Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I am thinking back to late January and trying to recall what I expected this class would be like. For some reason, four months feels like a year ago.

That may sound like hyperbole, but I believe its rather relevant to a lot of what we discussed in class, although perhaps only tangentially. The sheer mass of information, images, ideas, and opportunities for interaction with media is so substantial that each day feels like a week. If I have a moment to reflect on where my day’s interaction with media began, where it ended, and how I got there in between, I am often awestruck by the transitions.

More than anything, this class forced me into that state of reflection. Instead of taking the distanced-critic approach to media, it required me to engage with and interact in ways I am often incredibly resistant to. I can locate reasons for some of the resistance: the interconnected threads of social networking and the span of my digital footprint, an aversion to publishing anything without overanalyzing what it says and who could find it. But other aspects were more surprising. For example, I hated posting vapid comments for the sake of simply posting them. I thought a lot about whether submitting a comment actually counted as an interaction. Are there hierarchies of engagement? Is the back-and-forth approach to commenting or “fisking” actually all that different from the one-way communication journalism has historically operated in?

The simple answer is, of course, yes and no. Of course there are more opportunities to publish one’s own opinions or feedback with the Internet than there were when letters editors made the decisions. But publication and promotion are different. Some of our blogs were heavily trafficked, while others saw very little. And the process of promotion is still connected to the purse strings – whether that money is spent in resources like how much time one has to plug their work or the old-fashioned route of advertising. Simply replying to a news article and leaving a comment opens up some opportunities for engagement, but they are limited. It starts to get interesting when journalistic institutions turn over their publication spaces willingly, provide resources for newsgathering, and engage with their readership/audience in ways that break down the barrier separating them in the first place.

I spent a lot of time in this course challenging the definition of journalism itself (and it is worth repeating again that this is not a dispute over the definition of a journalist – as I believe anyone can do the work of journalism). Though I don’t think journalism has to be published on certain platforms or written by people with specific experience or degrees, I do think at its core it is about providing information and ensuring a check and balance on the powerful (be they institutions of government or of business). Storytelling itself plays an important role in how we understand the world around us, as well as opening up new avenues for providing insights not typically afforded space in newspapers or other traditional news outlets. I think I have to concede in my own definition of journalism to at least include a broader swath of approaches, such as the literary journalism of David Foster Wallace.

But I maintain my position that reviews and criticism are not journalism. They play an invaluable role in how we understand the world around us, and I love reading record reviews as much as the next gal (probably more), but its an important line to maintain.

The other most valuable aspect of the course was the chance to hear how young journalism majors approach these concepts and tools. I admit to being surprised by how liberally they applied the definition of journalism, how few people were willing to answer our guest speaker when she asked for a list of the freedoms outlined in the First Amendment, and to the sheer quantity of folks who seem interested in sports or feature writing. Where are we going to find our local beat reporters or government watchdogs if so few journalism students are interested in doing that work?

In the end I valued how much time was spent experimenting with the new media tools of Web 2.0. Knowledge about what these things are and how they can be used to engage with readers, locate sources, and compose sources are great resources for aspiring journalists. It was interesting how few of the students really knew anything about blogging, online publishing conventions, or networks like Twitter. My boyfriend suspects that growing up under eight years of the Bush administration created a fearful generation of Internet users. Maybe he is right.

All in all the class was certainly educational – though perhaps not for the coursework itself. But it provoked me to think, challenge some of my own assumptions, harass my friends and family into discussions about journalism and democracy, and even forced me to write some blog posts. What more could I ask for in my final class as an undergraduate?


Dear Day of Commenting,

You were a great idea. In fact, you should become a holiday. A day dedicated to providing feedback, commenting, reacting and reacting to comments on feedback.

If you were a holiday, you would be like many other holidays in my life. Days that come, which I will probably have to work on anyway, and likely will ignore.

I wanted to give you the attention you needed, but it just wasn't going to happen.


Bad Feedback Citizen


Assignment: follow a ton of people on Twitter who post, like 50 tweets an hour.

Verdict: I have written about Twitter on this blog multiple times and don't need to really rehash my feelings about the service. It has its usefulness, and as someone who works in a social media immersed environment I have spent a fair amount of time managing it.

If anything all this assignment managed to do was the following:
  1. Tweetdeck appeared to be a potentially useful tool
  2. There must be a reason its Tweetdeck Beta -- I couldn't get it to download
  3. Managing these updates in Twitterfox was a nightmare. This changed the service from providing a few useful posts an hour to an overwhelming and obnoxious quantity of information.
In fact, this assignment may have turned me off to Twitter all together. Since I had already established a pattern of use, disrupting it for this assignment was challenging. I followed a few links here and there, but mostly I couldn't keep up with the pace. I'm wondering of other students also experienced this. It's a challenging time of year to add following the Tweets of Twittaholics on top of all the other work involved in ending a semester. In my case, this was a week of travel and a crazy work schedule that had me away from the computer or completely buried in reading and writing without any time to devote to following the insider company happenings of the Tribune company. (Besides, I am already reading those posts from the public media world).

And then there's the media's obsession with Twitter. With Oprah Winfrey's foray on to the network, its popularity is plummeting its users' cultural capital. And it continues to crack me up that even after I presented my thesis this afternoon – which was on the use of communications technology in street protesting – a couple students came up to me afterwards to say that they know what Twitter is but they have never seen a “real person use it.”

My boyfriend called this obsession by corporate America months ago. “Twitter? Its a thing? Okay, we need three of them. Someone buy us three Twitters.”

Twitter is my information overload realized. Without defining a very limited network of people whose posts interest me, the service mostly drove me crazy. If my sole directive in life was to follow people and determine trends, this would be fine. Alas, I have other things to do.

I never direct messaged anyone or @ed them, because again I had nothing to say. This assignment also came up during a week where I had little to post myself.

Once the ordeal was over I deleted almost everyone from that list, leaving only Jeff Jarvis, Patrick Thorton, and Robert Scoble. We’ll see how long that lasts. I’ve had Twitterfox turned off for a while now so that I could get some work done.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Commenting on commenting (Assignment 3b)

For my “intro to online marketing” assignment (oops, I mean Assignment 3 – haha), I originally wrote an obnoxious treatise on what the definition of journalism is. I figured that it would get quite a reaction from my classmates, even if that reaction was just pissing them off and getting lots of “you f****g suck” posted on my blog. After all, this assignment had absolutely nothing to do with soliciting comments of value. Here we were shooting for quantity, not quality.

So with that in mind, it was actually pretty easy to get people to comment. But I had to write about something bound to cut across a wider spread of my social networks. And after I received umpteen emails, tweets, and even invitations to join groups on Facebook with names like, “Yes, I have seen the video of Susan Boyle singing,” I knew I had found my ticket.

I do think that the content of the post, to some extent, matters. I say “to some extent” because ultimately the Internet is certainly populated with hordes of folks who are happy as clams to respond to banal, vile, vapid content. To write this post, I started in the real world. I made my pitch to my boyfriend, to a classmate, and to a few other folks who happened to be standing within earshot once I started ranting. This was something a lot of people had seen and reacted to. What better fodder for a commenting fire?

The comments themselves are on the sophisticated side, which is entirely due to the group of people I solicited feedback from. I sent out a few emails to friends and others in my extended acquaintance social networks. I posted it as a note on Facebook and tagged a few folks to get their attention. I used the subject line “help me do my homework” to guarantee the emails would be opened. But I also restricted the amount of people who could view the post to certain pockets of my social network. Not because I didn't want their opinion about Ms. Boyle, but because I don't like sharing writing with a wide range of people unless I am very proud of it. In that sense, I could never be a blogger in the way that Ms. Huffington told Jon Steward it should be done. I don't want to just put it out there, leave it, and see what happens. I have writer's insecurity issues.

Had I truly wanted to promote it far and wide – had I felt comfortable enough promoting the post to the full extent of my social network – there are plenty of other things I would have done. I would have posted it on Digg and told my friends to either comment or Digg the article. I would have urged them to cross-post it to other places. I would have posted it on Twitter.

But in the end, I rather enjoyed the results. In true micro-niche format, I was able to engage in an open environment (anyone is welcome to read the post, should they find it) but with an invited group of participants. And it wasn't just a circle of people patting each other on the intellectual back.

Receiving feedback was definitely more rewarding than not.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Susan Boyle phenomenon (assignment 3a.2)

People won't shut up about Susan Boyle.

But despite all the teary-eyed colleagues who claim that "you just have to see her performance!" or the mass email that I and every other woman at Smith over the age of 23 received last week, I'm honestly not convinced. Though Susan gave a lovely performance, this whole thing stinks of a pre-packaged formula meant to spice up viewership and give the audience an emotional connection with the Britain's Got Talent brand.

I took a good seven minutes out of my lunch break to watch the video and I would describe my reaction as the following journey:
  1. This woman is not ugly (which is what everyone who had described her to me up until that point had said).
  2. Everyone's reactions to this woman -- who is funny and dorky and cute like a grandmother might be -- reminds me how hideous our culture actually is.
  3. Of course she had an amazing voice. They wouldn't have put her on otherwise. The producers knew that people would be "surprised."
  4. Every reaction each judge has merely reinforces the fact that Susan's acceptance is entirely based on her ability to perform in this well-honed sphere of "talent." Had she failed to deliver, she would simply return, in the eyes of the viewers and judges, to being an unattractive woman.
I have been told that I'm overintellectualizing this whole thing. Why can't I just "let her have this moment" and why do I need to "ruin it for her?" But for me, this moment has very little to do with Susan Boyle. It has a lot more to do with our reactions to this video of her performance.

And mind you this whole ordeal has been completely shaped by an editing room that went out of their way to be sure that you knew she was thought of as a social reject.

The only reason we (the grand all-encompasing "we") accept Susan Boyle is because she excels as a singer and because we don't expect her to. And even that definition of "excelling" is shaped by the parameters of the show itself. What would have happened had she opened her mouth and sounded like, say, Joanna Newsom (who, full disclosure, I cannot stand as a singer)? Conversely, if Joanna Newsom looked like Susan Boyle, would she be as lauded and praised as she is? (Second point of disclosure: I actually really like Newsom's songs, but not her singing them).

This, my friends, is all about optics (my favorite buzz word du jour) -- how it looks for the camera.

Our reaction to Susan just makes me sad. And though I am certain that her experience was amazing and uplifting and I don't look to take that away from her, I do want to grab all my friends who are falling for this by the shoulders and shake some sense into them.

Susan Boyle's story was fabricated for you by a bunch of producers who think you are a sucker. And guess what? You are.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Assignment 3a

Photo courtesy of majunznk via Flickr and Creative Commons

We’ve had this debate going on for a while, my journalism professor and I, on what the definition of journalism is.

Unlike the majority of my classmates, I am not a journalism major. I study this strange hybrid field of humanities and social sciences referred to as American Studies at a different school. There are a lot of things an American Studies major can focus on and I chose to go with the closest thing I could cobble together that seemed like a media studies program in a communications school.

Now, in my last semester, it is clear to me that my focus has been what they call “cultural studies” – a field that, in no shortage of "American Studies" irony to me – is populated with theorists who are predominantly German (Benjamin, Horkheimer, Adorno), British (Stuart Hall), or French (oh Foucault, we cannot escape you even when we try).

So I don’t come to the table as a journalism student, but someone who instead has an immense respect for journalisms’ role in democracy. (Us American Studies majors all tend to spend a lot of time thinking and writing about democracy). And I am versed in the negative impact that free-market theory has had on the news industry in America. Despite the immense promise of the Internet for providing new sources of news and information, 40% of the people in this country do not have access to high-speed Internet. And those divisions largely fall along racial and class lines. Today’s Internet doesn’t run on dial-up. (If you don't believe me, watch this video).

The majority of people are still getting their news and information from “traditional” sources – like newspapers, television, and radio. The same sources that are predominantly controlled by the same six companies across the board. What we need most is a diversity of perspectives and boots on the ground reporting on what is happening in local communities. What we’ve got are behemoths like Clear Channel and Tribune who have gotten so big through decades of deregulation in Washington.

The commercial media industry’s deep pockets have continued to buy off policy makers, while the rest of us have to suffer through syndicated drivel in the form of talk radio and reality television. The reason? Because paying for reporters is expensive. And these companies don’t feel they have a responsibility to the public interest. Their responsibility is to their shareholders. Why pay for journalism when you can get a part-time critic to talk about the latest microbrews on tap at the hipster bar?

Which brings me back to the debate at hand: what is journalism? Note that the question is not “who is a journalist?” as I think that is an entirely different issue and at this moment in time it is a moving target. But our disagreement on “what is journalism” appears to center around a fundamental disconnect between the ideas of critique and commentary and reporting and information.

Journalism is about accountability. And we are experiencing first hand the results of a press who does not perceive their responsibility to be asking tough questions to those in power. What has our press been doing when we’ve needed it most?

But coming back to our classroom debates, I can boil this down to a simple question. Can someone to explain to me how a restaurant or music or book review is journalism? There is a stark difference between reading about how the mashed potatoes made someone feel and a report about where the potatoes are coming from and how a new tax is impacting the restaurant expenses and forcing it switch to a new provider for potatoes. One tells me where to have dinner, the other helps me understand critical issues relating to government, commerce, and community.

It’s not that I don’t value a good review, and it’s certainly not that I don’t understand how they impact our understanding of the world around us. I love music, culture, satire, and all the nuanced splendor that makes the American experience so messy and complex. But I’m not foolish enough to claim that my opinion about the new Animal Collective disc is journalism. I wouldn’t call this blog entry journalism. In fact, I produce a weekly radio show that has national syndication and features stories about public policy and activism and I wouldn’t call that journalism either. Journalism is where the hard questions get asked. It’s how we keep powerful entities in check. It is the Fourth Estate. And this is the reason that it is a profession protected by the Constitution.

So what gives, people? You are all students of journalism, you are privy to details that I know nothing about and a history that I have only scratched the surface of. Someone tell me where the line was crossed? At what point did we just start deeming everything that was published in a newspaper as journalism?

Next thing you know someone is going to start telling me that advertising is journalism.
Or horoscopes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Host

Photo courtesy of danicamarica via Flickr and Creative Commons
In her 2004 piece on “the American imagination” and radio, Susan Douglas writes about the particularly personal relationship that radio listeners have had with the medium throughout the 20th century. “Radio kneaded our psyches early on and helped shape our desires, our fantasies, our images of the outside world, our very imaginations. Unlike other major technologies…radio has worked powerfully inside our heads, helping us create internal maps of the world and our place in it, urging us to construct imagined communities to which we do, or do not, belong.”

What Douglas suggests is that there is something particularly invasive and simultaneously personal about the medium. The illusion experienced by the listener is that you may be the only one (an image reinforced by numerous romanticized narratives about radio, such as the classic movie Pump Up the Volume which features the voice of a young Christian Slater beaming into the minds and hearts of a Gen X audience searching for meaning). And even though the voice on the other end may be consciously aware that they are speaking to an audience, there is a loneliness and uncertainty to that very concept.

Commercial talk radio, unlike the pre-1980s radio Douglas describes or the pirate radio Slater’s character is operating, is a beast whose primary aim is profit. However instead of pure entertainment, something that obviously conveys to listeners an objective of sensationalism in exchange for ad revenue, contemporary talk radio occupies that space which David Foster Wallace refers to as the “meta-media” or “explaining industry.”
Under most classifications, this category includes media critics for news dailies, certain high-end magazines, panel shows like CNN's Reliable Sources, media-watch blogs like and, and a large percentage of political talk radio. …this is how much of contemporary political talk radio understands its function: to explore the day's news in a depth and detail that other media do not, and to interpret, analyze, and explain that news.
Wallace’s brilliantly crafted essay on talk radio host John Ziegler stitches together the complex landscape in which this brash, unapologetic, and essentially predictable personality operates. His claim that talk radio is “a frightening industry, though not for any of the simple reasons most critics give,” is elegantly explored through a framework that touches upon big issues such as public policy, commercial practices, race relations while simultaneously weaving in the heavy influences of individual personalities and interpersonal relationships.

Ultimately Wallace makes many of the points I have found myself repeating – although he makes them far more elegantly than I ever could – about whether or not talk radio is journalism. “The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler's job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible.”