The art of religion news during the redesign of big news media, 2015-2016
2015 seemed like the year of “Journey” for news media. Vice News Media unveiled its Virtual Reality news reports with a feature on a march down the city’s streets. “VICE News VR: Millions March” covered the New York City protests, which took place on December 13, against police violence on African Americans.
On July 10th A Journey through NYC religions celebrated five years of operation. In 2015 A Journey published over 159 features, 60+ videos, 400+ photos, 58 hand-crafted illustrations and 25 Journey Data Center graphs. On December 31, its cumulative audience since 2010 was 29.3 million viewers.
In December Vice launched its “Streets” video feature as part of its “City Guides,” starting with Krishna Andavolu’s video of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. The introduction to the video utilizes a fly-in from space into Brooklyn created in Google Earth, and the guide utilizes an interactive Google map.
“Streets: Bedford Avenue” is reminiscent of “Journey’s God’s Row Bedford Avenue.” The Vice video includes a segment with Rabbi Manis Friedman, whom Journey’s Pauline Dolle interviewed in the Spring 2015. In 2015 Journey finished a more refined production of God’s Row Ralph Avenue.
National Geographic launched its immersive, traveling exhibit “Sacred Journeys” and continued to support Paul Salopek’s world-spanning walk to retrace the steps of the epic journey of humankind from its origins in Africa to the tip of South America. The journalist raised enough money also from other sources to continue the walk in 2016.
The Smithsonian started publishing a new magazine called Journeys that combined long-form writing with consumer information about what to do and buy in a locality. The highly priced “bookazine” was targeted to the cultural traveler who wants to dig into the culture, including the religion, of their travel destinations. The first edition was dedicated Paris.
The New York Times also changed its Travel Bureau’s name to “Journeys,” its conferences’ tagline became “Journeys for the Mind,” metro reporters were sent out on tours of their neighborhoods, and the Real Estate Section started publishing “Block By Block.” The paper’s “Lens Blog” featured various journeys, including a feature (in 2016) on a photographer’s global expedition called “The Journey.” The Times also created a strategy that defined its most engaged readers as journeyers for whom the Times had become a reliable guide through life’s decisions. Industrial age media was tuning itself up for a fight for the online audience.
In Los Angeles a group started their own mapping and storytelling block-by-block about religion. The participants wrote in Boom magazine that they are finding that there is more religion in Los Angeles than anyone imagined. “Indeed, in our research, we are not finding a spiritual wasteland but, rather, a wild, wild West of religion.”
The BuzzFeed influence
The takeover of the The Washington Post by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, lead to the Project Rainbow digital projects. The Post started to gain audience traction again (Project Rainbow is the Post’s short way of referring to the Digital News Design and Presentation Teams for Emerging News Products at The Washington Post.)
The Washington news media organization also changed its emphasis to maximize the number of online hits with a vast increase of clickbait features, what Jack Murta in Columbia Journalism Review has called a mashup of “Woodward and Bernstein meets BuzzFeed.” The paper’s “Acts of Faith” editors started beating the bush for pieces from the public that could evoke large feelings of “awe, outrage, passion, fascination, delight…” The editors declared, “No, we don’t want clickbait, but we do want people to click in…” They warned potential contributors that their “Acts of Faith” pieces were “competing against kitten videos for eyeballs.” Send cutest gospel-singing kitten quartets?
Maybe, because BuzzFeed shocked a lot of industrial age media by winning the highest award from the National Press Foundation for its coverage of the U.S. Congress. In 2015 a Silicon Valley venture capitalist investment valuated BuzzFeed as a $850 million dollar firm. The site had about 200 million unique visitors and 1 billion video views a month.
Vice was also sailing high. It was bringing in a $1 billion in annual revenue if all its agreed upon deals for advertising and so forth worked out and was valuated as a $4 billion company by various investors. Its co-founder Shane Smith pitched that Vice was actually worth as much as #20 billion. To catch up with them it would take live features of dancing cats in ISIS tanks chanting the Quran.
Blurring the line between news and advocacy
On July 14, 2015, the pro-life investigative organization Center for Medical Progress released—to great national clamor—undercover videos of personnel associated with abortion provider Planned Parenthood discussing how they would sell baby parts. Another organization Live Action also produced very successful Youtube videos exposing aspects of Planned Parenthood’s operations. Are these news media organizations, theater or political action groups?
The line between journalist and activist was already quite fuzzy, made more so by activist-journalists like Glenn Greenwald who broke the Pulitzer Prize-winning Edward Snowden story in The Guardian. The line wasn’t even visible when Vice News partnered with the United Nations to promote the international government body’s agenda.
In September Vice News published one of the first virtual reality news reports on religion. Its “Waves of Grace,” jointly produced with the United Nations and VRSE, showed the community impact of the Ebola disaster in Liberia. The narration took the form of a prayer by Decontee Davis, an Ebola survivor who uses her immunity to the disease to care for orphaned children in her village. Organizations like the United Nations were some of the first heavy users of virtual reality documentaries to convey the impact of disasters and wars on various communities.
The New York Times’ new strategy: the engaged reader
Soon, the New York Times laid out its strategy for the future. Called “Our Path Forward,” the paper said that its future viability would be increasing the number of what it called “engaged readers.” Perhaps, no more than 15% of the Times‘ online readers were driving the largest portion of the paper’s traffic and “the vast majority of our revenue,” the strategy paper recounted. Thus, the goal was to “more than double” the number of this type of readers and to build “a lifetime relationship” with them.
There was no more talk like that found in their 2014 strategic planning document, of the readers being beasts of burden carrying the Times to a wider audience. Instead, the relationship was defined as developing over time into a “journey” on which the Times would serve as a guide through life-decisions. The tone was almost collaborative, though with a tinge of superiority. The readers would be “engaged,” “cultivated,” and “won over” to help “our journalism achieve unprecedented reach.” The Times would still be “the guide” and retain its “unique editorial judgment in setting the day’s agenda…”
An “engaged reader” had a more or less permanent habit of spending more time on the Times website and apps. He or she wanted clear, authoritative guidance to the best journalism (in the Times or elsewhere), visual and digital brilliance in storytelling, and usable information for decision-making. Potential “engaged readers” were found in almost every country of the world.
Perhaps, the largest potential source of “engaged readers” for the Times will be those who are under 35 years of age, who make up 40% of the Times mobile audience. This group lagged other age groups in having a deep, loyal relationship to the Times.
The concept of “engaged reader” is similar to the discovery of “the influential” by social scientists at Columbia University and the pollster Elmo Roper. Back in the 1940s and 1950s Paul Lazarsfeld and others discovered that just before elections, voters often consulted within their social network some individuals who had a reputation for following the election process and had a good, reliable knowledge of the candidates. Since many voters tended to decide their voting preferences quite late in the election season, they looked around for someone who could give them a quick update. The social researchers called this group who were referenced by their voting friends “the influentials.” Later, they discovered that in regard to decisions about a variety of matters like where to eat, good schools, local affairs, and products, people tended to consult others who were more engaged in these areas. Roper estimated that about 10% of the general population were “influentials” for others on a variety of issues.
The conclusion was that political campaigns needed to focus on identifying and gaining the attention of “the influentials,” because they had such great influence with the other 90% of the voters.
Later research at Columbia University and elsewhere also identified types of influentials that play different roles so far as their networks were concerned. For example, some influentials were very good connectors to networks outside of their own social circles. These “cosmopolitan influentials” are particularly useful if you want reach a large variety of social networks in your audience, the researchers said.
Likewise in 2015, the Times announced its hope to increase the percent of its influentials, which the paper called their “engaged readers.” The paper’s goal was to increase the proportion of engaged readers who would then refer other news consumers to the Times. In addition, there were key social media “influentials” in specialized topic areas who had large numbers of followers or friends looking for tips, news, and other experiences. So, wanting a large circulation of an article on Muslims in New York City, the newspaper might directly message the most influential Muslim tweeters, Facebook, Instagramers, etc.
In December the New York Times Magazine launched NYT Virtual Reality to deliver news that can “simulate richly immersive scenes from across the globe.” The first feature was made up of three portraits of children driven from their homes by war and persecution. The Times announced plans to offer VR news reports a couple of times a year.
On a December morning one million Times’ newspapers in blue plastic humpback slipcovers lay like blue whales on subscribers’ doorsteps. It contained Google Cardboard for viewing on mobile phones the Times’ new virtual reality features. The fanfare, the huge and expensive roll-out effort, and the invitation to detour from reading the paper in favor of a mobile phone viewing experience of the Times broadcast loudly that the Times had learned to go big and go digital from its “Snow Fall” experience. The international story also empowered the Times’ efforts to grow its global market. The paper had concluded that in order to gain enough resources to continue to do cutting edge news reports that it would have to sail the global digital networks looking for customers.
The expensive and technically sophisticated effort put the Times ahead of many of its smaller online competitors. To drive the point home that it was doing something different from Vice and BuzzFeed, the Times emphasized that it used the same news standards that it has for regular news articles.
More BuzzFeed influences
Fascinating figures released by NBC News on December 1, 2015 showed that Donald Trump campaign had spent a mere $217,000 on broadcast advertising for his presidential candidacy. This paltry figure compared to the bank-load $28.9 million spent by Jeb Bush and his advocates, who gained a lingering death at 3% of the poll compared with Trump’s 36%. Trump provided viral-ready memes (popular little bits of culture widely circulating) for the social media—news media cycle so that he dominated the headlines about the campaign. Because political advertising brings a premium price tag from media companies, Trump’s strategy mean fewer revenues directly from his campaign.
The New York Daily News tried to raise itself from the dead by hoping for a viral resurrection with its attack on God. After the San Bernardino shootings by two Muslim radicals, the paper’s frontpage headlined screamed for gun control under the banner: “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS.” In a discussion of the paper’s survival strategy with the New York Times, editor Jim Rich reached downward for another religious meme, “We’re fighting like hell.” Besides headlines and gnarly wisdom, there is much else from the culture of tabloid history that could be recycled online as fast velocity news bits.
The Year 2016 for online religion news media will be affected by ethical and political dilemmas, a through-going focus on market analytics, viral and immersive journalism, and the globalization and calculated distribution of the news market between general and special market news media.
In January, BuzzFeed was forced by a British advertising ethics council to take down a so-called native advertisement for Dylon, seen on 9 October 2015, headed “14 Laundry Fails We’ve All Experienced”. It was styled as a BuzzFeed article and featured photos and social media posts highlighting laundry ‘fails’. The British ethics group ruled that BuzzFeed had not done enough to identify that the feature was actually an ad. Below the heading, the text stated “Dylon Brand Publisher” next to the logo for Dylon’s Colour Catcher product. At the bottom, the text stated “It’s at times like these we are thankful that Dylon Colour Catcher is there to save us from ourselves. You lose, little red sock!”
There have also long been that some religious organizations have paid for favorable news reports. Likewise, a too cozy relationship with foundations can be false comfort during an age of decreasing news media revenues. Even media foundations have their agendas to influence the future of news media toward certain interests and values.
Critics charged that news and social media companies were letting Trump and even more controversial groups like Isis use them for their own ends. The New York Times carried an opinion article titled The Facebook Intifada wherein the author Micah Lakin Avni decried how incitements on social media were provoking violence in Israel and Palestine. Avni, who lost his father to an attack, wrote, “Something new is happening today, and what Facebook, Twitter and the others must realize is that the question of incitement on social media isn’t just a logistical or financial question but, first and foremost, a moral one.”
In response to such criticisms Google announced that it is investing in tools to help “facts” come to the fore and backing projects to build “trust in media.” Facebook and Twitter argues that they are working to promote higher “quality information” through better curation or algorithms.
But is it wise to trust secretive media companies to serve as arbiters of what gets published, even in informal settings like social media? Didn’t that type of practice help to create the extreme distrust of news media by its audience? Arthur Brisbane, the former public editor of the New York Times, wrote in a column asking whether journalists ought to be “truth vigilantes.” “As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?… Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?” Brisbane was inundated with 322 commenters who mostly wanted the Times to challenge – not just fact check—“ignorance” and “lies.” However, both the columnist and his interlocutors only mentioned Republican “lies.”
Some sideline observers of the digital games threw out white flags against the pretentious shallowness of social news media. Their argument was that social media actually was just cotton-candy at a game that people were already riled up about. But social news media needed to be rooted in first-hand knowledge and sharp analysis if it actually wanted to change trends and not just go along for the ride.
The Iowa primary certainly demonstrated that old-fashioned person-to-person contacts was more effective than twitterati aroused crowds. For example, Trump’s use of social media was astute in generating social media buzz, news cycle domination, and motivate attention of the electorate. However, his rival Ted Cruz bet on personal contacts as a more effective way of motivating people toward voting for him. He visited all 99 counties in the state and utilized 15,000 volunteers to call or visit voters. All the polls indicated a strong Trump victory. In fact Cruz won handily. Person-to-person communication beat twitterati hands down.
Some critics were also not too impressed with the news media’s use of virtual reality. They decried the rise of emotion, empathy, and vividness as values for news stories that could short-circuit objectivity and skepticism.
A final concern is that despite a trend toward the pluralization of news media because of online alternatives, the rise of online news media is also creating a monopoly of East Coast viewpoints, which among media circles trend much more liberal and secular than the nation as a whole. Joshua Benton, founding director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, found that almost 40% of jobs listed in journalismjobs.com were located in New York, Washington, D.C., and their suburbs. In contrast only about 11% of newspaper jobs are located in these areas. He concluded, “…the increase in concentration is unmistakable…you’d expect it to make the media more liberal — culturally and conservative….one element of Donald Trump’s rise is a backlash against the sort of cultural cosmopolitanism that lots of people who’ve never taken the Acela feel is on the rise.”
Several large news media have a high priority to globalize their products. For example, The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, and Huffington Post recently opened European arms. A few smaller online news media also are experimenting with a global market. A Journey through NYC religions sent an editor and a reporter to Asia and Brazil to see if Journey journalism would work overseas. Politico also made some moves toward a European presence through a partnership with the German company Axel Springer. The move to Europe added to the tensions among the leaders at Politico that resulted in the announcement on January 28 that an exodus of talent would come later this year.
The power of the niche
Specialized online religion news media can have impact above the size of their operations when large issues and events touch upon religion. Nowhere is this more true than in this presidential election cycle.
In 2016 GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz lambasted Donald Trump for his “New York values.” By January 19 over 10,000 news stories were published concerning the uproar against Cruz’s attack on New York values. His attack got tripped by Trump’s response citing the heroism during and after the 911 attacks. A lame response by a Trump’s research advisor implied that New York City’s religious believers were less than the turnout for a good Abercrombie & Fitch sale.
Responses about the thickness of religious life in New York City overwhelmed the Cruz attack. The Jewish Forward speared the Cruz’s argument leaving it dying on the ground, “Cruz may think that New York hates religion… But … New York is basically the capital of American religion….” Citing many examples from A Journey through NYC religions, the Forward asked, “How do anti-urbanites like Cruz get away with ignoring New York’s incredible religious richness?”
However, Cruz’s supporters launched a last-minute video in the Iowa primary again attacking Trump’s New York values. So, they obviously think that the label has traction.
The Huffington Post lost its religion reporters and seems to have de-emphasized the importance of religion news in its strategy. Paul Raushenbush, founder of the religion section, moved over to Auburn Seminary and the Post‘s crack religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem highed off to California. The online media organization was looking for a reporter to augment founder Arianna Huffington’s new interest in sleep. Over the summer of 2016, Huffington announced that she was leaving the Huffington Post.
The decline of the Huffington Post’s religion section also pointed to the evangelical Christian dominance of the religion media market. HuffPo had attempted to ride investments into religion news on the backs of that market by hosting evangelical Christian columnists, who wrote for free or for very low renumeration.
In September, Beliefnet, which itself had left news reporting behind as it became a Christian spirituality blog, announced that it had absorbed Patheos.com, which was attempting to make a go at serving multiple religious audiences. BN Media, the owner of Beliefnet, in gauzy tones assured readers, that the two sites would “continue to remain separate and true to themselves.” Regardless of the outcome, neither site has focused resources on design for religion news reporting.
Online religion news has the opportunity to develop immersive, six senses journalism (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, believing and remembering). Laura Poitras of the online documentary site Intercept opened an exhibition, “Astro Noise” at the Whitney Museum in February to provide a more emotional understanding of the news about government surveillance. Her previous work on the Edward Snowden revelations won her a share of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and an Academy Award for her documentary film “Citizenfour.”
“New stories don’t satisfy on a human level,” she said. “We know that Guantanamo is still open, but do we really know what that means? The idea is to experience an emotional understanding, so it’s not just an intellectual abstraction.”
Next Fall, Rebecca Solnit will publish her cartography of New York City, Nonstop Metropolis. Her maps are visual tours of her subjective view of the essence of a city. San Francisco is the “Infinite City,” and New Orleans, the “Drowned City.”
One notable contribution to Nonstop Metropolis is expected to be a walk through the streets of the city in order to observe how religious sites and groups integrate with city culture. Solnit is planning an immersive experience at the Queens Museum.