By Richard A. Lee
For a state that finds itself as the punch line of too many jokes, Time magazine’s recent list of the 100 most influential people in the world offers New Jerseyans some badly needed ammunition to counter the laughs that people have at our state’s expense.
Governor Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker made the list, as did Newark native Ray Chambers, who has worked hard to revitalize the city and now is focused on eradicating malaria; former N.J. Environmental Commissioner Lisa Jackson, who now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and punk rock pioneer Patti Smith, who grew up in Deptford Township. Not a bad showing for a list that includes just 100 people from all over the world.
More telling, however, is how the list – which was compiled by Time editors – compares with the results of magazine’s online poll, which is based on votes cast by the general public. Christie and Booker also were among the Top 100 in the poll, but so were Susan Boyle, Beyonce, Lada Gaga and Betty White – all of whom received more votes than Governor Christie and the Mayor of New Jersey’s largest city. To put it another way, in the eyes of the public, Susan Boyle, Beyonce, Lada Gaga and Betty White are more influential than Chris Christie and Cory Booker.
Granted the online poll was not a scientific measure, but it wasn’t TMZ or Entertainment Weekly asking their readers to cast votes. It was Time, the world's largest weekly news magazine.
One could also argue that, since the editors of Time are journalists involved with covering the news, their sense of who is influential is more on target than that of the public. But even if this is true, it may no longer matter in today’s media environment. News content is increasingly being determined – not by journalists and by news value but instead by companies and individuals with the technological expertise to match content with audience preferences. As a result, the news industry is in danger of losing control of its future.
“In a media world where consumers decide what news they want to get and how they want to get it, the future will belong to those who understand the public’s changing behavior and can target content and advertising to snugly fit the interests of each user,” Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell wrote in the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s most recent State of the Media report. “That knowledge – and the expertise in gathering it – increasingly resides with technology companies outside journalism.”
Since nearly all news organizations rely heavily on revenue from advertisers to support their operations and to generate profits, the ability to connect advertisers has long been a fundamental component of successful media companies. In the 21st Century, however, technology has emerged as a new and more effective intermediary.
“Of the many changes that the Internet has delivered to the nation's newsrooms, the ability to measure traffic for a given story, blog or video may be among the most profound,” Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote in a September 2010 article for American Journalism Review.
Farhi said The Post has used items “with dubious or tenuous news value,” such as celebrity photo galleries, polls and trending topics on Twitter and Google to draw people to its website:
“High-minded headlines and stories about foreign wars, the federal deficit or environmental despoilage might have paid the bills in the age of Murrow and Cronkite, but they only go so far these days,” he wrote. “Shark videos and ‘naked Lady Gaga’ headlines get major play on ‘serious’ news sites for an obvious and no longer terribly shocking reason: They draw traffic.”
While such practices may still raise eyebrows inside newsrooms of journalism stalwarts such as The Washington Post, newer organizations have put policies into place that leave little room for discretion over content.
In a recent Los Angeles Times column, longtime journalist Tim Rutten shared the contents of a memo from AOL’s chief executive officer, Tim Armstrong, in which Armstrong instructed the company’s news editors to use website traffic, profitability and editing turnaround time to evaluate potential stories. “Note all the things that come before the quality of the work or its contribution to the public interest and you've arrived at an essential difference between journalism and content,” Rutten wrote.
All of this represents a fundamental change – not just for the media, but also for how the agenda is set for public policy. Hundreds of research studies have found that when news organizations placed attention on an issue, it resulted in increased attention from the public, as well as from government leaders whose actions and decisions determine public policy. But now the agenda-setting role appears to be shifting from journalists to the citizenry.
In a relatively short period of time, the technological advances provided by the Internet have dramatically altered the manner in which news is reported and consumed. As technology continues to advance, it could very well have an even greater impact on the actual content of news itself.
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