Category Archives: New York Times

Upcoming Events

The New Jersey Political Science Association will conduct its annual meeting on Friday, February 27, at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University.  I will be one several speakers on the panel discussing New Jersey’s 2009 campaign for Governor.

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My research essay on media coverage during the Vietnam War era has been accepted for presentation at an academic conference in New York City (March 14 at Marymount Manhattan College).

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I will be a panelist at the New Jersey Communication Association Conference (March 28 at Kean University), discussing personal privacy on the internet.

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On April 24, I will take part in “A Fiscal Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” the Annual Symposium of the State Chapters of the Association of Government Accountants and American Society for Public Administration. I will be on a panel that will discuss “How the Media Crisis Affects the Government Crisis.”

Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

With an unprecedented number of layoffs and buyouts, 2008 was a devastating year for journalism in New Jersey.

Or was it?

It all depends on whether you are looking at the glass as half empty or half full.

From the half empty perspective, it was truly sad to witness the struggles the state’s newspapers confronted in order to survive.  Likewise, it was alarming to watch so many talented journalists depart the news industry in New Jersey. Continue reading

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.

Springsteen Returns to NJ

With Bruce Springsteen coming to town, we posted a series of papers about “The Boss” and his impact on NJ on the Hall Institute website today. Links to the papers – as well as a few extras — are below:

A Question of Advertising

A two-page ad alleging that same sex marriages threaten our nation appeared simultaneously in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Times last week. The ad – and the reactions it has received – raise interesting questions.

News organizations have the right to turn down advertising, but they rarely do. As Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman noted in The Propaganda Model, one of the filters through which news passes is flak. Given the financial state of the industry, news organizations try to avoid controversies that will drain their fiscal and staff resources by having to defend their actions. In this case, turning down the ad may have generated more controversy than running it, especially for The New York Times. Whether accurate or not, the paper is viewed as liberal, so there may have been some reluctance to reject an ad from an organization espousing a conservative agenda, especially in light of the criticism The Times received for running a Move On ad – at a discounted rate — that was critical of General David Petraeus and the war in Iraq

Another filter that Chomsky and Herman identified is advertising. News organizations rely on the revenue it generates, so they are less likely to turn down ads. Once again, it all comes down to money.

Remembering Dith Pran


When New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran covered a press conference or a news event in the area, he looked like any other photographer doing his job. Unless you knew otherwise, there were no signs that Dith was the man who endured four years of starvation and torture in Cambodia and that his story was the inspiration for the 1984 film The Killing Fields.

When I learned that Dith had passed away from pancreatic cancer Sunday night, I immediately recalled a brief encounter I had had with him back in 1997. The story tells a lot about the type of a person he was.

At the time, I was working as the public information officer in Woodbridge Township and our mayor, Jim McGreevey, was embarking on his first quest for the Governor’s Office. The New York Times was doing a profile on McGreevey and an editor asked me to provide some pictures of his work as mayor.

Being that this was long before the days when digital photography was commonplace, I had a stack of snapshots — most of them taken by the police department’s ID Bureau, which was much more adept (and rightfully so) at photographing crime scenes than municipal ceremonies.

I picked out about a dozen or so of what I thought were the best photos and set them aside for The Times. When Dith (who lived in Woodbridge) arrived at my office to collect them, I expected him simply to take the photos and be on his way. Instead, he carefully looked over each picture and politely informed me that I might want to reconsider my selections. He spotted things that only a photographer’s eye would see – an awkward glance, an unflattering shadow, a misplaced background object, etc. He took a look at the huge stack of pictures on my desk and explained that he had to go shoot an assignment, but would return to help me select the best photos of the mayor.

True to his word, he came back to Town Hall and spent the better part of an hour perusing pictures of press conferences, proclamation presentations and VFW dinners until he found several suitable photographs. I didn’t yet realize who he was, but I was touched by the fact that he cared enough about how the mayor would look in his newspaper that he would take time to look through several hundred photos – and explain to me why he chose some and rejected the others.

As he looked through the photos, we made small talk. When he learned that I lived in Hamilton, he asked for directions to the College of New Jersey in nearby Ewing, where he was scheduled to give a lecture. He also was interested in Woodbridge Township’s new web page. (Municipal web sites were just starting to make an appearance at the time.) He explained that he was starting his own web page and offered to show me the page while it was under construction. Still unaware of just who he was, I asked him about the subject of his web page.

“You know who I am?” he asked out of amusement.

Although I still didn’t know, I remained silent as his web page appeared on the screen of my computer revealing that he was the real life person upon whom The Killing Fields was based.

More than a decade has passed since this brief encounter, but I never forgot that Dith Pran – a man who had survived conditions more horrific than most of us will ever know –- cared enough to take time to help me do my job better.

May he rest in peace – a peace that clearly is deserved.

All the News, Except for New Jersey

In a posting on her politickernj.com column, Debbie Holtz laments the recent decision by The New York Times to eliminate editorials and op-ed articles from its Sunday New Jersey and the Region section. I share her sentiments and hope that this decision is not a harbinger of things to come in terms of the newspaper’s commitment to covering the Garden State. On a personal level, I’ve had the opportunity to see some of my op-eds published in this section of The Times. Most were penned for others while I was working in PR. But I also wrote two under my own name early in my career – a piece on gifted and talented education in Montclair and another urging the State of New Jersey to adopt Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” as its official state anthem.