Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Press as Gatekeepers

I've added a new website to my daily rounds, CableNewser. He scans the media and media criticism, then posts what he's found and some comment. It's not a bad site, for what he does.

Today, he posted an open question about the press in the Internet age:
Allow me to just float an idea here. What would be the reaction if one of the cable news web sites streamed the beheading video? No unsuspecting viewer would be caught off-guard. I've watched the clip several times now, and the parts you don't see on TV are the parts that are truly impactful. In this Internet age, at what point do media organizations stop playing gatekeeper, and start providing raw content for consumers who want it?
An excellent question!

Locally, I don't think anyone is successfully blending Internet and old-media operations especially well. Both the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Flyer have web sites that are mostly repositories for their print content. The CA is doing blogs now, sort of, but they still wait for some reporter, journalist or news service to provide content before putting it on the web site. Perfect example was the Dyersburg hostage situation. The CA was hopelessly far behind everyone in keeping up with the situation, even with a web site available. The Flyer will occasionally post "Hot" material before the weekly update, and I think there's some web-only content, though it's not always clear.

The television news stations are all far behind the curve. Why newscast video isn't put up on their sites, available any time of day after broadcast and for days after, I don't know? Is it the cost of housing all that server space? The cost of bandwidth? Some stations have some stories' video available, and some written summaries of news stories; others have basically nothing at all.

I will say that all these sites -- print and television -- have twigged to the advertising potential, though. Every single one is packed full of flashing ads, java, scrolling stuff, ads, ads, more ads, links to advertisers and marketing stuff, bells, whistles, surveys, you name it! I'm on dial-up, which is already the red-headed step-child of the Internet for major companies in the media business, and waiting for some of these sites to load is just painful. And unnecessary. And off-putting to potential readers.

On the good side was a recent move by the Commercial Appeal. In response to reader requests, they put up the audio of Mayor Herenton's incendiary New Year's Inaugural speech. They posted the whole speech as an mp3 file for anyone to download. They even created a special "themed" web page for stories related to the speech and all the Council upset that followed.

Which is an illustration of what should have happened right away. Tape and/or audio, and a full transcript, of that speech should have been posted to the websites of any or all of the local news websites. It was available and so was the server space. Given that everyone was only printing or showing carefully trimmed edits from the speech, allowing the public to hear and decide for themselves would be the preferable choice. The same goes for Carol Chumney's Day of Hell when she was upbraided in both Council committee and full City Council sessions. Video and audio was available of the whole thing, but we never got more than bits. I and others I've talked to still have no idea what it was that set Councillor Jones off on his tirade in the committee meeting. It's on tape, but we've not seen it. We could....

Print news is limited by space for a variety of reasons. The Commercial Appeal puts a priority on national and international stuff in their A section; local news tends to go to the cramped "Metro" section, except for the big news of the day. As much page count as the Flyer has, most of it is advertising and the rest is already committed to regular features.

The television stations have hours every day to fill, but have chosen a pretty rapid pace of presentation that precludes longer, detailed reports. Plus, showing all twenty minutes of a Herenton speech several times a day, for a week, is too much to ask of anyone. But the format and pace of broadcast news just isn't made fuller examination.

Then there's the whole matter of bias and presentation. The "Brawl at City Hall" and the "fireworks." Deciding what's shown and how much is shown. The way the story is reported by the journalist. Whether you believe that news is carefully reported in a neutral, balanced way or believe that partisan editors and writers put their own spin on what they report, the issue can be sidestepped easily by simply providing the raw information.

Which gets back to the original point. With the websites and bandwidth available, what reason is there to not provide raw video or other data for readers/viewers to check out for themselves? The usual edited and manipulated reporting can still be done alongside it, for those who don't want to check out the raw feed or don't have the time or inclination.

It's a good question.

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