Friday, 5 September 2008

So who IS media ?

I’ve never been part of the media, though I worked on the opposite side of it for a few years. I’m also guilty of impersonating media on occasions when I want to grab a free can of pop and stale doughnut in the media room at an event. (Always look to the media room as a source of free sugar and / or caffeine- laden treats !).

I am hardly going to put forth anything earth shattering here. It’s just something that I have had an interest over the years as I've watched alternative forms of media grow as I sat across the table from them. Fifteen or so years ago when I got my first job as a lowly political fart-catcher, blogs were seldom heard of, especially this type of “everyday person blog”. Having a basic-functioning mobile phone that didn’t pull your suit pants down past your hips when you put it on your belt was a pretty good sign of status.

Then, I knew exactly who the media was. They were the dishevelled looking people that lived in the room marked “Press” and carried dog-eared notebooks or lugged around tape recorders the size of a modern laptop computer.

Fast forward to today and lots has changed. Not just the technology and the fact that some political staffers look like twelve year-olds to me, but the whole Idea of who is media….

On the local scene there are two 'publicity countdowns' going on in the city that remind me of the changing face of media on a regular basis.

First off, the Winnipeg Sun newspaper has a countdown underway involving former Bomber kicker Troy Westwood.

Westwood, now sans job, was hired by The Sun to be an occasional columnist for their sports pages. The paper considers him to be a member of the ‘media’ by virtue of the fact that, well, they're considered media and through the transitive property of media he should be able to be accredited to get better access to the team and partake the free pop and stale doughnuts. The team, on the other hand, consider him to be a guy writing stuff that happens to be printed in a newspaper (and, no doubt, a potential distraction).

Considering that his latest column starts with the paragraph:

“Could you smell that this morning? It was coming in from the West.

Just about made me puke. Some kind of bizarre mixture of dirty old socks and

pickle juice. Used to think only my Aunt Fay smelled like that.”

It’s hard to believe that even the CoffeeTime news would want to publish that for fear of their journalistic integrity being blown but, hey, some Sun readers like it and the Sun can wrap it up as a “Not everyone likes it when you tell it like it is” battle of good against evil. (For more on Westwood’s columns see PolicyFrog ).

So, Westwood is out and The Sun is making the best of it, (actually they're probably getting a better deal), by launching a “Keeping Westwood Out” countdown.

The other countdown is from the audio blog / radio show The Great Canadian Talk Show. After months of personal attacks against NDP members, including inferring that assorted ministers are personally responsible at times when people are killed or when they die in care, it was decided that a good way to follow this up would be to invite one of the recipients of the attacks, the Minister of Family Services, to be a guest and, presumably, get some of that comeuppance in person.

Bewildered that MacIntosh won’t come on the show, they have started their own “MacIntosh Countdown”.

Two different scenarios: a former footballer with atrocious writing that isn’t being recognized as an “official” columnist by a football team; and a blog / radio show that oversteps the bounds of good taste against a party and now can’t get an official from the party to be a guest. The same outcome, however, as both are incredulous that an injustice is taking place so they’ll 'count down' to shame the other party.

With an election in the US and one soon to be called in Canada the lines will become even more blurred. Similar to how the World Wars pushed technologies like aircraft construction ahead by leaps and bounds, election time has been doing the same for alternative media sources.

In the early stages of the US election, September 2007, the U.S. Federal Election Commission ruled that bloggers actually ARE media during election campaigns when they found in favour of two bloggers that were accused of being so pro one candidate or another that they should be considered part of the candidate's campaign machinery. The FEC ruling stated that:

“ … the activity (blogging) is exempt from regulation under the media or volunteer exemption. Unless “the facility is owned by a political party, committee, or candidate.“

There has been the expected explosion in the number of bloggers covering the US election, not just from afar but following the campaign trails and setting up in unofficial press halls outside of the convention venues as this BBC video report shows.

It’s not just a case of bloggers nibbling at the mainstream media’s lunch. The mainstream media is biting back, whether it be creating blog patches for their own reporters such as the Winnipeg Free Press and Maclean’s do, (in some cases the blog postings being as, or more, interesting as the actual “to paper” stories they write). The New York Times has gone one step further than that with their Blogrunner site which mixes content from both msm AND blogs, as described in their FAQ,:

Blogrunner is an online news aggregator that brings you headlines collected from news sources around the web. These sources include both established news organizations and blogs. By matching headlines from traditional media publishers with commentary from bloggers, Blogrunner brings you a view of the news that reflects what is being discussed on the web and that automatically integrates perspective and context.

NY Times technology writer Saul Hansell introduces the system on the Times' main site this way:

Notice what we are not worried about. We link off directly to other sites that we have no relationship with. We link equally to mainstream media and small blogs. Our job is to help people find the good stuff fast, both what we write and from others....I would hope we can simply move past the debates about mainstream media versus blogs and computers versus people. We’re simply using every tool we can to report the news quickly and accurately.

As the lines continue to blur I am interested to see how the definition of media is made when deciding, say, who gets to follow the campaign from the bus, who gets press passes to an event and who can feel they should demand that senior officials talk to them.

Under the loosest definition anyone with a blog and an opinion that wants to call themselves media can. What is the 'gold standard' going to be, though ? Will it be straight popularity in terms of numbers: one blog has 500 hits and another 300 does the former get it ? Will it be on the quality of information delivered: an ISO 9000 style standard to show that a blog, though small in readership, has in place strict fact and source checking to ensure quality ? Will it be just self policing: people will just develop a “gaydar” for good vs bad blogs and make decisions accordingly ? The Blogrunner approach claims to be a concoction of popularity of an article on the internet, popularity of the blog itself and minor tweaking by editors. Perhaps this concoction will one day become a mathematical formula that blogs will be plugged into to see if they're "press pass worthy" or not.

It will be interesting to watch over the next few months to see at the end of the campaigns where the lines stand.

Anyone out there with any ideas or answers please let me know !

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