New media, old ways: The changing landscape of Las Vegas journalism
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn are all here to stay. As the new media reality steamrolls ahead, we have to ask: “Hey, Las Vegas, wanna tweet?”
VEGAS INC Coverage
It’s a moving image, one that appears as if it were taken from the Hubble Telescope. Pictured are a collection of black balls, some large, others tiny, each reflecting hundreds of hits per minute to the Las Vegas Sun website. Facebook, Twitter and Drudge had linked to an election season story about Sen. Harry Reid, and the newsroom’s Wall of Balls, a high-definition TV screen that illustrates Web traffic to all Greenspun publications, overflowed with activity. On most days, the balls roll downward at a fast but steady pace, representing hundreds of people per minute clicking in and out of stories about sports, politics, entertainment or anything else that piques their interest — yellow balls for the Sun, blue for Las Vegas Weekly.
On the day of the Facebook-Twitter-Drudge link, it was a downpour in the midst of the overheated Reid-Angle Senate race, the hundreds of balls had turned into thousands of hits per minute. Yellow filled the screen, overwhelming the dark background, creating a yellow and black figure that triangulated at its base, much like the shape of Southern Nevada. A reporter snapped a picture of the screen. To study that image six months later offers a broadband view of the news media’s role in our community that challenges long-held beliefs developed in an analogue world.
We live in the Golden Age of news and information. Never have individuals been so connected to the world around us. We sit at our computers eyeing Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and text messages. Each provides a steady stream of news and messages from our broad community. You’re a Nevadan, a native New Yorker, a university alum, a sports fan, a concertgoer and ethnic food lover—each defines a community of love, passion and memories as great as any neighborhood in which you have lived.
Twitter, Facebook and the BlackBerry offer a revitalized sense of belonging, a connection with each and every layer of past worlds and many of the people who filled them. Family and friends from our teens and 20s are no longer relegated to the past. Neighbors can be richer pieces of the present, and our neighborhoods are much broader than our grandparents ever would have considered. In many ways, social media and high-speed broadband have issued a challenge to our traditional forms of news and information. Unfortunately, too many news outlets have been too arrogant or too ignorant to notice, and tens of thousands of their employees are paying the price.
In the 1960s and 70s, local newspapers, TV and radio news helped define our communities. Chicago’s Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, San Francisco’s Herb Caen, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill in New York reflected those cities as much as the Lake, the Bay and the Harbor. You grew up or moved there, and odds are you read their work. You knew the local TV news anchors, had a favorite radio DJ, and who you watched and listened said much about your personal tastes and political philosophy. The diversity of media offerings and ways to access them in today’s world have layered the complexity of community life throughout our country. Gone are the bully pulpits that came with a mass daily audience, replaced by an increasingly complex public, one that’s no longer a collective noun.
Gary Waddell and Paula Francis might have been the Voices of the Las Vegas Valley 30 or 40 years ago, but those days are gone. Jon Ralston and John L. Smith continue to be voices of a valley, but you can’t help but wonder who’s really listening.
Three years ago it wasn’t unusual for the Las Vegas Sun to receive fewer than one million page views per month. Today, the Sun’s mobile edition gets more than one million every month. The Web edition of the Sun has grown more than eightfold. A significant portion of the newspaper’s Web audience comes from outside the Las Vegas Valley, much of it from Southern California, Reno, New York City, Carson City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Stories about Nevada’s congressional delegation receive a lot of hits from the Beltway and Northern Virginia. Legislative stories are popular with readers in the state capital. Two decades ago you were happy with the immediacy of a faxed version of one of those stories. Maybe someone read it to you over the phone. But it was just as likely you waited on the U.S. mail for a copy. Today, Washingtonians are de facto residents of our news community.
You have to feel something for old-time reporters and editors who worry that journalism is dying. Old-time media operations have undergone massive layoffs and a major rejiggering over the past 15 years. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost at American newspapers, TV and radio news operations. Audiences have frayed. Readers disappeared. But those changes aren’t a reflection of a customer base that has retreated from public life, of neighbors who have rejected community participation for household isolation. Rather, they speak to the failings of editors, reporters, photographers, publishers and news directors who lost touch with the new definitions of community. Too many graduated from university journalism programs that transformed a trade into a profession. Many reporters sought prestigious degrees and slots at The New York Times, Washington Post or CBS News so they could have the big paychecks and access to presidents and CEOs. Rather than write for truck drivers, auto mechanics and hair stylists, so many of them fell under the spell of their sources, crafting stories that interested the power structure. They lost the ability to speak with or for you, and failed to understand that the narrative has changed. The challenge is to reconnect.
The “Big Lie” was detailed in Ken Auletta’s 2009 book, Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. For more than a century, advertising sales executives based their rates on the number of readers, viewers and listeners claimed by newspapers, TV and radio stations. They promised that hundreds of thousands of ears and eyeballs would be sampling their ads. Simply sign at the dotted line, and your camera-ready ad will appear in print. Now the metrics are there, and advertisers can document who’s actually looking at their ads.
Twice a year, Houston-based International Demographics produces the Media Audit, a statistical analysis of Internet usage in Southern Nevada. The research firm’s most recent report conducted in May and June found that four of every five Southern Nevadans visited LasVegasSun.com within the past month. A total of 1,639 people were surveyed. Men older than 18 have embraced the Web in this region. Women have been slower to use it, so too, retirees and homemakers.
Internet usage of media websites increases dramatically with education and income levels, while those much-desired 25- to 34-year-olds are online reading, shopping, watching and playing at levels higher than the broader population, so too are 45- to 49-year-olds. Despite advertisers’ disdain for the group, 55- to 64-year-olds are at the broad center for Web usage. Affluent empty nesters, affluent blue- and white-collar workers who earn more than $100,000 annually, also are more likely to use the Internet and make shopping decisions based upon online research.
The data are also broken down by ZIP code, types of vehicle driven, favorite fast-food restaurants and retail stores, whether Web users own boats or motorcycles, information about recent purchases: household appliances, TV sets, video games; even whether Web users plan to have cosmetic or Lasik eye surgery within the next 12 months.
The research is a healthy snapshot of reader, viewer or listener interest. Yet, many journalists of a recent vintage reject the thought of finding a blueprint in research previously reserved for advertising and marketing executives. We live in the Church of Journalism, and no readership survey will breach those walls, or so goes the thinking. To do so would anger the ghosts of Murrow, Pulitzer and Cronkite.
Of course, nothing is as ever as definite as it appears. Although tens of millions of Americans have diversified their media offerings, there are singular groups that in some ways represent the last vestiges of the mass media model. They can be found in our first generation ethnic communities, the Spanish-, Italian-, Filipino- other foreign-language publications, magazines, newscasts and webcasts that have loyal audiences. Their readers, viewers and listeners can be found in the one of every four Nevadans who’s Hispanic, the 52 percent of the population age 18 and younger who are of Hispanic descent, and the 50,000 Filipinos who live in Southern Nevada. The early evening and 11 o’clock newscasts for Hispanics are among the most watched in the valley, particularly among viewers in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Most traditional news operations in Southern Nevada lack more than a handful of Spanish speakers, and their daily offerings reflect that shallow talent pool. Multilingual news editors tell you that their readers, viewers and listeners are seeking a better understanding of their experience as newcomers to this region and country. They want stories that answer their questions about daily life. They’re seeking they whys and hows about the Hispanic experience in the midst of this massive economic collapse, and English-speaking newspapers, magazines, television and radio news offerings are largely devoid of the content they seek. Instead, they find what they’re seeking on the right side of the radio dial or in the double and triple digits on their flat-screen TVs.
Ironically, they turn to “ethnic” offerings, the same sort of news providers that were available in this country a century ago to émigrés from Eastern and Southern Europe, Asia, Russia and elsewhere. Editors and publishers in the pre-TV, pre-Internet era knew that to make money, they had to craft their daily and weekly rundowns to men and women who spoke another language and possessed very different cultural sensibilities. Today’s newsrooms are struggling with that most “American” dynamic.
Yes, Las Vegas journalism has changed. Readers, listeners and viewers have much more control as the mix of news and news-related offerings multiplies in an era when you no longer need printing presses, newsprint and a distribution staff to reach your customers. The challenge is for Southern Nevada journalists to build new links to their audiences. It’s no different from the challenges faced by airlines, casino companies, auto dealers and a broad variety of retailers who have lost monopolies over information and pricing. The challenge is for journalists to embrace the new era rather than bemoan it. Once they do, print, TV and radio journalists will recognize the opportunities and our society could be stronger for it. Until then, we’ll continue to miss the larger narrative: Journalism and community life in our city, in our region, aren’t dying. They’ve changed.