September 21, 2014

BROMER | Journalistic Integrity and the Ithaca Media Circus

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An observation that you may or may not agree with: Many of our campus’ online and print publications bare a striking resemblance to media conglomerates that operate on a national or international scale. Slope Media is decidedly Buzzfeed-y; the Ithaca Voice is like Vox (vox is Latin for voice … does anyone else sense a conspiracy?) and The Cornell Daily Sun — in which I’m currently publishing this article, which you’re reading, so you probably understand that there is a slight conflict of interest here, but I’m going to go ahead and talk anyway — is a bit like all those aging but still relevant print publications with cities in their names.  Is Darwin’s survival of the fittest acting on the our little ecosystem of campus journalism, forcing us all to make like finches and find our own niche? Am I just going batshit insane after one too many scrolls through my Twitter feed?

This might sound completely obvious — or completely off the mark. It also might feel like I’m being critical, though that’s not my intention at all. But, if at all true, there are a few questions the similarities raise. Are Cornell students simply imitating the strategies of media moguls in hope of replicating their success? Is Darwin’s survival of the fittest acting on the our little ecosystem of campus journalism, forcing us all to make like finches and find our own niche? Am I just going batshit insane after one too many scrolls through my Twitter feed? In any case, here are a few examples of what I’m talking about.

First, it seems clear that Slope Media Group has Buzzfeed’s viral combination of GIF-heavy, thematically-light fare and hardboiled news and analysis in mind. On one hand, like Buzzfeed, Slope Media has attempted to appeal to the short attention span and media savviness of the modern reader by employing the ever-more-pervasive listicle form (If you haven’t heard the portmanteau of “list” and “article” before, think: “15 Reasons Waffle Frolic’s Expansion is Akin to the Second Coming of Christ”). Examples of this include Hannah McGough ’15’s very funny, Photoshop-heavy celebration of that giant glass controversy currently inhabiting Cornell’s Arts Quad, entitled “5 Uses for the Arts Quad Needle Structure”; and Zoe Forster ’17’s entertaining tribute to Henry Winkler, “7 Reasons Why Everyone Wants Henry Winkler as a BFF.”

On the other hand, Slope has also, from time to time, tried its hand at more serious journalism, as with its coverage of Columbia University’s recent sexual assault scandal, and its feature on female leaders on Cornell’s campus. This sort of coverage, though, is rare. A quick perusal of the Slope Media Facebook page reveals, for better or worse, a far greater focus on the kind of articles that appeal to a Cornell student’s sense of collective campus identity and to his or her lack of free time to devote to reading. This trait, more than anything, ties Slope to Buzzfeed, which itself can be seen as a giant identity-appealing machine, catering to cat-owners, pizza-lovers, jacket-buyers and the like.

While Slope Media has come to occupy a niche of students looking for the quick dopamine rush of viral content, Ithaca’s newest media company, the Ithaca Voice, has set its sights on a more discerning readership (more conflict of interest here: Jeff Stein ’13, the founder of the Voice, is a former Managing Editor of The Cornell Daily Sun). To do so, it has attempted to model itself after another new kid on the media block: Vox. For the uninitiated, Vox, a project of Vox Media, is trying to make it easier for readers to understand why news events “matter.” It has done so using non-traditional techniques like “explainers” that break down complex topics into smaller, more manageable segments and “Vox Cards,” which are linked to articles in order to quickly explain why a topic should matter to the average reader.

The Voice has openly employed many of the latter’s strategies in its quest to make Ithaca’s local news feel interesting and vital (recently, the site tweeted, “We’re hoping @Ezraklein and the good folks @Voxdotcom get a peek at our effort to make Explainers for local news. More often than not, these efforts have worked; the site has a steadily growing readership and has been effective in covering events in the Ithaca community that might otherwise go unnoticed. But there are always setbacks in attempts to innovate, and it remains to be seen whether the explanatory journalism will actually provide a leg up over traditional journalism in the long term.

Finally, we have the publication to which I have sworn allegiance since my days as a frosh: The Cornell Daily Sun. A few years ago, our humble paper was just about the only source of independent Cornell-related news on campus. Nowadays, it faces challenges on all fronts, most notably from the sources expounded upon above. Read the comments section of a given Arts section article, and you’re likely to find one of three things: an empty space, an angry tirade calling the piece “a new low” for the paper or someone’s mom commenting on the quality of her child’s new piece. This isn’t to say the paper is “dead,” or that a daily paper is no longer viable or necessary. But it does mean that the paper has been forced to either adapt or die (yes, this is getting very evolution-y). It has done so in the style of many larger publications faced with the same problems, expanding its focus on “multimedia” programs and dipping a toe into list-based content.

Each of these publications have made impressive strides in adapting to an increasingly difficult world of journalism, where profit and a consistent readership are harder and harder to come by. It is completely logical and justifiable that in doing so, each has employed strategies espoused by larger-scale media companies. Going forward, though, it would be refreshing to see a greater effort at promoting original ideas and content. After all, we are Cornell students. Bill Gates just gave us a building. We can innovate without remaining in lockstep with companies that have already found success.