Thursday, September 27, 2007

The German Media Landscape, Part One

The shocking tale of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung giving up its tradition of no pictures on the front page has gripped the pundits in Germany. Journalism in Germany is declining, the standards are being lowered, und so weiter und sofort as they say here in the Fatherland.

I have always thought pictures were dangerous to journalism. You know that one of the Afghan refugee girl with the haunted eyes on the cover of National Geographic? That was a bad call. And raising of the flag at Iwo Jima? What a load of tripe to even consider for placement on the pages of a newspaper.

Photojournalism has a provided some of the iconic moments of history. And God forbid you create a newspaper that (gasp!) more people would want to read. The BILD is of course awful, but the paper is a well known tabloid and it's cheap to buy too. I don't think the FAZ is falling into this category.

German newspapers are not quite in the position as American papers. It's a fairly literate population, but of course this is changing as younger readers turn to the Internet. But this change is slow, since unlike the U.S., Germany hasn't had a recent baby boom. The last one occurred when all the boys and men disappeared into the eastern and western fronts and never returned in 1945. So these people will keep things afloat, and quite healthy for many years to come.

Still, German publishers are turning to the web as in the U.S. A recent article the English edition of Der Spiegel 'The Perils of Online First' goes into detail about the efforts of newspapers to publish first on the web and neglect the print product, which is a bit like shooting themselves into the foot. Uwe Knüpfer is experimenting with an online publication in the Ruhr area of Germany but it's a hard sell. They too are searching for the holy grail of how to make journalism on the Internet financially sustainable, and hopefully lucrative in the long run.

The article I think neglects one perspective, and that is that journalism standards are not necessarily neglected on the web. I'm trying to think of a good example of when that happened, and they don't give one in the article. If anything, there are examples of great online journalism that involve interactivity and better explanations of our society and how it works. The NY Times is doing this, as well as the Washington Post. I'll give a nod to the Star Tribune as well, because they produced excellent work on the plight of Liberians in Minnesota, which made an impact on policy. Even Der Spiegel has wonderful online segments, most recently about the Baader-Meinhof gang and their reign of terror when they murdered politicians and important ministers.

I think the problem lies in that there is a generation of journalists - I would call them the Lost Generation - who are being taught journalism without understanding the ethics of online reporting because their teachers don't know either, and nobody is really talking about it. If they are, I haven't been made aware it. Journalism schools are putting emphasis on new media, which is good, but as far as I can tell, very little on what is right and what is wrong and what the obligations are. I don't pretend to have the answers.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

KSTP, Why don't you just change your call letters to USSR?

My leftist buds will no doubt tell me that I'm naive, and my defense of the Hubbard family owned KSTP franchise in Minnesota was misplaced all along.

I will still defend the Hubbards on some things (like giving candidates free air time and hosting live debates), but I was sorely disappointed in their coverage of the aftermath of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The mayor, R.T. Rybak, signed off on opening up a pedestrian bridge, which allowed closer viewing of the wreckage. KSTP sicced one of their serious, manly reporters on the hunt for Rybak (who as many reporters in the Twin Cities know is probably the most accessible elected official this side of the Mississippi). He got reporter-tough with him, asking him to respond to the emergency responders who didn't want the site opened up.

Follow up interview with Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. Remember this guy? The disgraced public safety commissioner in Minnesota who is on the record as using racial slurs in interrogating suspects as a Minneapolis cop and was forced to resign as a result? Well, the Comeback Kid Stanek got elected in 2006 to the sheriff's office, and he's loving it. The interview was between him in the KSTP's studios and some blonde cupcake who looked like she was barely literate. She gently probed him on what it meant to the families to limit access to the site. His eyes filled with tears, he choked up but somehow managed to make it through the tough interview with Barbie. He should have announced his candidacy for governor right then and there.

According to a former employee of KSTP, Gary Hill, expect more of this. The Hubbards are getting into the newsroom, and they're not leaving. They've always been idealogues, as I well know, making hefty contributions to Republican candidates, but they've always been explicit about their politics, which I'm grateful for. But painting Rybak as the bad guy, and Stanek as our knight in shining armor, besides showing KSTP's gross bias, is inaccurate.

I'd love to see a robust discussion about the ethics of access to disaster sites, the appropiateness of showing body bags, playing the tapes of the final moments of some of the victims, and other unpleasant things. If it were me, I'd show the bags, but I know other news executives feel differently.

KSTP was my station choice immediately after the bridge fell down. It's now fallen by the wayside, because I know the Hubbards are pushing their political agenda on an issue that has no good guys or bad guys. It's painting the story of government incompetence as black and white, when it's several different shades of the rainbow. Maybe KSTP should change their colors to red, the color of the Soviet flag, who so excellently spewed propaganda to the disservice of their constituents, but for the greater good of improving the lot of a small group of people who could only think about preserving their political influence.