Category Archives: Gannett

It’s Time to Get Serious About Comedy

By gaining concessions from two labor unions and buyouts from some 200 of its non-union employees, The Star-Ledger has managed to stay in business. Now, in the words of Ledger editor Jim Willse, it is time “to start making plans for the paper going forward.”

But with about a third of its newsroom staff gone, can the state’s largest newspaper continue to survive in an era in which the internet and 24-hour cable news threaten to make the print media extinct?

The dilemma is not unique to The Star-Ledger. Newspapers all across the nation are finding themselves with less resources and less personnel at a time when competition from internet news sites, blogs and other new media is increasing.

In New Jersey, Gannett has eliminated more than 50 jobs at its six New Jersey papers this year, while The Record is abandoning its longtime headquarters in Hackensack and making most of its reporters “mobile journalists” who will work outside of a traditional office. Meanwhile, The New York Times has drastically cut back its coverage of the Garden State, and retirements at New Jersey Network are changing the landscape of the state’s public television news operation.

How do you stop the bleeding? Comedy.

If you think that’s a joke, just consider the following:

Viewership is up for programs such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

Although these are comedy shows, they also provide information — albeit in a humorous manner — about the major news stories in the nation.

Young people — the same demographic group that rarely reads newspapers — are relying on these comedy programs as a source for news.

Need more proof? Take a closer look at the facts.

Ratings for Comedy

With a heavy focus on the 2008 presidential campaign, Saturday Night Live is off to its best start in years. Overall ratings are up 49 percent over last year. The September 13 premier, which began with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler portraying Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, had the highest ratings for any SNL show since December 12, 2002, when former Vice President Al Gore hosted the program.

SNL’s September 27 parody of Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin has been viewed online 4.6 million times, attracting nearly four times as many page views as the actual interview. Is it any wonder why Saturday Night Live began a series of primetime election season specials last night?

Ratings for Traditional News

According to a Pew Research Center study, audiences for traditional news programs are dwindling. Between 1993 and 2002, viewership for nightly network news dropped by 46 percent. Network news magazines fell by 54 percent, local news by 26 percent.

The sharpest decline took place among 18 to 24-year-olds. Only 40 percent of the individuals in this age group reported watching any television news in the day before they took part in the survey. And they are reading newspapers even less. “Only nineteen per cent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four claim even to look at a daily newspaper,” Eric Alterman wrote in The New Yorker earlier this year. “The average age of the American newspaper reader is fifty-five and rising.”

A more recent Pew Center study that focused on the four years between the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns found that the percentages of 18 to 29-years olds who said they regularly learned something from network news decreased from 39 to 23 percent. Local news fared even worse, dropping from 42 to 29 percent.

Where People Go for News

With the audiences for traditional news outlets shrinking, where are people turning for news?

To comedy.

The 2002 Pew Center study found that 21 percent of those between 18 and 29 said they regularly learned about news and politics from comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live, while 13 percent cited late-night talk shows such as the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman as their regular news sources.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was identified as a rising source of political information. (The Colbert Report had not yet debuted when the study was conducted.) During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the Daily Show received more male viewers in the 18 to 34 year old age demographic than Nightline, Meet the Press, Hannity & Colmes and all of the evening news broadcasts.

Is Comedy A Valid News Source?

Earlier this year, the Project for Excellence in Journalism released a content analysis report suggesting that The Daily Show comes close to providing the complete daily news. Likewise , a 2006 Indiana University study compared the information in The Daily Show with prime time network news broadcasts and found little difference in substance.

The findings are supported by audience studies. In late 2004, the National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania ran a study of American television viewers and found that viewers of The Daily Show were more educated, followed the news more regularly and were more politically knowledgeable than the general public.

The study also showed that Daily Show viewers had more accurate knowledge of the issues in the 2004 presidential election than most others, including individuals who relied on network news shows and newspapers for information.

Conclusion

Can comedy save the New Jersey media?

Perhaps not by itself, but as publishers, editors and news directors chart a course for the future, they can learn a lesson or two from the comedy programs that young people are turning to for news. To reach today’s younger audiences, media organizations need to reexamine the manner in which the news is gathered and reported. With more and more options competing for our attention, the news needs not only to be important, but also entertaining.

As Geoffrey Baym wrote in Political Communication, “The Daily Show represents an important experiment in journalism, one that contains much significance for the ongoing redefinition of news… Lying just beneath or perhaps imbricated within the laughter is a quite serious demand for fact, accountability, and reason in political discourse.”

And aren’t facts, accountability and reason the very things we hope to gain when we open a newspaper, turn on a television newscast or log onto an internet news site?

(Listen to a Hall Institute Podcast on this topic.)

References

Alterman, A. (2008, March 31). Out of Print. The New Yorker.

Baym, G. (2005) The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism. Political Communication, No. 22, pp. 259–276.

Carter, B. (2008, September 30). Palin Effect on Ratings Only Modest for CBS, New York Times.

Chambers, S. (2008, October 8). Star-Ledger truck drivers ratify labor agreement. The Star-Ledger.

Fox, J., Koloen, G., and Sahin, V. (2007, June). No joke: a comparison of substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and broadcast network television coverage of the 2004 presidential election campaign. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.

Gough, P. (2008, October 6). Politics and Palin lure viewers to SNL.

Journalism, satire or just laughs? (2008, May 8) Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Koblin, J. (2008, August 12). Welcome to New Jersey, Media Wasteland. New York Observer.

News Audiences Increasingly Politicized. (2004, June 8). Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions. (2007, April 15), Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The Record shifting staff from centralized office. (2008, July 2). The Record.

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NJN, Gannett and the Cincinnati Reds

Kent Manahan’s impending retirement as anchor of New Jersey Network news has reignited discussion about the propriety of a news organization funded by the government it covers. But the relationship between NJN and New Jersey state government is just one example of the many strange bedfellows resulting from the media consolidation that has taken place in recent years.

For example, during the telecast of last night’s baseball game between the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds, an advertisement for CareerBuilder, the nation’s largest online job site, appeared prominently on the fence behind the batter in the shots from the Reds’ Great American Ballpark. CareerBuilder is owned by the Gannett Company, which publishes 85 daily newspapers, including USA TODAY and several New Jersey publications. Among Gannett’s other holdings is partial ownership of a baseball team that just happens to be the Cincinnati Reds.

Trading Places on West State Street

The news that Star-Ledger reporter Deborah Howlett is leaving her job covering Governor Corzine to take a job working for Corzine as his Communications Director raised eyebrows in Trenton this week, especially since it came on the heels of a similar decision by another high profile Ledger writer: Columnist Tom Moran is moving to PSE&G to do public policy work.

The raised eyebrows are understandable.

How is it possible to switch roles so quickly? To go from asking aggressive questions of the Governor and challenging his statements to answering those very same questions and defending his statements?

Are journalistic ethics being compromised by reporters who know they are about to take a job that will change their relationships with the organizations and individuals they cover?

New Jersey law prohibits officials from leaving government and immediately becoming lobbyists. Should we also close the revolving door between the Fourth Estate and state government?

From my perspective – as one whose career has included stints in both journalism and government public relations – I see no problem with the moves that Howlett, Moran and hundreds of other journalists have made.

Who better to serve in a communications and public relations role than someone who has firsthand experience about what make journalists tick?

More importantly, journalism is an industry whose members police themselves. By contrast, governments pass laws to strengthen ethics, but they often are ineffective. This is because no one can legislate morality. Where there is a will, there is a way. If someone wants to ignore an ethics law, they will.

Most news organizations have ethics codes or guidelines. And although they do not carry the force of law, they work. They work because by and large the individuals who have chosen to make journalism their careers value the principles and ideals of the profession.

Back in 1990 after I gave my editors at The News Tribune notice that I was leaving my job as a Statehouse Correspondent to work for the State Assembly, I spent my last two weeks at the paper writing a feature series on the New Jersey Lottery while much more interesting and controversial events were taking place in the Legislature.

In Howlett’s case, she told Gannett that she actually has spent more time covering the presidential election than the Governor’s Office in recent weeks.

News organizations also have taken steps to prevent conflicts that may arise when spouses both have pubic identities, such as the Star-Ledger’s Robert Schwaneberg and his wife, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens.

The truth is the problems with journalism today – in New Jersey and throughout the nation – are not with individual reporters and editors. Instead, the issue we should be examining is how media consolidation and the drive for profit are impacting the quality of the news we receive.

Advance Publications, which owns the Star-Ledger, the Trenton Times and several other New Jersey newspapers, also owns many major magazines, including Bon Appetit, Glamour, GQ, Modern Bride and Vogue. Is the parent company shortchanging its New Jersey news operations because there is more profit to be made by investing in its high quality magazines?

Gannett, the parent company of the Asbury Park Press, owns the Army Times Publishing Company, which publishes a series of newspapers for members of the military and their families. Is there a connection between this military company and the crusading efforts of the Asbury Park Press to keep Fort Monmouth open?

The North Jersey Media Group, which owns the Bergen Record, the Herald and News, and a large group of weekly newspapers, appeals to potential advertisers by describing its market as “an area of unprecedented wealth and retail sales.” Does this mean issues that appeal to an upper-middle class and upper class demographic are more likely to be covered than those that are important to the working poor?

I am not suggesting that the answer to any of these questions is yes. But in order to preserve quality journalism and strengthen our democracy, these are the types of issues that should be researched and explored. They are much more important than debating where on West State Street any individual reporter — or former reporter — chooses to work.

How News Frames Shaped the Super Tuesday Coverage

Almost without exception, the state’s daily newspapers led their New Jersey primary stories with language indicating that Hillary Clinton had held off a challenge from Barack Obama:

Gannett – Hillary Rodham Clinton defeated the late-surging Barack Obama in New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday…”

Courier-Post – Hillary Rodham Clinton overcame a fierce challenge from Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic primary Tuesday…”

The Record – Hillary Clinton held off a surging Barack Obama to win New Jersey’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday as party power brokers, Latino voters and labor unions helped her avoid an embarrassing loss.

Star-Ledger – New York Sen. Hillary Clinton withstood a furious, final-days challenge from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in her own backyard to win the Democratic primary in New Jersey yesterday amid a record-shattering turnout by voters.

True, Clinton had long maintained a convincing lead in the polls and Obama had narrowed that gap in recent weeks. But by portraying Obama as the challenger, these stories created the impression that Hillary Clinton already had won something in New Jersey.

That’s fine if you are writing about a prize fight in which a boxer is challenging a heavyweight champion who has won several bouts to earn his title. But in the New Jersey primary, the fact is Hillary Clinton had not won anything before Tuesday. When the polls opened at 6 a.m., she and Barack Obama had exactly the same number of votes – zero.

Yes, Clinton was ahead in virtually every voter poll conducted prior to the primary, but the credibility of polls took a beating in New Hampshire earlier this year. And as candidates are fond of saying, the only poll that matters is the one that takes place in the voting booth.

By framing stories in this manner – whether or not intentionally – journalists have the ability to shape events, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The press both covers events and, in choosing what to report and how to report it, shapes their outcome,” she wrote in The Press Effect.

In discussing the disputed 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Jamieson contends that the frame became one in which Bush was perceived as the winner and Gore as the challenger, even though there was no clear-cut winner. This in effect made it more difficult for the Gore team to gain support.

Moving back to New Jersey, the lead of the Star-Ledger’s national story on Super Tuesday created an air of invincibility for John McCain:

“Sen. John McCain continued his march toward the Republican presidential nomination…”

Now that Mitt Romney has bowed out of the GOP primary, it appears that McCain most likely will “march toward the Republican nomination.” But on Wednesday, when this story appeared, Romney was still a candidate, albeit a weakened one. Yes, McCain’s nomination appeared inevitable, but nothing is inevitable. Just ask the New York Mets, whose chances of playing in the 2007 post-season were considered inevitable before their historic collapse.

When journalists create a sense of inevitability, it can have a direct impact on public perception.

For example, a study by Jack Lule of Lehigh University found that news reports prior to the 2003 war in Iraq were based upon the assumption that war was inevitable. In turn, this assumption had profound implications in terms of public support for the war. This conclusion was based on six weeks of coverage by NBC Nightly News in which the network titled its reports Countdown: Iraq, Showdown: Iraq, and Target: Iraq.

“By using Countdown: Iraq as a structural metaphor, particularly in the middle of February 2003, NBC Nightly News affirmed the inevitability of conflict with Iraq at a time when many Americans and nations around the world were still attempting to prevent the conflict,” Lule wrote in Journalism Studies.

One could argue that the consequences of framing Hillary Clinton and John McCain as candidates in commanding positions on Super Tuesday may not be as great as the frames that helped build public support for the war in Iraq. That is true, but with Super Tuesday, we also are talking about a process that ultimately will determine who will serve as the nation’s next chief executive in one of the most challenging times in our history.

And that is a decision that deserves to be made carefully and thoughtfully by a well-informed electorate.

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Has Election Coverage Entered A Brave New World?