Cacciatore Book Review of Blur by Kovach and Rosenstiel

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel (2010) waste no time placing the reader in the thick of action as they open with the hypothetical scene of a nuclear disaster. Using this dramatic scenario as an example of the communications cascade both prior to and after the communication revolution. At the onset Kovach and Rosenstiel (2010) identify “we have been here before.” “Here” being the place of a monumental shift in communications. This was a great way to set the stage that we are not experiencing something unprecedented. The main takeaway from this book for strategic communication professionals is that even though we are currently undergoing a tremendous shift in communications this isn’t the first time we’ve experienced changed, nor will it be the last. This shift in communications doesn’t diminish from traditional news channels, but rather it expands on the importance of news and professionals in the industry. However, this shift will require a move away from the news reporter as an aggregator and segue into “next journalism,” which can best be summarized when Kovach and Rosenstiel (2010) state, “journalism is no longer a lecture. It is more of a dialogue – and potentially richer than ever before.

We are taken through a journey of communications, which is reminiscent of Spaceship Earth at Epcot in Walt Disney World. The reader is taken on a journey through time, exploring the evolution of communication from cave drawings to oral communications to the printing press to television to the create of the Internet….demonstrating that communications have evolved over time. Kovach and Rosentiel (2010) frame their argument that the strategic communications professional should shift to “next journalism” by evaluating what worked in the past in comparison to how consumers engage in media today.

What I found most interesting is the increase from 46 percent of Americans using the Internet in 2000 to 74 percent in 2008 (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2010, 22). This book was published in 2010, and the latest year for statistics was 2008. According to a study by Pew Internet (2013), as of May 2013, 85 percent of Americans used the Internet. Out of the 15 percent of American adults who don’t use the Internet, 34 percent state that they don’t believe the Internet is relevant to them (Zickuhr, 2013). According to the Huffington Post, the majority of non-Internet users are 65 and older (The Huffington Post, 2013).

Contrary to what I’ve heard in the past, Kovach and Rosentiel (2010) state that news outlets have actually grown and audiences are broader now than ever. In 2007, the top fifty sites actually grew by 27 percent. Kovach and Rosentiel found that as of 2010, 80 percent of the top two hundred news Web sites in America were “legacy” news sources (2010, 174). So what’s the problem? The challenge that isn’t that people are moving away from traditional media venues, the crisis has to do with where the revenue is coming from. Kovach and Rosentiel say that technology has decoupled advertising from news, resulting in advertisers using their own website or product placement.

I would have liked to see Kovach and Rosentiel (2010) explore the rise of advertising on blogs across the Internet. Services, such as Google AdWords, Amazon Affiliates and Affiliate Marketing, amateur bloggers across the Internet are offering advertisers space on their sites for nominal fees. This allows advertisers to obtain coverage across the Internet for a fraction of the cost of traditional advertising. Consumers are also more likely to trust recommendations made by bloggers whom they frequent than a mass commercial. Bloggers also usually are in a niche market, which allows advertisers to direct their marketing at those who are most likely to use their product. Kovach and Rosentiel don’t fully explain the ramifications of the advertising decouplement and what it means for consumers. I would have liked to see this issue explored further.

Strategic communication professionals need to understand how the decouplement of advertising affects them. In my opinion, more meaningful than the decouplement of advertising is the problem we have which is that amateur bloggers, who are not professional journalists, are accepting free products in exchange for writing. We are seeing a decrease in the quality of journalism because why would a company pay for a professional, quality, researched article when they can simple give a free product in exchange for content? As Carol Tice (2013), an award winning writer, put it, this creates junk-content sites because the advertisers don’t care about the content. The content’s purpose isn’t to educate or entertain; it’s to boost their SEO and ad revenue.  I believe that this is the biggest challenge in “next journalism” and what communication professionals need to be concerned with.

Kovach and Rosentiel (2010) make several assertions describing how the information age has changed, one of which how people get information. There has been a movement from the push to pull environment. Kovach and Rosentiel state that consumers now navigate to the news by using a Web search to find stories of interest. In fact, a study found that 72 percent of adults seek news so they can talk about it with their friends and family (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2010, 150) and only 19 percent follow news for their work. This shift explains why social media channels are so popular. Sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google + allow users to share news stories and provide their comments. Almost all news sites allow for readers to comment and share the information. Kovach and Rosentiel also state that journalism must shift from being a lecture to a public dialogue (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2010, 175). This is important to note because it demonstrates what people want to hear about. Since consumers purchase products, advertisers are going to invest in the channels that have the most viewers; therefore the viewers dictate the type of news that is reported. I’ve never thought about it in this way before, but it’s fascinating.

There are four distinct models: Journalism of Verification, Journalism of Assertion, Journalism of Affirmation and Interest-group Journalism (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2010, 34)[1]. This junk-content I spoke about earlier falls into the category of “interest-group journalism” but the average consumer doesn’t know the difference between interest group journalism and other types. Given the age of information overload, the consumer can’t tell what is relevant from what’s not. Kovach and Rosentiel state that in earlier eras the editors did this for consumers. They selected the top stories that they believed consumers needed to hear about. Earlier eras also had newscasters who consumers trusted, like Walter Cronkite (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2010, 149). The consumer also doesn’t always understand the context. Kovach and Rosentiel say that there is a need for a “smart aggregator”, which goes beyond an algorithm (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2010, 180).

Kovach and Rosentiel explore the issue of true journalism and verification of information. The process of journalism involves asking, several questions regarding the content, information, sources and evidence (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2010, 32). While these questions get to the truth. Kovach and Rosentiel state, “Truth is a statement of what is most probable in proportion to the evidence available at the time”, (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2010, 32). Gone are the days that a journalist could gather all of the facts and have an article ready for the newspaper the next day. The pressure from consumers to have information immediately creates competition among the media outlets to report a story first, which results in stories being reported that don’t have all of the facts. This reminds me of the recent situation with the Boston Marathon bombings. According to USA Today (Rieder, 2013), CNN, the Associated Press, Fox and the Boston Herald, among many others, incorrectly reported that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombing. All of the media outlets reported using anonymous sources. CNN used three separate sources to confirm their story, even though it turned out to be inaccurate. This demonstrates that the type of source, in addition to the number, is important. The importance of a journalists’ source is more important now than ever.

Kovach and Rosentiel state, we are moving from the “trust me” era of news to “show me”. Even the “me” has changed from “me” being the journalist to the consumer, demonstrating that the gatekeeper role of the journalist no longer exists as consumers retrieve their own news. This is a critical component of Kovach and Rosentiel’s argument.

There has also been a monumental shift in the role consumers’ play in obtaining news. Previously the editor would determine what news should be on the front page, acting as a “gatekeeper” (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2010, 151). Now the consumer pulls news from several different sources, meaning that they determine what they should read. Kovach and Rosentiel state that only seven percent of Americans rely on one medium to obtain their news (2010, 175). News has evolved to a push channel, in which news was aggregated for the consumer to a 24/7 round-the-clock availability in which the consumer has a dizzying array of choices.

Kovach and Rosentiel recommend that consumers “lean forward” in their experience for finding news that is relevant to them, suggesting that consumers look for things they are interested in (2010, 174). I found this advice interesting, especially given Sheryl Sandberg’s (2013) book Lean In. Just as Sandberg recommends that women “lean in” to their careers and face challenges head on, Kovach and Rosentiel recommend that consumers “lean in” to their role in understanding the wealth of information available. The common thread between both of these “lean in” experiences is that we should be actively engaged in the world around us. Whether “leaning in” applies to understanding the world around us, navigating our careers or breaking down information that is relevant, we should take an active role in our lives.

Kovach and Rosentiel (2010) conclude the book by speaking about what the new journalism needs to be, which they call “next journalism”. The journalism of the future involves eight dimensions, including: authenticator, sense maker, investigator, witness bearer, empower, smart aggregator, forum organizer and role model. There are several things that the new newsroom must do, including  provide a higher level of proof, develop more expertise and include more storytelling. All of these new developments will make the role of editor even more important. Kovach and Rosentiel (2010) conclude with a positive prediction that the shift in communications doesn’t diminish from traditional news channels, but rather it expands on the importance of news and professionals in the industry.

Overall, this book is a good resource for communication scholars because it provides a framework for developing compelling content in the age of new media. However, I do feel that the authors glossed over several important points that I think are important for the communication professional to know. As I mentioned earlier, I think that the strategic communications professional should understand how ad revenue plays a role into the journalism industry. While understanding the “next journalism” is important in understanding how consumers want to obtain information, everything is driven by money. If the strategic communications professional doesn’t understand how they play a role in making the news source (whether print or online) and advertiser money, then they won’t be able to successfully create dynamic content that resonates with their audience.

I also felt that Blur had two audiences that were blurred (pun intended). On one hand the authors spoke directly to the consumers and told them the role they played in reading and understanding content. However, another section of the book would speak to the journalist directly. I think that this book could have been more effective if the authors focused on one audience, that being the journalist. The journalist is also a consumer, but the journalist should primarily understand how their customer (the reader) responds to information and not how they should digest information.

What becomes clear in Blur is that journalists must adjust to the changes in how news is consumed. What will not change is that people want to be informed and democracy is dependent upon informed citizens. This is great news for all strategic communication professionals who embark upon a career in journalism.

Have you read the book Blur? What did you think? What do you think is the most important thing that strategic communication professionals need to know?

Visit Amazon to purchase Blur.

Works Cited

Kovach, B. and Rosenstiel, T. (2010). Blur. How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload. Bloomsbury USA. New York: NY.

Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead. New York, NY: Random House.

The Huffington Post (2013, September 25). 15 Percent of Americans Still Don’t Use the Internet: Study. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/25/dont-use-the-internet-americans_n_3988954.html

Tice, C. (2013) Why Would Anyone Pay $100 for a Blog Post? Make a Living Writing. Retrieved from: http://www.makealivingwriting.com/pay-100-blog-post/

Rieder, R. (2013, April 19). On Boston Bombing, media are wrong – again. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/columnist/rieder/2013/04/18/media-boston-fiasco/2093493/

Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead. New York, NY: Random House.

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