Archive for January, 2010

Amid the gravity-defying hype centered on all-things-iPad (it really won’t have a USB port??), a more important journalistic drumbeat continues to sound.  As Rupert Murdoch, Steven Brill, and most recently the New York Times have confirmed: Pay walls or metered pricing systems for online news content will soon be coming to a high-profile Web site frequented by you.

As I write in a new piece for MediaShift, the implications for the news industry and Internet as a whole are enormous. For college media specifically, meters and walls could be a veritable game changer, a final helium burst in their rise to professional press-level prominence- provided, of course, they turn them down.

The new “walledoffedness” culture coming to online news media provides student outlets with a unique opportunity to grow their Web readership.  My argument is that to attain this growth a few time-tested news-editorial approaches may need to be reconfigured and a commitment to a free, easily accessible Web site should be confirmed.  To read the full piece, click here.

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Student press power vaulted onto the national stage in recent days through a campus newspaper column recounting a student’s run-in with a horrifically insensitive airport prankster.

In a piece for The Michigan Daily headlined “Tsk, Tsk, TSA,” University of Michigan student and “expert traveler” Rebecca Solomon describes a routine run through the security screening at Philadelphia International Airport suddenly turned topsy-turvy when a TSA officer confronted her with a “small baggie of white powder” and a stern warning to tell the truth about its origins. As she writes:

I immediately told him I had no idea where the bag came from and that I hadn’t left my bags unattended— a cardinal sin in airport security. He let me stutter through an explanation for the longest minute of my life. Tears streamed down my face as I pleaded with him to understand that I’d never seen this baggie before.  But as I emotionally tried to explain that I couldn’t explain, he started to smile, an odd reaction to such a monumental find in my things. Then he waved the baggie at me and told me he was kidding, that I should’ve seen the look on my face.

I know.  I had the same reaction.  Remove jaw from floor, and continue reading.

Just as shocking is Solomon’s subsequent account of airport officials brushing her complaints about the prank aside and all but one motherly passenger ignoring her obvious state of distress.  In her words, “I asked to speak with the director of security. The supervisor met me at my gate and I explained what I’d just experienced. I identified the employee, who, to my shock, was not immediately removed from the floor, and filled out a complaint form. . . . And that was it.”

Well, not quite.  Fortunately, Solomon also decided to recall her tale in the Daily. The piece, written nearly three weeks ago, spread throughout the Web and eventually came to the attention of the MSM, including the Associated Press and New York Times. The TSA has been forced to address the incident publicly.  The employee-prankster has been let go.  And larger questions are now swirling about the TSA’s image problem and airport security procedures.

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It comes in threes. The Independent Florida Alligator at the University of Florida is apologizing for the recent publication of a sexually-themed cartoon caricaturing the world’s Haiti charity fervor. It is the third high-profile cartoon controversy within collegemediatopia in about a week.

For Notre Dame’s Observer, it was charges of blatant gay bashing. For Delta’s Collegiate, it was questions of implicit possible racism. For the Alligator, the criticisms seem to focus on two main elements: poking fun at an issue related to an uber-tragedy still in progress and delivering that poke in a manner seen as overly vulgar, given the seriousness of the event at its core. Or more simply: sex, satire, and Haiti, too soon to stir that pot.

The cartoon stirring high emotions is a simply-drawn single-framed shot of a man and woman engaged in passionate sexual intercourse- the woman multi-tasking at the man’s urging by texting the Red Cross ostensibly to offer a donation toward Haiti relief efforts. This seems to up their arousal, with the man excitedly shouting from between her legs, “Yeah Baby! Text Haiti to 90999.”

In a statement titled “Haiti Cartoon Not Meant to Offend,” the paper’s editorial board insisted on the cartoon’s relevance and pure intentions, while apologizing “if the execution fell a little flat.” As part of the statement read, “We were simply trying to show how people have come together to help the Haitians in their time of need, as we do when we publish stories about the relief efforts of students- only with the cartoon, we were giving it a humorous spin. We understand that Haitians are dealing with a horrible tragedy, and we would never want to treat the situation insensitively. But despite the heartbreak, we see beauty in the way the world is coming together to help Haitians. Our cartoon was simply an acknowledgment of the fact that people are joining together to get behind a cause.”

The cartoon is part of the Alligator‘s prominent sexToon series, a regular feature in the paper displaying cartoons mixing sexual innuendo with a deeper editorial message. The series has apparently been at the center of a larger set of critiques (and even what the paper refers to as bullying) about its explicitness, making the current offering simply more fuel for their opponents’ ire. While vowing that sexToons would not be eliminated, the paper admirably requests reader comments about the most recent ‘toon, noting “We want feedback, and we want to learn. . . . Lay it on us.”

My take: Maybe a bit overboard, but intercourse aside, the passion angle is appreciated. The recent George Clooney-thon of course was basically unmatched in scope and donation strength. A friend in Chicago told me yesterday he has never seen employees at his large company so eager to pitch in to a cause. Another acquaintance who works at a health clinic mentioned to me via e-mail that she believes this is the first time she and other members of the teen and twentysomething generation have ever given en masse to charity.

Simply put, the world has absolutely reached a “Yeah Baby!” level of satisfaction about doing its part to ease the suffering of the Haitian people. To me, that is the cartoon’s message- timely, thought-provoking, and true. And yes, the sex on display is a bit much, but regular Alligator readers at least have no excuse for being surprised. It is called a sexToon after all.

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Although muted on a national level amid the Notre Dame Observer furor, another student press comic mess has been playing out in Michigan. A four-panel strip run in a recent issue of The Delta Collegiate at Delta College has critics crying racism.

The comic (below) presents a string of gentlemen greeting a visitor to Saginaw County, Mich., with fun facts about the area. The last greeter, sporting a black mask and offering the visitor illegal drugs, tosses out a confirmed real world statistic about Saginaw enduring the most violent crimes per resident in the U.S. (as of 2008).  The masked man then pulls a knife and demands the visitors’ money and drugs.

Some critics are claiming that the black color of the thug’s mask has overt racial overtones (basically that the comic is allegedly saying a black man would be the one with the drugs and violently criminal intent). As a Delta student said in a television report (check out full report below), “Some people found it inappropriate, especially the last part about the drugs and the guy with the black hoodie covering his head.  Some people thought it was racially offensive. Other people just thought it was offensive towards Saginaw.” Separately, the Delta College president stated, “Personally, I found the cartoon to be in poor taste, and I was disappointed.”

Collegiate staffers and its adviser are passionately denying any racial subtext to the strip (including arguing that the mask may be black but not the man under it).  Instead, they are rightly pointing out that those who feel it shows Saginaw in a bad light need to accept that the comic is presenting an illustrative, only slightly satirical truth.

The paper’s adviser, Kathie Marchlewski Bachleda (who is handling the press queries remarkably well): “There’s a certain amount of satisfaction that we’ve been able to spark a dialogue about this issue. . . . The idea that Saginaw is the most violent city in the country is certainly not flattering.  And so one of the things students hoped to do was to call attention to this problem, and say, ‘Here, we need to talk about this.'”

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The end may be near for print journalism, the professional field and the academic major.  The Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV is the latest j-school or program to announce a curricular reshuffle that includes an ink-stained goodbye to the print journalism concentration.

What used to be four tracks (print journalism, broadcast journalism, media studies and integrated marketing communications) now are two (journalism and media studies, and marketing communications).  As the school’s undergraduate coordinator told the Rebel Yell student newspaper: “There was some frustration among students who were looking for jobs after graduating but weren’t getting the jobs because they weren’t fluent in different media like the Internet. Journalists in the real world can’t be burdened by those barriers.  It’s our attempt at making our curriculum more realistic. . . . To turn out traditionalists that are only trained in [Associated Press-style] writing for print is doing students a disservice.”

What do you think? In a news media universe in which print still dominates but possibly not much longer, should print-specific tracks within university j-programs be broadened, reorganized or dropped entirely? I like the words of Greenspun’s director Daniel Stout on this one: “There was a time when journalism was separated into various industries, but today the media environment is converged.”

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The still relatively new batch of online student outlets with new media sense and underground sensibilities have been dubbed nothing less than full-blown “blogging fraternities.”  A new Chronicle of Higher Education feature declares that the “national wave of student-run Web outfits [are] determined to reinvent college journalism. . . . Readers devour these sites. College officials fret over them. And competitors carp about their edgy methods, which sometimes include a publish-it-now-correct-it-later approach to campus rumors.”  (Full disclosure: I am briefly cited in the piece.)

File:Onward State Icon.jpg

Penn State University's Onward State is one of the members of the modern student blogging frat pack mentioned by the Chronicle.

Some of the new media methods online student outfits are trying on for size, according to the Chronicle and research of mine that is cited:

They break news and boast high Web traffic, at times besting their student newspaper counterparts   (Chronicle piece: “Underground media has always existed. But not until recently . . . have there been underground papers published on a global distribution platform and amplified by the personal social networks of editors . . . who can share posts with more than 1,300 Facebook ‘friends.'”)

Yes, they occasionally dabble (responsibly) in rumor and innuendo (NYU Local founder Cody Brown previously wrote that this dabbling is part of a more widespread ‘real time’ reporting phenomenon)

Schools are starting to recognize their presence and marketing potential (For example, New York University has begun advertising on NYU Local.)

They consider the whole newsroom face-to-face meet-up thing a remnant of yesterday’s news outlet (Onward State apparently enjoys Google Wave. Staffers at other outlets with whom I’ve spoken rely upon more traditional mass e-mailing, IMing, Facebook, and Google Docs.)

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The editorial board of The Notre Dame Observer has profusely apologized and the paper’s assistant managing editor has stepped down after the recent publication of a “cruel and hateful” comic strip. A staff editorial calls the incident a “low point in [the paper’s] almost 50-year history.”

Both versions of the strip considered by editors, including the original rejected submission (second from the top). Beneath the strips is a gmail chat between one of the comic creators and an Observer staffer.

An image of the offensive comic strip, titled "Mobile Party," as it appeared in print in a recent Observer edition.

According to an Irish Central report (and as the images above confirm), “The cartoon depicts a conversation between two figures that reads: ‘What’s the easiest way to turn a fruit into a vegetable?’ ‘No idea.’ ‘A baseball bat.’ Earlier, the cartoonist . . . posted the original version of the cartoon on his blog. In this version, it shows  the punch line as ‘AIDS’ instead of ‘a baseball bat.’ The paper, he claimed, preferred ‘not to make light of fatal diseases.'”

Among the criticisms emanating from faculty and students at Notre Dame and its sister school St. Mary’s, here is part of a statement from student representatives of St. Mary’s Straight and Gay Alliance (Notre Dame does not officially recognize a GSA-related group on its campus): “You may not like it but Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s is a home to lesbian, gay and bisexual students. Your call as both a Christian and as a human being is to respect them. Making light of the very real threat of homophobic motivated hate crimes is a poor excuse for humor and a despicable action. I completely support and defend a person’s freedom of belief, expression and speech. However, when expressing that belief takes the form of language which encourages violence against a group of people, you have crossed a professional and ethical line.”

Similarly, in a piece touching on the comic’s status as a symbol of a larger discriminatory and ignorant mindset at the school, a Notre Dame sociology professor writes, “This [the comic controversy] is no isolated incident on our campus. . . . Getting a cheap laugh at the expense of the abused, bashed, disabled and even murdered not only belittles these horrific experiences but encourages more violence.”

The comic creators, a trio of Notre Dame seniors, have apologized for its insensitivity, claiming they were attempting to mock the homophobia they observe on campus, not add to it. “Intolerance of homosexuality is a major problem on Notre Dame’s campus,” they wrote in a letter published in the Observer. “We tried to address it in our comics— using the tool characters to emphasize a mindset that we simply find ridiculous. In our last comic, we had the human character, our voice of reason, not understand the joke because of its absurd nature. . . . We consistently try to write comics that rely on shock value and now that we have gone too far, we realize that we have abused the privilege and responsibility of contributing to the Observer.”

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