The news is social

Last Thursday, I officially graduated from Temple University’s School of Communications and Theater with my Master of Science degree in Communication Management. Even if the ceremony felt anticlimactic compared to my undergraduate graduation from Boston University seven years ago, it was still a great afternoon.

One of the highlights was the commencement speaker – NBC News President Steve Capus (shown in the fuzzy picture to the left). Among the topics he discussed were how this was a fine hour for journalism. There has been a lot in the news lately – the tsunami that ravaged Japan, the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, the long-awaited capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden and the start of the 2012 Presidential election campaign, for starters. And Capus – admittedly tooting his own horn a bit – praised the work his staff has done to bring those stories to their viewers.

His speech also got me thinking about how the tools of journalists have changed just since Capus’ ascension to his current post in 2005, let alone since he graduated from Temple 25 years ago. I’ve written here before about how there is more of a rush to get the story first. And tools like Twitter allow NBC and other news outlets to do just that.

I first was alerted to Bin Laden’s death by Twitter. It was late on a Sunday night. I had just finished my participation in the weekly #hcsm (Health care social media) tweetchat on Twitter, and was preparing to shut off TweetDeck and call it a night, with a work day looming only a few hours later. All of a sudden, tweets started popping up in my feed stating that President Obama would speak to the nation shortly. It started as a few tweets posted by reporters and media outlets that I followed, and got retweeted by many others. When the media outlets confirmed that the address was to announce the killing of Bin Laden, the same thing happened. The media outlets used the 140 characters allowed by Twitter to get a brief message out to the masses and get them to tune in to their TV broadcast or read their website/publication. In short, it worked exactly the same as¬† some ordinary joe sharing a link to a TMZ story on their favorite celebrity.

Twitter even plays a role in the events themselves. An otherwise anonymous IT specialist became a global celebrity when he happened to be in Abbotabad, Pakistan and on Twitter during the Bin Laden raid and inadvertently live-tweeted  the most significant event to date in the War on Terror. During the uprising in Egypt, protesters used Twitter to share photos and accounts of the event, just as they did two years earlier during the Iranian Election protests.

This doesn’t include people sharing videos of the “celebrations” after Bin Laden’s death on YouTube and the sharing of content on Facebook that ensued after these major events.

The way news is delivered is changing to reflect the new tools available. The journalists and media outlets that can use those tools the best will be the ones who shine the brightest when big news occurs.

Is Fox News the future of news?

I’m a journalist by training. While I no longer practice that trade on a full-time basis, I still take a great interest in the field.

At this time 15 years ago, Fox News Channel didn’t exist. Now, if you look at the its viewership compared to cable news competitors CNN, MSNBC and CNBC, you’ll see that it is not only leading its competition, but crushing it.

Fox News gets accused of having a conservative bias in its reporting. Its top commentators, such as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, are both very conservative and very provocative, and don’t make any bones about it. And Sarah Palin, Karl Rove and other prominent conservative political personalities make frequent guest appearances and/or have their own shows on the channel.

Many people love Fox News. Many people hate it. But there is no question people watch it. Which begs the question: is Fox News the future of news? Will news channels have to follow Fox News’ model – in terms of political bent and/or reporting style – to succeed in the current media environment?

I don’t think anyone will deny that journalism – and television journalism in particular – has changed dramatically over the decades. The days of stately, dignified legends like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite beaming into our living rooms each night and delivering stately, dignified news, as my parents experienced, are gone and not coming back. This satirical cartoon from JibJab (famous for their 2004 Presidential election satires) sums up the changes to news quite well, in my opinion:

There are far more messages competing for the audience’s attention than ever before. The louder and more provocative you are, the more likely you are to get noticed. And it doesn’t matter how good the substance of your message is if no one notices it.

Fox News seems to realize this. Whether you disagree with Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly or not, you can’t deny that they know how to get people to listen to what they have to say. Same with Sarah Palin. Fox News’ ratings reflect as much. And the higher your ratings are, the more you can charge for advertising, and the more money you make. With so many news media outlets now owned by major corporations with diverse holdings and profit-driven shareholders to appease, ratings, regardless of substance, are more important than ever.

As for the political slant, many accuse MSNBC, in particular its prime time hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, of having a liberal bias. Even if that is true, the fact that it trails Fox News in the ratings by a significant margin suggests that the viewing public does not buy into that bias.

All of this suggests that Fox News is on to something. Whether you never watch it or watch it every day, whether you love it or hate it, Fox News may become the model that news, or at least cable news, needs to follow.

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