Let's say you write a blog. One day, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile pulls up in front of your house to give you a personal ride.
That's what happened to the blogger Domestic Diva. "Today is perhaps the best day of my life," she breathlessly told readers of thedomesticdiva.org on Nov. 7. "I can't believe that the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile came to my house and picked my family and I up for a day of fun!"
What Diva didn't say is that her free ride is part of a campaign by Madison-based Oscar Mayer Foods Corp. to influence the new wave of civilian "journalists." The company was one of many at the annual national convention of women bloggers, "BlogHer," held in July 2009 in Chicago.
The four-year-old event is a carnival of businesses looking to influence the posts of women. The Wienermobile visit there was deemed "Best Product Promo" by the Colorado-based Mile High Mamas blog.
The companies at this event showered attendees with gifts and sought to impress them with demonstrations.
"Mommy bloggers were in the majority, and marketers such as GM, Walmart, Nikon, PepsiCo and Suave were pulling all the stops to woo us," reported Mile High editor Amber Johnson on her own blog. "Many women were gracious and grateful; others were not. One woman even allegedly threatened to blackmail a Crocs rep when he ran out of free shoes."
Setting out to get people to write positive things is an example of a "sponsored conversation," one of the hottest trends in marketing today.
Diva's real name is Heather (she won't reveal her last name), and she lives in Macon, Ga. In the past she's similarly reported on the fine work of Walmart, Pantene and Electrolux. She's one of Walmart's "ElevenMoms" who blog on that company's website, and she previously reviewed not only Oscar Mayer products but those of its parent company, Kraft Foods, as one if its "Velveeta Kitchenistas."
Diva missed the BlogHer convention. Oscar Mayer's own blog reported that it missed her, too, which is why it later sought her out: "There was one blogger, however, that we had yet to meet - the Domestic Diva! We arrived at THE Diva's home and even got to take her family for a ride."
As traditional news media cut staffs or fold altogether, "citizen bloggers" like Diva are taking up the slack with an infinite variety of viewpoints. And savvy companies are making the most of it, offering product samples, unique access, junkets and even cash to get others to take up their messages on blogs and social media websites.
"Are there ethical questions that this raises?" asks Greg Downey, director of the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "Absolutely."
No one thinks a visit from the Wienermobile to a hotdogging blogger is an ethical crisis. But such perks do make it harder for the public to gauge the reliability of the posts it reads. Does Diva like Lunchables for the taste or the fond memories?
Nationally, many major companies are engaged in this practice (see sidebar, "And now a word from our blogger"). Locally, the Madison Opera, the Overture Center for the Arts and the Wisconsin Union Theater have all offered free admission to bloggers (as well as other reviewers), either at special events or as a matter of course. The Union Theater even hosts Jacob Stockinger's classical music blog (welltempered.wordpress.com) on its own website.
The concerns deepen when "sponsored conversations" involve special interests and political figures, or when they weigh in on civic controversies, like development projects. In Madison, the company seeking city approval to expand the Edgewater Hotel last August sent an email to supporters, asking them to monitor and post to specific blogs and forums. The company, Hammes Sports and Entertainment, even offered to "assist you by drafting and distributing key message statements so you can tailor your comments for specific audiences."
Blogs have become everyone's favorite way to influence public opinion. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz writes a blog, weighing in on the issues of the day. Other politicians and special interest groups have their own blogs.
None of this is unseemly, but it's not exactly news as usual.
Traditional journalism is in trouble, and everyone agrees it needs to reinvent itself to survive. The worst-case scenario is that within 15 years only a handful of the largest U.S. newspapers will survive.
"As recently as three or four years ago, I was fairly convinced that most newspapers would make it," says Lew Friedland, professor at the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "Now I'm not sure. I actually don't think that most daily newspapers in the metro [non-national] range will make it."
Communities like Madison may be left with a couple of free weekly tabloids, published to collect what remains of more lucrative "display" advertising (and, in Isthmus' case, of course, to uphold the mantle of quality journalism). The number of stories will fall dramatically because the staffs are too small. And the Associated Press, which operates as a co-op, will be robbed of content as members drop like flies.
In the future, the distinction between independent news reporting and public relations is likely to blur further. And, unlike what George Orwell imagined in 1984, this change will come not because government has taken control of the media but because no one but corporations with agendas will be paying for it anymore.
"We have this gap across the entire media system, where the cost of advertising is going down, but the willingness of people among 18- to 24-year-olds to pay for media is approaching zero," says Friedland.
Unless it's music, movies or pornography, which people are willing to pay for online.
"Porn matters to people," says Katy Culver, a Ph.D. faculty associate at the School of Journalism. "Downloading from Netflix matters to people. Having uncorrupted music matters to people. Or, at least, to the particular audience that's paying for any of that."
But increasingly, judging by what the public is willing to pay for, news does not matter.
When we say "journalism," whether we know it or not, what we actually mean is newspapers. As long as the United States has been a nation, the bulk of its news has arrived via newsprint. In journalism schools, it's a cliché that you can fit all the content from one half-hour newscast onto a single page of a daily paper.
But paper, ink and doorstep delivery are expensive. "Around 65% to 70% of a newspaper's costs are completely related to the paper," says Friedland. "That's a huge number. It means you have to make 70 cents on the dollar before you do a nickel of journalism."
Academics like to speak of a media "environment" with Darwinian niches filled with predators and prey. Most newspapers sit close to the bottom of this food chain, churning out reams of material that's picked up by broadcasters and spun by bloggers.
If journalism is an ecosystem, over the last two years there already have been fewer bottom-feeders - primary producers of newspaper content - for the top predatory news animals to eat. In Detroit, the Free Press and News have slashed home delivery. The Minneapolis Star Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle are in bankruptcy, as is Chicago's Tribune Company, owner of The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Orlando Sentinel and other publications. Colorado's Rocky Mountain News has closed. The Washington Times no longer has a sports section.
Locally, The Capital Times is now two weekly tabloids and a website. Its staff has been greatly reduced and, to a great extent, merged with the Wisconsin State Journal, which has also seen wholesale job cuts. Stock for Lee Enterprises, co-owner of both papers, plummeted from $48 per share in 2004 to less than a quarter last year (it has since rebounded, this week topping $4.50 a share).
Newspapers that remain are growing slimmer, as staffs are cut in response to disappearing advertisers. More resources are being pumped into web publishing, which yields much poorer returns - a proven profit margin of just 8%, says Friedland, compared to the 20% to 30% once common for print.
In response to these trends, some journalism schools are now teaching their students computer programming and shifting their focus. (See sidebar, "Training the journalists of tomorrow.")
Yet no one knows what journalism will look like in a decade.
"I think the most dangerous thing for us to do would be to predict, 'Ah, yes, it's going to be YouTube or Twitter, or you must know this edition of this software package to succeed in the next 10 years," says the UW's Downey. "This is changing so rapidly. I don't think anyone has a crystal ball on that."
News media have always enjoyed special protection under the First Amendment. And at least five states, including Wisconsin, even exempt news publications from sales tax.
The idea is that, in a democracy, the public needs access to information. Increasingly, however, people learn about civic issues not from authoritative outlets but a range of sources of wildly varying credibility. And this, warns Downey, may be "reinforcing prejudice or stereotype, not understanding the world from somebody else's perspective."
But in fact, "objective" journalism does not have a long history. Newspapers in the late 18th century seldom aspired to objectivity. That was the age of the Party Press, named because media were closely aligned to political viewpoints, much like Fox News today, some could argue.
This gave way to the Penny Press of the 1800s, which often specialized in the sensational. However unsavory, the media's intense interest in folks like Paris Hilton, Balloon Boy and Michael Jackson follows a long tradition.
In the days of the Party and Penny Presses, readers subscribed to many newspapers, picking and choosing from various accounts. "The public," wrote Francis Leupp in the Atlantic magazine in 1910, "was assumed to be capable of making its own choice between opposing opinions clearly stated."
Wisconsin once had many German-language newspapers and labor newspapers with distinct and loyal readerships. Madison had a variety of newspapers with distinct points of view, now gone: the Madison Patriot, Madison Democrat and Argus, which competed with each other and with the State Journal and, later, The Capital Times.
But through most of the 20th century, the public got its information from mass-market publications. These acted like news department stores, seeking to offer something for everyone. Objectivity became a new ethical ideal in part because it was good business: Why tick off readers or advertisers with opinionated coverage?
Now it seems as though the full-service, fairly objective news department stores are going the way of Prange Way. Consumers get their information at individual shops in an Internet mall, where they can find outlets that share their preconceived views.
"If it's going to be a world where everyone is expected to be their own editor, that has a lot of ramifications," says Downey. To avoid being duped, people must now be much savvier news consumers. "That's not a new brainstorm. We should have been teaching that all along."
Indeed, Downey sees this as "one of the productive things about this very turbulent environment." Modern audiences, he says, need to develop "critical tools" to make judgments about the claims they encounter.
To this end, the UW College of Letters and Science, which includes the School of Journalism, has extended its overall communications requirements. Besides general writing skills, all Letters and Science students must successfully complete a requirement to develop their skills at organizing and assessing information.
Downey says the modern news consumer must always be asking, "Who's trying to communicate with me and why?"
Ironically, newspapers' downfall is in many ways...the fault of newspapers.
"Certainly the changes would have been coming in any case," says Friedland. "They're driven by changes in society and audience structure and habit. Newspapers would have had to adjust."
But most would be better off had they not plunged headlong into offering their content on the web for free without first figuring out how to make this economically viable.
Friedland says that 15 years ago he presented editors at The Milwaukee Sentinel with an online business model. He sums up the reaction: "You academics in your ivory tower."
Now, of course, newspapers are paying the price for their baffling lack of foresight.
"They signed their own death notice for the most part," says Friedland. "Most of them are effectively bankrupt right now. Their creditors keep them alive because they're worth more as a corpse on life support than they are as a dead corpse. The breakup value of a newspaper is next to nil."
As newspapers struggle to survive, bloggers are rushing to fill the information void. We're left with Internet sideshows driven by corporate bribery.
At BlogHer 2009, for example, Mile High editor Johnson reported, "My choice for best swag goes to the private Nintendo party I attended where everyone received a Nintendo Dsi. Though their horse-drawn carriage ride and four-course dinner in the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the Hancock Tower did not suck, either."
In response to these trends, the Federal Trade Commission has issued new guidelines requiring disclosure by companies that offer payments or other incentives to bloggers. Disclosure would have to be made by the bloggers, but penalties would be paid by the endorsed companies.
And if citizen journalism is going to be the wave of the future, some are intent on making it as good as it can be. In 2006 Friedland and the UW School of Journalism launched MadisonCommons.org, a website that trains civilian journalists to cover current affairs.
In early 2009, former State Journal reporter Andy Hall launched the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit news operation. It was based in part on models at Columbia and Brandeis universities, the Center for Public Integrity and the Voice of San Diego.
"The Voice of San Diego is to me one of the best and most interesting of the new models," says Friedland. "It's an important destination source for news in San Diego. They're showing that there's an audience for what they do at a price adequate to support the newsroom necessary to provide it."
But, he adds, "They're also not making money."
And now a word from our blogger…
The next time you're drinking a Coke and munching on Cheetos, know that your favorite blogger may be praising them for pay.
Many companies are already working to influence blogs and social media by means of "sponsored conversations." Sometimes they pay for reviews; other times they just pay. Other rewards include access, loans or gifts of products, discounts on products or services, vacations or trips to conferences and special events.
Journalist purists may bristle at this, but some ethicists say the potential problem is mitigated if there is full disclosure.
Jeremiah Owang, a San Francisco-based columnist for Forbes and partner at a marketing strategy consulting firm, keeps a running list of such brands and companies, as well as ethical guidelines, at web-strategist.com. His list, reproduced here with permission, includes:
American Express, Cheetos, Coca Cola, Colgate, Dairy Queen, Disney, Ford, General Mills, General Motors, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, JCPenney, Kmart, Kohler, M&Ms, Mercedes, Microsoft, Nikon, Panasonic, Pepsi Cola, Quaker Oats, Sears, Sea World, Sprint and Walmart.
Training the journalists of tomorrow
If the future of journalism is uncertain, what of tomorrow's journalists? What are college students being taught to prepare for in a profession that seems on the brink of extinction?
"We want to be mindful of what's happening in the industry," says Greg Downey, director of the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Thus students are taught less about journalism and more about broad applications of critical thought. Tomorrow's journalist is a chameleon.
Downey says the basic tasks of journalism - research, investigation, interviewing, organization, analysis and storytelling - "can be applied to all sorts of endeavors that are necessary across the globe."
Journalism remains a surprisingly popular major. A 2009 poll by Georgia University, in fact, showed an all-time high in undergraduate journalism enrollment the year before, with 201,477 students enrolled nationwide, an increase of 57% from 1993.
It used to be that the UW School of Journalism had four distinct tracks: news-editorial, broadcast, public relations and advertising. Today there are only two: journalism and "strategic communication."
"I cringe even whenever I lay out those two broad tracks," says Downey. He dislikes seeing mass communication as a continuum, with advertising or opinion on one end and objective journalism on the other. "It's hard to think of a form of communication that's not strategic in some respect."
If the boundaries between news, advertising and public relations have so broken down, why not remove the word "journalism" from the name of the UW School of Journalism and Mass Communication?
Downey pauses before answering, then gives a nervous, short laugh. "It's a question that comes up more often than you think," he says. "Folks around the floor were just discussing this earlier in the semester."