11/17/16

The quixotic pursuit of media independence



National and international media development and aid programs often embrace the objective of developing independent media as a means of promoting democratic development.  They do so in hopes of reducing political power over media, but fail to acknowledge that all media and communication infrastructures are systemically influenced by economic and social, as well as political power. And they often seem to ignore the reality that the history and cultures of nation states affect how that power is exercised. Media systems and their content, and the degree of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, are reflections of the alignment of the dominant cultural elements in society.

Even in the West, most notably within European Union and Council of Europe governing institutions, efforts to promote media independence are gaining significant support—particularly when applied to media in Central and Eastern Europe.

The term media independence is often used naively and imprecisely, consequently those pursuing it often appear to be pursuing something that exists nowhere and is an impossible dream.  Independence is really evidenced by its opposite; it is indicated by degrees of dependence or interdependence and their consequences, because full independence is impossible. Very often the term is used as an objective without even specifying independence from what and for what. 

Independence is affected by factors internal to media, such as ownership, decision-making control, and dependence on resources and revenue sources. It is also affected by external factors such as influence through persuasion and criticism, cooption through financial and other material support, and coercion through threats and retaliatory exercise of power.

One needs to be wary of the assumption that ownership determines independence of media. Many assume that state media are dependent and non-state media are independent. In reality, public service, privately owned commercial media, and foundation-supported media may or MAY NOT be independent. In Saudi Arabia, for example, state media are owned and operated by the monarchy and private media are owned by princes and persons close to the crown. There is little difference between them with issues of politics, economics, and social lives are addressed.  The press is relatively separate from government and politics in Germany but not in Hungary, yet it still represents an elite perspective.  Public service broadcasting is reasonably independent of government in Sweden, but not so in Serbia.

The state, the government, social elites and powerful individuals, funders such as sponsors, advertisers, and foundations, and media consumers all influence the amount of independence. The more those influences align, the greater independence is diminished. 

Programs aiding democratic development usually promote private, commercial media. Few efforts to support not-for-profit media outlets exist, however. Not-for-profits are emerging in response to independence challenges in private commercial media and public service broadcasting. Not-for-profits tend to be the most independent of media firms, but they can be dependent on sponsors and funders (parties, unions, churches, NGOs, foundations) and many face sustainability issues.

To create greater independence all media must ensure levels of dependence on any single source of funding are relatively low and that there are multiple sources of income (sponsors, foundations, consumers, members, advertisers, events) to spread dependence risks. A good rule of thumb is that if more than one-third of income is from one source, a media firm becomes vulnerable to influence and may become unsustainable if it is rapidly reduced.

Media independence is a lovely ideal, but can only be partly achieved in practice.

8/3/16

The Challenges of Succession at Viacom, CBS and Natonal Amusements



The current dispute over Sumner Redstone’s competency to make decisions regarding his firms is pitting company executives against family members and family members against each other, diverting significant attention from running the companies and revealing the challenges of governing a firm as its founder ages.

Redstone, who is now 92 and allegedly mentally incapacitated, had for many years planned his estate. He created a family trust that would take control over National Amusements after his death. National Amusements holds controlling interest in companies such as Viacom, CBS, Paramount Studios, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.

In recent months Redstone suddenly altered his will and estate gift plan and changed the trustees of the Redstone trust and the members of the Viacom board. This provoked a corporate and family drama about whether he is capable of making the changes or is being manipulated by his daughter Shari Redstone, who serves as President of National Amusements and vice-chair of Viacom and CBS. Those decisions are being challenged by company executives and other family members in courts in Delaware and Massachusetts.

The Redstone dispute reveals the fundamental challenges facing family owned and controlled firms upon the incapacitation or death of the founder. In many cases family members are disinterested in running the firm or do not have the business knowledge and skills to do so. In these cases they often wish to sell the family firm to obtain its wealth. In cases where family members have the ability to run a firm, they may prefer different company strategies than the founder, disagree with each other over what the strategies should be, or differ on how the wealth or control of the firm should be distributed among themselves. Because of these types of challenges, only about one third of family firms are passed to a second generation and only about 15 percent reach a third generation.

These challenges can be significantly heightened if the founder maintains personal control over the firm too long, does not let go of sufficient control to implement the changes before death, or does not create irrevocable arrangements. These conditions create an environment in which influence can subsequently be exercised over the founder that leads to disagreements and open disputes among interested parties.

Family firms must take significant care to avoid these situations if there is any hope for calm and successful succession.

7/20/16

The thorny problem of identity in digital data



The objectives of digital tracking are to identify users so marketers and content providers can know who users are, what their interests are, and how they relate to goods/services and content being promoted or provided. Although it is becoming easier to determine what individuals use digital devices, the ability to establish their identities still remains challenging because people have multiple, not just single, identities.

Identity has traditionally been defined by the individual’s relationship to institutions (families, tribes, nations, nation-states, and religions). Even within this conceptualization, individuals had multiple identities: mother, member, citizen, believer. Modernity and the development of global communications and social networks, however, have expanded our conceptualization of identity and give us even more identities, some of which loosen identity bonds previously held and some of which compete with each other.

The notion of identity is related to the concepts of distinctness and sameness. Identity is established when individuals perceive themselves as distinct from others and sharing sameness with others. In the past this led to identity being manifest as statements such as “I am German”, “I am Italian-American” or “I am a Buddhist”. The institutions representing these types of identities traditionally sought to promote them through social practices and policies designed to heighten identity, interaction with those sharing relatedness, and cognitive separation from others. Factors such as proximity, language, and daily social practices helped solidify these identities.

Although other identities have long existed, changes in communications have made make it much easier to assert, develop, and maintain political and cultural identities and communities based on affiliations with groups with unique characteristics that are smaller or involve more focused institutions. “I am Catalonian,” “I am Gay,” “I am a Social Democrat,” or “I am vegan” are reflections of these types of political and cultural identities. Professional identities such as “I am a scholar”, “I am a police officer”, or “I am a physician,” and shared activity identities such as “I am a sailor”, “I am a gamer”, or “I am a guitar player” all have identity and community elements that are meaningful in the lives of individuals. Websites, social media, and specialized communications now focus on solidifying these identities and communities.

Increasing global telephony, Internet, and social media capabilities have amplified business and social transactions worldwide, as has facile travel for business and personal purposes. This has facilitated frequent interaction with persons at great distances and made those interactions as easy as those with individuals in closer proximity.  This is creating new and greater senses of community and identity among persons who do not have regular physical connections.

Individuals thus embody many coexisting identities, but some can conflict and force individual choices between their importance and dismissal of their contradictions.  Such contradictions are seen in identities such as Gay Republicans, off-road vehicle users who value nature, and foodies who don’t care how their ingredients are produced.

Making sense of identity data gathered through online and mobile tracking thus requires a degree of sophistication not yet present in data collection or available to those making decisions with that data.  To get beyond gross categorization such as individuals interested in air travel, people with children, music lovers, or those seeking information about Indonesia will require finding ways to better capture and understand multiple identities and the ability to determine which are most salient to each individuals’ lives and behaviors. Overcoming that complexity still remains elusive, but will need to be found if digital data is to be used more effectively. Doing so, however, will raise even more questions about personal privacy and what information people want public about themselves and their identities.

2/12/16

Why do we think everyone should be regular news consumers?



Central to the angst and concern expressed about the future of news media and journalism is a fundamental conviction that everyone should be regular news consumers and consume similar amounts of news and information. Those of us who are interested in news and its social contributions appear to believe that everyone should be similarly engaged with news and public affairs.

When one reads articles and blogs and listens to speakers at industry conferences, one sees that the belief is driven by a number of arguments, fraught with self interest and wishful thinking:
  • News is our business. We want everyone to consume so we can make profit and increase the value of our enterprises.
  • News provides employment for us. We want jobs and the more opportunities.
  • News helps keep us socially, economically, and politically active. Everyone else should be active.
  • Democracy requires an informed public. The public is becoming less informed because of the current conditions in news provision.
The first two reasons for wanting everyone to consume news are clearly ones of self interest and not very compelling reasons why anyone should consume news. The latter two seem more credible arguments, but they are imaginary.

Most people are not highly active in society and don’t engage in the variety of activities that influence the structures and institutions of social, economic and political life. They have never done so; they do not do so now; and they never will. The majority are content to get on with their lives with minimal levels of engagement in politics and community life. Their primary economic activities are employment and consumption. Social engagement is typically limited to a few close friends, posting on social media, supporting sports teams, and participating in a limited number of clubs or churches—although participation in the latter gas declining significantly for decades.

Most people are content with a limited amount of news and information that has immediate impact on their lives, relying on others to provide leadership about what to do about public affairs and community issues. Indeed the history of the newspaper in the nineteen and twentieth centuries was based on adding non-news sections to appeal to those with limited news interest. When television news developed in the Twentieth Century news directors figured out most viewers didn't really like news after losing money on news operations for its first tens years. The presentation and types of stories offered in television news soon changed dramatically.

For the bulk of the population, regular and significant news consumption— much less paying for news—provides little satisfaction of their needs. We might normatively think they and their lives can be improved by news consumption, but they perceive little reason to do so. This does not, however, mean they ignore news altogether. Most of the public is content to get a quick general overview of major events or salient issues through limited exposure to news through free television, radio, and digital services. 

There are clearly differing benefits from the situational awareness provided by news and the amounts of situational awareness needed by members of society. Not everyone wants news regularly and we cannot expect them to suddenly shift their behavior. We do well to remember that when we carry on discussions of the future of news provision, business models of news organizations, and pay models of news.

1/27/16

Lessons from the blood-letting at The Guardian and the failure of Al Jazeera America


The cutbacks at The Guardian and the demise Al Jazeera America announced this month provide painful lessons that the news business is not just about providing news, but creating workable business models and gaining audiences who think their content is valuable.

The Guardian announced 20% budget  cuts (£50 million; $72 million) and stretched the credibility of corporate public relations by presenting them growth strategy. The news organization has been losing money for years in a digital strategy that can only be described as hoping to buy market share through aggressive international expansion, free content provision, and the belief that digital advertising would replace declining print advertising. The Guardian’s strategy was closely aligned to the discredited digital startup approach of considering the “burn rate” of its capital as a surrogate for prudent investment.

In announcing the changes, David Pemsel, The Guardian’s new chief executive, used trite popular business  language: “We need to be an agile, lean and responsive organisation that can respond at pace”. While reducing its losses and having a flexible organization are necessary, the firm will not be able slash its way to growth and will need to be more realistic about its future prospects.

Admitted, reducing costs is critical because The Guardian's activities have been supported by commercially viable non-news properties. Unfortunately, it has seen income from those properties dwindle and has been selling assets in a way that it can no longer expect to be bailed out for large losses in the future. However, projecting the cuts as a path to growth is fanciful.

Al Jazeera America was the best-funded startup cable and satellite television news channel in the US recent years after beginning operations in 2013. It announced its April 2016 shutdown, admitting its business model was not sustainable—a model that relied on subsidies from the Qatar government, whose wealth has been falling along with oil and natural gas prices.

The channel presented news in a sober manner that reflected non-US perspectives and won both acclaim and ridicule for its content.  Despite its $500 million initial investment, a staff of 700, and spending about $1.4 billion on operations, it reached only about 30,000 viewers and managed to attract less than $25 million in advertising during its operations.

The media business is alluring, but it is a crowded environment in which fickle audiences, befuddled advertisers, and rapacious service providers abound. Media must be able to critically analyze the environment, develop effective strategy and feasible business models, and provide content that differs from and is better than that of competitors. The Guardian and Al Jazeera America may have succeeded at the latter, but both let unrestrained optimism in the goodness of what they were doing keep them from accomplishing the other central business tasks.