Wednesday, April 22, 2009

State of Play

Just as newsrooms have been slow to embrace the Internet, up until recently, Hollywood hadn't really depicted the impact of the blogosphere and online media on modern journalism. The only modern journalism movies that come to mind at all are "The Insider" and "Shattered Glass," so a movie about an online newsroom seems long overdue. Granted, the final season of "The Wire" tried to tackle this, but as much as I adore that show, the fictional take on the Baltimore Sun seemed to ignore the impact of the Internet, even as it showed the endless buyouts and foreign bureau closings. However, the American remake of "State of Play" is a big step forward.

That's not the say that the movie is entirely successful. While the acting is uniformly very good - yes, even the unfairly malligned Ben Affleck holds his own - the big plot twist at the end seems anti-climactic and kills much of the momentum. I'm also not a fan of the private military takeover scheme, which was just too expansive and implausible to believe. But the one thing the film gets right is the clash between old and new media.

One of the central (platonic) relationships in "State of Play" is between Russell Crowe's veteran reporter, Cal, and Rachel McAdams' professional blogger. They are assigned to a story about the apparent suicide of a Senator's aide. The assignment eventually expands in scope, and along the way, we see the two reporters bicker with each other and their editor, played by Hellen Mirren.

The editor is quick to put the blogger on the case at its inception, since it's mainly a fluff piece to generate traffic. However, once it's clear that there's more to the story, McAdam's character is nearly taken off the beat so that the old-school journalist can do the heavy-lifting. And along the way, we see the cable news channels and tabloids displayed everywhere, giving the moviegoer the impression of the full, 24/7 news cycle at work.

Without spoiling anything, by the end of the movie, new-school and old-school journalism have compromised, and the two reporters find out how to work together. However, the last minutes of the movie definitely tip in favor of print, as we see Cal put the finishing touches on another front page story. Perhaps a bit too romanticized considering how quickly the profession is shifting, but I think the closing moments will warm any budding journalist's heart, no matter how incredulous he or she is along the way.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Commenting on Commentary

As I was working on my editing research paper last week, I was surprised to see so much praise for reader comments and other user feedback at the end of articles. My initial hypothesis was that that these comments are mostly ignored, but apparently, many reporters actually do pay attention to what we have to say, and in some cases will seek out specific commentators for potential story leads.

I'd like to believe that this is true. As a favor to a fellow teaching assistant, I had to comment on blog postings from some journalism 200 students last week, and I was pleased to find that some of them were actually having a dialogue. However, I notice that most blog postings for our class go unnoticed. (And to clarify, I'm not calling anyone out here - I've probably been pretty lazier than all of you on the commentary front this semester.) I guess after writing that paper, I'm curious to learn a little about everyone's posting habits. Does it bother you if my peers and I don't respond to your weekly thoughts? Do you always respond to your readers? Do you find yourself responding to blogs outside of this class? Let me know.

**I feel like a dork for posting this, but it really is on my mind.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Opening the Nerd Floodgates: How Video Game Journalism Trends Apply to the Big Picture

I've been holding back the my "nerdiness" all semester long, hoping to stick to newspapers and more "legitimate" journalistic outlets for the remainder of this course. However, I'm fully entrenched in this research project and running short on ideas, so today I will be discussing video game journalism. Brace yourselves. I'll try to minimize the jargon, but I'm not making any promises.

Then again, with our spirited discussion of social media during Issues this afternoon, perhaps the gaming "enthusiast press" is a bit more relevant than you realize. After all, who is more familiar with the cutting edge of technology than video gamers?

It wasn't so long ago that print publications like the late Electronic Gaming Monthly and Computer Gaming World found success at newsstands, the former cultivating a devoted readership for nearly twenty years. However, the ad revenues have been steadily declining, forcing way too many beloved publications to shut their doors. Sound familiar?

For many of my fellow nerds and I, the near-implosion of Ziff Davis - publisher of the aforementioned EGM and Games for Windows Magazine - dealt a significant blow to our beloved industry. Plenty of doom and gloom ensued for a month or so. However, in the wake of these print giants, a number of independent bloggers have stepped up to fill their shoes.

The result: a more comprehensive look at the video game industry and the culture surrounding it than we've ever had before. Whereas the enthusiast press' main perogative was originally to offer product assessments, we're starting to true criticism emerge from personal blogs. Sure, some of it is a wee bit pretentious, but I'd still rather read about "Resident Evil 5's" "historically and socially charged imagery" than I would about its realistic graphics and online performance.

And those former magazine editors? Now that they're no longer shackled to game publisher PR demands, veteran game journalists are producing some really insightful stuff. The enthusiast press has been much faster at latching onto online media, particularly with podcasts and online video.

There are several great shows available on iTunes and other podcast aggregators, but my personal favorite would be Robert Ashley's "A Life Well Wasted." The show is essentially the gaming equivalent of "This American Life," with the former GFW editor serving as a nasally Ira Glass equivalent. He has only produced two episodes thus far - one focusing on EGM memories and another on vintage game preservation - but both turn their attention towards collectors, academics, writers and fans. Virtually unexplored territory.

We also have Retronauts, a podcast and blog devoted to old-school gaming. While bigshots Jeremy Parish and Ray Barnholdt are very opinionated, they're also some of the very few cataloguing the stories behind gaming milestones. They're certainly the only team seeking out guys like Hidenori Maezawa, Konami's famed composer, or Takahashi Meijin, famed button masher. Sure, you may not care about it now, but if and when* video games become accepted as art, you'll be glad that this crew was taking notes.

*In this humble blogger's opinion, this is really more of a "when."

Of course, newspapers and video game magazines are very different beasts. The former tries to maintain a barrier between advertisors and the newsroom, while game journalism has often been intrinsically linked to the very publishers on which it is supposed to cover. It's no coincidence that one of the few surviving game magazines, Game Informer, happens to have an exclusive deal with GameStop, the country's largest game-specific retailer. Even so, I think that the transformation of our nerdy corner of the press shows that there's no need for despair.** Even if our best journalists face momentary setbacks in the online transition, there will still be an audience that continues to follow them on the web later on.

**In an article that Professor Liebovich referenced this afternoon, it is suggested that we pay more attention to the state of journalism than to the state of newspapers. Function over form. I think this situation described above shows how well this philosophy can pan out.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Worst Day of the Year

Attention all news websites: your April Fools' stories are almost never funny. 99% of your readers see them coming miles away, and the 1% not in on the jokes won't appreciate being hoodwinked once someone clues them in. And if you don't think this is a widespread problem, think again.

Just take a look at this gem. Smile Politely's audience may know what's up, but is there any actual value to this article? Sure, it may be good for a chuckle, but as a friend pointed out to me this morning, Boardman's has been struggling financially. Does it not seem in poor taste to post a fictional story about a beloved theater closing when that's not too far from the truth? In the time it took to produce this obnoxious article, the writer could have easily informed the reader of how Boardman's is actually faring.

(I also don't appreciate how every legitimate article needs to let us know that the writer is telling the truth. Perhaps this insidious pseudo-holiday is actually damaging the public trust.)

Luckily, we only have to deal with this problem for a day, but I'm sick of dreading April 1 every year. When I want my fake news, I consult The Onion or The Colbert Report. Actual journalists, leave the comedy to the professionals and get back to work.