My open letter to journalism funders: Change your plan of attack

By Katy Culver, assistant professor
After a group of six prominent foundations that fund journalism innovation published an open letter to university presidents this month, many people asked for my reaction and a surprising number of them characterized it as a “shot across the bow” of academia.

The funders’ semantic gunfire is apparently a warning shot to those of us in university journalism programs that we had better wake up and innovate or face loss of funding.

My reaction to the “shot across the bow”? It looks a whole lot to me like the bureaucratic torpedoes we’ve been firing at our own hulls for years. Once again, we’re mired in intractable structural discussions – like some grand naval exercise – rather than squarely focusing on nimble efforts to achieve small wins and eventual victory in moving education and journalism forward.

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Friedland reports to FCC on community information needs

An SJMC professor and colleagues across the country are looking forward to 2042 and imagining how communities will meet the information needs of citizens, in a broad range from making emergency police calls to finding a job to finding local well baby care and finding the local civic and political information necessary for full democratic participation.

The American public has measurable and unmet information needs at both the individual and community levels, according to a report presented to the FCC in Washington Tuesday, June 26.

Lew Friedland, SJMC professor and Director of the Center for Communication and Democracy, was co-Principal Investigator and lead author of the report with Dean Ernest Wilson of the USC Annenberg School and Professor Phil Napoli of Fordham University. Video of their FCC presentation is available online, as is the executive summary. The full report and bibliography will be available mid-July.

Associate Dean Carola Weil and Ph.D.student Katya Ognyanova of Annenberg were co-authors. SJMC Ph.D.students Sandra Knisely and Matthew Barnidge were lead research assistants, along with Seomin Soo of Columbia.

The report comprehensively reviewed literature on community information needs in eight areas: emergency and risk communication, health, education, economic opportunity, the environment, transportation, civic and political life. It concluded that while some research on information needs in these areas exists, there is not sufficient work to demonstrate whether and how the needs are being met, and that the preponderance of evidence points to major gaps. The report focused on the diverse needs of Americans in a rapidly changing society, stressing that by 2042 the U.S. will no longer be a country divided into a “majority” and “minorities” but a truly plural nation.

The report was commissioned “to examine existing research into the critical information needs of the American public and market-entry barriers into participation in the communication industry,” according to the FCC. “The research will inform the Commission’s 2012 Report to Congress about barriers to participation in the communications industry, also known as the Section 257 Report.”

Friedland co-led the research team with significant participation from other UW SJMC faculty and students. Professors Shawnika Hull (health), Hernando Rojas (diversity, methods, civic life), Dhavan Shah (political communication, methods) and Hemant Shah (diversity) were key members of the national Communications Policy Research Network formed to generate the initial pool of more than 1000 peer-reviewed sources reviewed for the report. These were winnowed to just under 500 for a final annotated bibliography. Professor Katy Culver, (health and new media), UW Ph.D. students Jackson Foote, Nakho Kim, Magda Konieczna, Mitchell Schwartz, Manisha Shelat contributed to research on the bibliography.

The team’s recommendations are:

To fulfill FCC’s statutory mission, we need to investigate whether and how local information needs are met, which is the critical first step to understanding how markets, government policies and individual and group actions can meet the information needs of their communities.

Take into account variations within communities and specific populations in studying critical information needs – Look to America of 2042.

Incorporate into analysis the exponentially growing costs of network exclusion and increasingly complex functioning of local media systems.

Complement existing econometric analyses with additional analytic models such as a communication ecological approach (multilevel/multi‐method); aim to be valid, replicable and parsimonious.

Develop robust, testable indicators of performance for policy- and community‐relevant evaluation.

They will submit a final version of the report after receiving FCC and public comments.

This project builds in part on a Knight Foundation-funded workshop held at USC Annenberg in January about redefining diversity in a digital age.

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism wins top website award

As announced today at, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism — a nonprofit and nonpartisan local reporting group housed right here in Vilas Hall in collaboration with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, and our School of Journalism & Mass Communication — has won a series of awards from the Milwaukee Press Club: was named the best local news or feature website at the Milwaukee Press Club’s annual awards celebration on Friday night.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which produces the website, was honored with three gold (first place) awards and a silver in the club’s Awards for Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism, the state’s premiere all-media journalism competition.

The Center now has received nine awards — six of them for first place — in the contest over the past two years.

We’re especially proud that so many School of Journalism & Mass Communication students, volunteers, and interns participated in the reporting that led to these awards!  Congratulations!

Remembering Anthony Shadid

The first time I spoke to Anthony Shadid in person, he apologized for getting shot.

I had nominated Anthony for the journalism school’s Nafziger Award after following his move from the Associated Press to the Boston Globe and reading his first book, Legacy of the Prophet. Shortly before he was scheduled to come to campus to accept it, he was wounded while on assignment in Ramallah.

When he arrived in Madison, arm in a sling, I asked him if the pain was manageable. He waved off the question and instead said, “I must have really worried you. I’m so sorry.”

Here he was, acclaimed foreign reporter, shot on assignment, winning an award, and he was concerned about me?

That was the first of many, many moments that defined Anthony’s humility in my eyes. He had admirable talents, undoubtedly. But I always felt the thoughtful interviewing, the lyrical writing, the creative angles and the acute insights all sprang from that same well of humility.

Journalism can breed ego. Hardened by seeing difficult things and softened by the conceit of bylines, we can come to see ourselves as something better or bigger than we are. But Anthony never allowed a chasm to grow between his work and his humanity. He never saw himself as larger than anyone or anything.

That humble approach applied well beyond his work. I saw it in his pride and affection for his family, his dedication to his alma mater and his awe for his beloved Green Bay Packers.

He brought it to our friendship, as well. Starting with that nomination back in 2001, I slipped into a habit of signing all my messages to him, “As always, stay safe.” I didn’t notice it, but Anthony did. He pointed it out and said he appreciated my “motherly nature.” It was a theme he would return to often when we interacted. Through a smattering of emails between Madison and the Palestinian territories, he’d taken a small note and teased out a larger meaning.

He once wrote, “The best journalism is sometimes about footnotes, when we write small to say something big.”

I do not have his gift of words, but I believe it’s not just the best journalism that makes this move from observation to meaning. It’s also the best humanity.

Anthony Shadid was a remarkable journalist. But he was an even better man.

Gannett ad marks shift in marketing strategy, biz focus – a mistake?

This is from a blog post on my MediaTrope site:

I have never heard a Gannett ad on television before, but today for the first time I listened to my former employer tout its corporate brand — as opposed to any of its sub-brands like USAToday. I had heard about this new marketing strategy, but this was the first I had seen of it (probably because I was stuck this summer in a place without television). I understand that Gannett wants to raise brand awareness, but I’m not sure it’s the best strategy for them right now, in this market.

I doubt people outside the profession of journalism or finance know that Gannett is the largest newspaper chain, operates one of the only national newspapers, or is ranked in the 2011 Fortune 500. (By the way, while you visit this link from CNN, check out Gannett’s 65% increase in annual profits during 2010! Course it’s average annual growth rate for the last decade has been a stunning NEGATIVE 9.2%. Ouch. Still, I’m struck by how much it has recovered in just a few months, and find myself hoping the growth is indicative of a fundamental turnaround for newspapers specifically even as I realize it’s probably just a byproduct of the advertising industry rebound.) And I suspect few know the chain has also been building to its digital-marketing company holdings, positioning itself as an information marketer and not just an information provider.

The ad — which was fairly general in content — is meant merely to make more people aware of Gannett’s name, but I can’t help but wonder if this television ad marks a subtle in shift in mega-marketing for news organizations in general, refocusing on the parent company rather than the local brands.

When I was working for Gannett newspaper (2000-2006), there were rumors the parent company was going to begin packaging its local products under an umbrella USAToday. Thus a newspaper reader in, say, Vermont, would gain access not only to The Gannett property The Burlington Free Press but also the “Nation’s Newspaper,” USAToday. I thought that was a great idea, actually, because it offered clients value add and also represented a chance for struggling local papers (not necessary for the Free Press, of course, which was a cash cow) to gain renewed vigor through its attachment to a successful and well-known product. The marketing plan — if it ever existed at all!! These kinds of rumors were always swirling around the newsroom — did not materialize while I was there.

Then last spring Gannett announced its “It’s all within reach” marketing campaign. From the press release about the strategy:

The new identity will be rolled out across all Gannett properties to create a stronger association between the Gannett corporate brand and its portfolio of properties. All Gannett businesses will identify themselves as Gannett companies.

However, such a shift to the parent company of Gannett is a mistake, I think, at least for the local news organizations. The niche news segment of local and also hyperlocal could be a key market for corporations, whose entrenched community presence tends to offer a significant advantage as an easily identified, familiar information provider for citizens during a time of overwhelming information overload from blogs, aggregators, Twitter and Facebook. To turn away from community-organization branding would be a lost opportunity, in my opinion. Right now is exactly when Gannett might want to re-emphasize its local-local ties via its sub-brands — during the this era of incredible digital noise. Its community properties could be framed as a familiar neighbor who knows everything, rather than as a mere arm of some unknown outsider.