at the New York Times for popping the lid on the domestic spying program. Now comes word this week that the reporters have won a major investigative-reporting award from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard for their work.

(Via NYT > Media and Advertising.)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Well here we go with my venture into the blogosphere. We've set it up tonight and we'll start actually trying to make for some content tomorrow. Wish me luck!