Archive - December, 2014

How Would You Like Your News, Mam, On Paper or on Screen?

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 9.16.38 AMWe get two newspapers by home delivery and both have announced a price increase. This comes as no surprise. Costs are increasing. Readership is down. Revenue is in free fall. Readers are growing older and are not being replaced.

The formula is clear. Some day it will be too expensive to distribute news this way. Publishers will no longer be able to print and distribute news on paper, and I’ll no longer be able to afford it.

Millennials get their news in other ways, mostly from the web through social media and websites that package information specifically for them. If they want news in any form, it’s on a screen.

Losing Millennials

Allen Mutter, in his blog “Reflections of a Newsosaur,” concludes that “editors and publishers have only themselves to blame” for losing this generation. They are coveted not only for their current buying power, but because they are the future. Mutter says publishers talked to one another and did not engage millennials to discover their interests, attitudes, and media uses. That’s how they lost them.

To underscore his point, he compares demographic statistics from traditional media audiences to visits to websites that cater to millennials. He used: BuzzFeed, Circa, Mic, Upworthy, Vice, Vocative, Vox and the McClatchy chain. The handwriting is on the wall, or more aptly, on the screen.

The Era of the Screen

We’re in the era of the screen, and screens on various devices result in a sea change. The changes we’re going through are so widespread and disruptive they affect traditional business models, the way we go about our daily affairs, language and culture.

Predicting this would have required an ability to foretell the future with a skill few of us have. Who knew that in 2014 millennials would use four or more digital devices a day, or check their mobile phones 45 times a day? Who foretold that the primary way they would learn about new information is through social media? Or that sharing would come to mean more than letting someone else play with your toy?

The shift from broadcast to hypertargeted media is upending how we communicate. We no longer buy radios because we listen to news, podcasts, and music online, or download them to handheld devices. We watch videos on mobile screens. We select content based on our interests and needs. We’re overloaded with options and we’ve learned to filter out that which doesn’t appeal to our specific interests.

Institutional Change

Institutional authority is changing. It’s too soon to know how this will shake out, but it’s clear that what we’ve known as traditional institutional models must change. And businesses that traffic in information and entertainment such as movies, radio, television, music and news are challenged to change their business models.

Population by Generation

Researchers say millennials want socially responsible information relevant to them. They want entertaining information, often packaged in graphics or video. They rely on friends and sharing to help them filter content options. They are less interested in dispassionate, objective journalism than in writing with a point of view.

Demographics Don’t Define Us

But ad executive David Bohan makes the point that millennials, like the rest of us, are not a lump of demographic similarities. They’re people with distinct interests and lives. Millennials have different interests at different stages of life. They are loyal to brands they trust but also discriminating and savvy.

If there is a message to be gleaned from this complexity it is that we cannot reduce people to their demographic and psychographic profiles. Life is more nuanced than this. We have distinct interests, desires and expectations. Some of us are native to this new communication environment. Others are digital immigrants, subject to the changes that media bring to our lives, uprooting us from the security that institutions provided in the past.

The New Challenge

And if there is a constant in this mix it is that one-way communication has given way to conversation. Multiple conversations, in fact. Communication is about relationships. The new challenge is to venture from the familiar and find a place in the new landscape. It calls for listening and learning. We can talk to ourselves but risk that the rest of the world will pass us by.

The challenge that virtually every institution based on mass membership, mass circulation or mass audience faces today is to find a place in the new landscape and converse with those who inhabit it, and find ways to communicate relevance, authenticity and responsibility. And to do it in an appealing way.

Relating to Cuba

Doctors attend to newborn in pediatric hospital in Havana

Doctors attend to newborn in pediatric hospital in Havana

A nurse slowly squeezed a manual respirator to keep the newborn breathing. Two physicians worked quietly and methodically on the distressed child. We were in the critical care unit of the central pediatric hospital in Havana, Cuba. It was more than 15 years ago, but as I hear criticism about the normalizing of relations with Cuba today, it makes me wonder how much has changed since then.

A Grave Situation

I was photographing medical care for children at the invitation of a pediatrics official as part of a visit with friend and colleague Joe Moran of Church World Service. We were documenting the humanitarian work of Cuban Christians and others. Cuba has long emphasized quality health care and many South American nations send patients to the island nation for care.

As I concentrated on photographing them, I was not aware of the gravity of their efforts. An X-ray negative was taped to a window. It revealed the baby had been born with a single lung.

As I looked through the viewfinder, concentrating on focus and composition, one doctor stood erect after having leaned over the child’s bed. The nurse put down the respirator. The three laid their equipment aside and looked toward me. The child had died.

I leaned against the wall, shocked and humiliated by my lack of awareness. Tears welled in my eyes. And these people who had just completed heroic efforts to save this child came over to console me!

Embargo Results

As we talked, they explained the difficulties of caring for the child. His chances of survival were dire. One of the challenges was a lack of needles small enough for the tiny veins of  newborns. As with many other medical supplies and equipment, they attributed the shortage to the U.S. embargo that had been in effect for the past 30 years.

Except for case-by-case humanitarian exemptions, medical supplies made in the U.S. were blocked from entering Cuba. And this had recently been extended to equipment under U.S. patent. This meant that materials from third party sources could not be imported if they were patented in the U.S.

This was only one of the hardships visited on the vulnerable, like this infant, that resulted from the embargo. The Cuban economy was anemic. Travel to the U.S. was  prohibited. Remittances from family in the U.S. were limited. Trade with the U.S. was restricted.

Tourism from other nations was just beginning to attract foreign exchange, but a dual economy–one for tourists and one for locals–only highlighted financial inequality.  Life was hard for most people.

Putting the Past Behind Us

I thought of this experience when I heard of the agreement to normalize relations between Cuba and the U.S. I thought of the Cuban people: the children in the pediatric hospital, the pleasant old woman in a senior residence who told me with a smile as I was leaving, “Remember, you have a grandmother in Cuba,” the teachers and children in the schools I visited, the farmers and the health care workers.

They are everyday people seeking to live meaningful, purposeful lives like you and me, under difficult circumstances made unnecessarily more difficult by political differences that have festered now for a half century.

I understand the Cold War ideology. I lived through it: the missile crisis, the political detainees, the human rights violations. But this baby had nothing to do with that. He was simply born into this world of hubris and hatefulness, without a fighting chance for survival.

Things have changed since my visit, but slowly and incrementally. And not enough to greatly improve the lot of most Cubans. The normalizing of relations will notch up the change. But it does not end the embargo. That requires an act of Congress.

It will be a political struggle. But this, too, must happen. So long as it continues, it undermines our best values, and punishes the innocent.

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The National Council of Churches in the U.S. and Cuban Council of Churches have issued a joint statement about normalization nd future steps: http://nationalcouncilofchurches.us/news/2014-12cubastepsforward.php