The media’s coverage of low voter turnout is a self-fulfilling prophecy

dickerson columnThe Detroit Free Press’ Brian Dickerson has it mostly wrong in his recent column about why such a small percentage of voters voted in last week’s election.

People who do not vote should not be held up as “the new normal” or the people who are making the best decision because they don’t like the choices they are given. Democracy isn’t meant to be easy and freedom isn’t free. If you fail to show up and vote, you have no right to complain about who got elected. If you fail to fight and try to make a difference in the things you want to see changed, you have no right to complain that things aren’t the way you want them.

Voters today are part of a society driven by Hollywood’s and TV’s interpretation of the world, biased cable TV news networks, bloggers with no professional standards held up as real journalists, and real journalists hog-tied by shrinking budgets and corporate management intent on web clicks and social media likes instead of credibility.

Admittedly, I haven’t done any exhaustive research on this. But when you review the political coverage of the recent elections, I suspect you will find a vastly larger number of articles based on polling results that are questionable at best, a focus on who is funding candidates, reviews of what the latest blistering negative TV ads are spewing, and the supposedly campaign-ending scandals that aren’t nearly as evil as the media and election ads portray them. And, let’s not forget the large number of articles focused on how difficult it supposedly is to vote in the Unites States.

What’s missing is in-depth reporting on candidates, their credentials, the issues they care about, what they would actually do if elected and why people need to vote to have their voices heard. And the rest of the year, when electioneering isn’t driving the news coverage, it would be nice if the media reported on the day-to-day activities of elected officials. The Capitol Press Corps in Michigan has shrunk dramatically over the years, and many reporters have shied away from “process stories,” because editors (in those newsrooms where they still exist) don’t think the public will click on them. But the process is where all the interesting news happens. The final votes taken on the floor of the House and Senate are a very small part of all the work that has gone into a law being crafted. Floor speeches, while great for soundbites for a media driven by sensationalism, rarely have any real impact on how a person’s colleagues will vote. That’s because all the true debate, the hashing out of ideas, and the bipartisan compromise happened weeks and months prior in a committee process deemed “too boring” for the public to be told about.

Is it any wonder then that the public is feeling disenfranchised and wondering why they should bother to vote? Instead of being given a manual on democracy to study they are being fed the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes. In an ever-growing and concerning trend, we may not even receive that version anymore but instead the equivalent of a movie trailer.

My 18-year-old daughter voted in her first general election this year. She texted me one day while reviewing her absentee ballot (provided to her because she is away at college).

“This is difficult. How do you choose? There are so many people and none of their websites make sense. The troubles of a teenage voter.”

I was so proud of her for actually doing research on the candidates and not just listening to her dad’s opinion! I responded with the best advice I could think of that wouldn’t drive her to just do what I suggested.

“Democracy isn’t supposed to be easy and I applaud you for trying to research the candidates!”

If only more voters cared as much as my daughter, post-Election Day news coverage wouldn’t be all about the hand wringing over low voter turn out. And if only more media outlets understood their post-Election Day news coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy, then we might actually get some true news coverage of government instead of sensationalistic, half-baked reports designed to increase computer clicks instead of voter intellect.


The Lansing State Journal on Twitter: engage or feed?

As a former full-time journalist and now a university instructor on the subject who still writes freelance articles, I have little patience for the continuing self-mutilation of the news industry. That’s partly why I’m not only critical of what I see and read in the Lansing State Journal but openly share my opinions with them via reader comments and Twitter.

To the paper’s credit, the person handling the @LSJNews Twitter account is starting to engage with people who point out errors or have suggestions for improvement. This led to an interesting exchange the other day after I complained about the paper’s Twitter feed posting outdated information.

The tweet referred to a severe thunderstorm warning being in effect for my area. When I clicked on the link, however, I discovered that the tweet at 12:41 p.m. was referring to a warning that expired 11 minutes earlier. When I told the LSJ that this was a rather useless piece of news, the account operator apologized, noting that the warning had gotten caught in the RSS feed of the newspaper’s headlines. That led to a question from the LSJ:

And, a warning to be careful what you wish for:

I acknowledged the dilemma and suggested a reader poll. I’m not sure if the LSJ will actually do a reader poll on this or if they thought asking the question with one tweet was the way to go. So, I’m going to conduct a poll here. I understand the struggle of not having enough people to cover all the news that’s happening, but taking a social media tool and using it as an automated broadcast mechanism doesn’t seem to be the answer either.

So, what do you think? Should the LSJ use an RSS feed of its headlines to populate its Twitter account, leading to potentially inaccurate information being distributed? Should they shut it down and only update the feed as they have staff available (which would be rarely)? Or could they operate as a hybrid, with automated tweets from their RSS feed supplemented by someone assigned to directly engage via the account during breaking news occurrences?

Cast your vote, offer a comment or two and let me know what you think. I’ll share the results with the Lansing State Journal. After all, that paper knows all too well that I won’t keep anything from them!

Shattered news industry means scattered media relationships

Here’s a commentary I wrote for

Published: 4/16/2010

Shattered news industry means scattered media relationships
By Ari B. Adler

How are you adjusting to this rocky professional landscape?

I’ve often taught people that the strength of your media relations work is based upon the strength of relationships. Having a solid relationship with a reporter is invaluable. If you know they’ll read the e-mail you’ve sent them or answer the phone when they see your number on caller ID, that is going to help you, your employer or your client tremendously.

Media relations is getting tougher every day, though, as a shattered news industry scatters media relationships near and far. As the news industry changes, the public relations practitioners who deal with it regularly are going to have to adapt. In the long run, however, this could be an opportunity for those of us in the industry to thrive.

Many of us have prided ourselves on the connections we’ve made with various reporters at different news outlets. Often, we were able to rely on those connections for many years—either at that outlet or at an even bigger and better one as the careers of our journalism friends grew.

But a Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism research study released recently indicates those days are over. Newsrooms are being downsized, reporters are being laid off, and the public’s demand for information is catered to by amateurs or organizations with a financial or political cause at their center.

Newspapers have seen a 41 percent decline in ad revenue over the past three years, Pew reports. Local television ad revenue fell 24 percent in 2009—three times as much as it did in 2008. Magazine ad revenue dropped 19 percent in 2009. As much as the former journalist in me likes to believe people will pay for solid reporting and protection by professional journalists doing their jobs, I also am a realist. The ads pay the bills, including the reporters’ paychecks. Without ad revenue, a news outlet cannot survive.

According to the Pew report, 79 percent of online news consumers say they rarely if ever clicked on an online ad, so don’t think some new Web-based business model is the solution for the aging newsrooms of the world. Thirty-five percent of Americans say they have a “favorite” destination online for news, but only 19 percent of them would be willing to pay for access to that site.

Newspaper staffs often are cited as the biggest victims of the economic crash affecting newsrooms, and for good reason. In 2009, approximately 5,900 newspaper jobs were lost, and that’s on top of the same amount lost in 2008. According to Pew, approximately one-third of the newsroom jobs in American newspapers in 2001 are now gone.

The economic decline that has decimated newsrooms lately is not the only problem—some of it is the result of changing habits by news consumers.

As the Pew report points out: “Consumers are not seeking out news organizations for their full news agenda. They are hunting the news by topic and by event and grazing across multiple outlets.”

The economic turmoil and changing consumer habits are not likely to revert to the days of yesteryear anytime soon, so it’s incumbent upon public relations professionals to figure out the best way to manage all of this.

As a PR person who has always had media relations as one of my core competencies to offer a client or employer, I actually see this as an opportune time for folks in my field. Never before has it been so important to have someone dedicated primarily to keeping up with “the media.” I say, “the media,” because we can’t simply see media relations as dealing with reporters and editors at mainstream news outlets anymore.

We have to deal with bloggers and “citizen journalists” and with special-interest groups posing as unbiased information sources. We have to keep up with the initial reports as well as the incomplete or skewed interpretations broadcast via social media. We have to be on our toes 24 hours a day, seven days a week and able to respond at a pace more rapid than we ever imagined just a few years ago.

As the news industry has segmented and news consumers are dividing into more niches, perhaps the media relations niche of public relations will see a surge in importance as well. If PR practitioners haven’t started sounding the alarm bells for clients about this yet, they need to get started. Our world is spinning faster; try not to get dizzy and fall off.

Who reports on outsourcing when the news is outsourced?

The Chief Suit in Charge of Stupid Ideas at MediaNews Group, also known as CEO Dean Singleton, recently called for the outsourcing of newsroom activities at newspapers across the United States.

Who is going to report on the loss of jobs, the loss of journalistic integrity and the ridiculous concept of having people in other states and maybe even other countries handling your local news if the journalists are the ones being outsourced?

This isn’t some small-town local paper publisher saying this. It’s the CEO of MediaNews Group – the corporation that publishes The Denver Post, The Detroit News and 52 other daily newspapers.

This issue should not be shrugged off by the industry or its customers.

Singleton did say no decision has been made to outsource newsroom functions, so maybe you think I’m jumping the gun by sounding the alarm?

I don’t think so. Pre-production work for newspapers owned by MediaNews Group is now almost entirely done in India and Singleton said they’re talking about outsourcing delivery and circulation call centers. Singleton is quoted saying he thinks all-electronic editions of newspapers make sense, as do beefing up advertising sales forces and publishing more niche publications like wedding planners to sell more ads.

Any time these corporate suits think they can make or save a buck, consequences be damned.

As of this afternoon, there is confirmation that Booth Newspapers is consolidating newsrooms in Michigan. Jim Carty does a good job of outlining what’s going on at his blog, Paper Tiger No More.

The newspaper industry is already wondering if it should be drafting its obituary. If people like Singleton and the suits at Booth are allowed to continue destroying local newspapers, then it’s already past deadline.