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As newspapers go, so goes civic participation February 21, 2014

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News for the newspaper industry hasn’t been good. Gannett, which owns more than 80 major newspapers, reported at the end of 2013 that it was down $1 billion in advertising for the year. For other newspapers, the slide has been ongoing for seven years. In fact, according to the 2013 State of the News Media report, print advertising is down 45 percent since 2006. It’s no surprise that major newspapers have been closing up shop completely, or cutting the majority of their employees to focus on online presence.

We know what’s happening to the newspaper. But what’s happening to the communities that lose those newspapers? According to a recently published study by Lee Shaker of Portland State University, civic engagement has declined in cities that recently experienced the death of newspapers. Shaker, who studied Denver and Seattle, both cities that lost majors newspapers, found that without the same local news across districts and boundaries citizens aren’t as likely to respond to pressing issues in a clear, coherent voice.

For more on what happens after newspapers close up shop, watch the following video about New Orleans and the Times Picayune:

Discussion Questions:

1. What role does the news play in democratic life?

2.  What is the relationship between a vibrant newspaper industry and civic activism? Why can’t activism thrive as well in an era of online news?

3. How does news consumption change, if at all, when it depends exclusively on online sources?

Staying relevant: Facebook makes huge purchase February 21, 2014

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Facebook is a giant in its own right. But with billions of dollars in value and the expectation of rapid growth, the company has been on the lookout to purchase other up-and-coming tech companies. In 2012, the company bought Instagram for $1 billion. More recently, it attempted to buy SnapChat for $3 billion. The latest news of a deal by Facebook is more stunning than anything it’s done thus far, though. In February 2014, Facebook announced that it was buying WhatsApp, a mobile messaging service, for $19 billion.

Insane price? Many experts actually think that Facebook is making a good move. WhatsApp has over 450 million users, and is projected to hit 1 billion in no time. Its users send over 600 million photos a day,19 billion messages, 200 million voice messages, and 100 million videos.  Moreover, 70 percent are active everyday, beating the 62 percent of Facebook users who are log in every 24 hours. Perhaps most importantly, WhatsApp is quickly growing in Europe, India, and Latin America, and is getting more popular among teens who have already started to move on from Facebook. That’s good news for this acquisition, especially since WhatsApp raises revenue by charging $1 for the app.

Want further proof that Facebook’s move is popular? Investors are betting on the company. While a few brokerage firms are expressing caution about purchasing the company’s stock, most are telling people to buy up. As RBC Capital Markets stated, “Facebook is the leading global social-sharing utility. Now, it has a significant opportunity to be the leading global communications utility.”

For more on this big news story, see the following video:

Discussion Questions:

1.  Why is WhatsApp worth so much more than SnapChat and Instagram?

2.  How can Facebook make money off WhatsApp?

3.  What can WhatsApp offer Facebook that its own service cannot?

The Mac turns 30 February 16, 2014

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The Mac turned 30 years old in January 2014, and it’s obviously come very far since 1984. Introduced as a personal computer with 8 MHz and a simple to use interface, the new iMac now sports a 3.4 GHz processor. But what are the prospects for the Mac in the future? According to some experts, the personal computer has some serious competition. Even at Apple, for instance, both the iPad and the iPhone are becoming increasingly popular. As Dan Moren of macworld.com recently wrote:

“With these other product lines contributing so much of Apple’s overall revenue and sales, it sometimes seems as though the old Macintosh is to Apple what bicycles eventually became to Land Rover: a once-profitable sideline business that has now reached technological and market maturity. Even revolutionary products and inventions have their peaks and valleys.”

However, Moren continued:

“For now, though, Apple’s success of recent years shows no signs of abating, and that means the Mac will be with us until it’s no longer profitable. We’re a long way from the doldrums of the 1990s, and despite any worry that the Mac has found itself overshadowed by its smaller, sleeker cousins, the rising tide of the iPad and iPhone have lifted the Mac’s boat, too.”

To see the now legendary introduction of the Mac, watch the following video from 1983:

Discussion Questions:

1.  How did the Mac revolutionize personal computers?

2.  How have other Mac products led an evolution of the personal computer?

3.  Are there current technologies that may push the personal computer to extinction?

Comcast gobbles up TIme Warner; What does it mean for you? February 16, 2014

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Comcast shocked the country in February with an announcement that it was buying Time Warner Cable for $45 billion. The deal unites the two largest cable providers in the United States, allowing the new mammoth company to better compete with the challenges from satellite providers, phone companies, and streaming services.

As the merger creates an entity with at least 30% of the market cornered, many critics have been scared about the long term implications of the deal. For consumers, there are some realistic consequences. While the two companies don’t compete, and subscribers for both will benefit from shared services, prices are likely to go up and Comcast’s model of limiting data is likely to become an industrial norm.

For more on the huge deal, see the following video:

Discussion Questions:

1.  Does the Comcast-Time Warner merger create a cable monopoly? Why, or why not?

2.  How might consumers benefit from the mega merger?

3.  How might consumers, and even the marketplace, be harmed by such a deal?

There’s a war, and Netflix is winning February 15, 2014

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Are you among the millions of people excited about House of Cards season 2 launching this month? Have you joined the legions of people canceling their cable television for cheaper streaming alternatives? From the looks of it, Netflix is on its way to crushing its cable competition. CEO Reed Hastings recently announced 2.3 million new subscribers in the last quarter of 2013 and $50 million more dollars in profits. Moreover, House of Cards won awards at the Golden Globes, proving that its ability to provide original content is a clear threat to cable’s way of life. Scrapping ads, providing full seasons, and attracting talented actors for original series is proving to be a winning recipe for Netflix.

Netflix hasn’t exactly won this battle yet. It faces more competition from Amazon Prime and Hulu. Yet, the company’s fortunes have changed dramatically since its Quickster debacle.

For more Netflix challenging cable content providers, see the following video:

Discussion Questions:

1.  Why are consumers cutting cable and moving to streaming services?

2. How can cable television better compete in this evolving market?

3.  How will the war between Netflix and cable be won?

Grantland caught in ugly controversy when article leads to suicide February 15, 2014

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Grantland specializes in in-depth stories about sports. A recent investigative report called “Dr. V’s Magic Putter” led to harsh criticism of the website, though, after the character of the story committed suicide. Essay Anne Vanderbilt designed a golf putter that received widespread praise, but the writer of the article found several facts about the creator didn’t add up. The author, Caleb Hannon, found that Vanderbilt was not the creator’s real name, that her personal history was mostly fabricated, and that she was actually born a “he.” Vanderbilt criticized Hannon publicly, and asked that the piece not be published. After failing to convince Grantland to spike the story, she tragically ended her life.

What did Grantland do wrong? Well, its editor and creator, journalist Bill Simmons, has been pretty forthcoming about all of that. Simmons admits that Hannon erred when outing Dr. V while she was still alive. As Simmons stated:

“I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.”

Simmons added:

“To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.”

Simmons claimed that Hannon, a young journalist, thought he was doing his job. And he was to some extent, since he was simply “verifying discrepancy issues.” However, the reporting and the editing missed more sensitive issues with the story, and may have played a role in a great tragedy. Simmons didn’t hide that fact.

For more on this story, see the following video:

Discussion Questions:

1.  After reviewing the video above, why do you think some believe that Hannon was careless in his reporting?

2.  What specific journalism ethics may Hannon have violated?

3.  Is there a defense for Hannon’s reporting? If so, what is it?

Small market Super Bowl ad goes viral February 6, 2014

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Super Bowl ads notoriously cost millions for less than a minute of time. Yet, sometimes companies find ways to get the audience without paying an arm and a leg. One strategy is to produce a rejected ad, and promote it via social media. Another strategy, recently mastered by George lawyer Jamie Casino, is to blow the socks off a local market. As the New York Daily News detailed in a recent story, Casino created an amazing 2-minute ad airing in the Savannah area during halftime. Casino’s ad was narrative driven, focusing on the 2012 death of his brother and the sheriff’s alleged failures and insensitivity in investigating the crime. Oh, yeah. There was also heavy metal music. And fire. And religion.  The spot went viral quickly, with millions of views within days.

Describing his strategy, Casino said that he simply used his own equipment for filming and used a crew for a few days. Guessing why his ad went viral, Casino argued, “You must tell it in a cinematic way. It makes it more appealing. People like movies and it looks like a movie trailer. How can I tell a story that people will want to watch?”

To see the ad yourself, watch it here:

Discussion Questions:

1.  What makes an advertisement go viral? How did the ad for Casino’s law firm exhibit those characteristics?

2.  Why do companies continue to spend so much on Super Bowl ads, when they might be able to reach huge audiences through cheaper viral marketing?

3.  Has the internet leveled the playing field for companies by allowing viral ads to reach huge audiences for less money? Why, or why not?

Addressing the rumor mill: Midwest meteorologists respond to super storm fears February 6, 2014

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It was an odd situation. Meteorologists across the Midwest were repeatedly asked about a super storm that was about to hit the region and dump several feet of snow. A storm was coming, for sure, but it was nothing like the monster that some described. Nevertheless, the National Weather Service found it necessary to address the public panic via social media. Addressing rumors like this is unusual, but the organization found that the fears were rampant online.

Where did the rumors come from? According to journalists following the situation, the National Weather Service typically produces models predicting weather about 10 days in advance. Sometimes models predict further out, but the predictions are notoriously unreliable beyond 10 days. Someone, however, took those predictions for the storm hitting in early February and began circulating images. And the Snowmageddon 2014 story was born.

For more on how rumors thrive in online environments, see the following video:

Discussion Questions:

1.  How do rumors go viral?

2.  What similarities are there between political rumors, as described in the video above, and rumors about the Snowmageddon event?

3.  When should organizations address rumors? More specifically, what are the risks of addressing them?

Andrea Mitchell, Justin Bieber, and a horribly sad example of soft news January 26, 2014

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With the rise of the 24/7 news cycle, along with shrinking budgets forcing news rooms to get more creative, a lot of the news media has ramped up its coverage of “soft news.” Switch on the nightly news, for example, and you’re more likely to read about celebrities of the moment and their dating lives. Magazines, too, are more likely to contain personal stories about recognizable stars than in-depth investigative news stories.

Need an example of soft news and its dominance today? MSNBC recently received some heat for interrupting an interview between veteran anchor Andrea Mitchell and congresswoman Jane Harman on the issue of NSA surveillance to report on the arrest of actor Justin Bieber. The singer was arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving in Miami, Florida, and booked after resisting his arrest. This comes after new cable news outlets like Al Jazeera and Fusion have indicated a refusal to do too much celebrity news, while traditional news outlets have denied their dependence on soft news but jumped at the chance to cover it.

For more on the Bieber break, see the following clip:

Discussion Questions:

1. What is soft news? Why is it necessary in the modern business model for news media?

2.  Why do consumers like soft news, and why are they simultaneously depressed by that kind of coverage?

3.  What does the “Bieber break” say, if anything, about the role of the news media in modern democracy?

Lena Dunham covers Vogue, sparks awkward photoshop debate January 26, 2014

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Lena Dunham, the young star of HBO’s hit show Girls, is well known for her natural curves and rounded shoulders. She’s long been labeled as un-Hollywood for her looks, which describes a lot of her appeal to fans (in addition to her comedic genius), and the actress is not afraid to make viewers of her show feel uncomfortable with her body (she is frequently nude). In this context, Dunham sparked quite the controversy recently after appearing on the cover of Vogue with images that seemed photoshopped. Feminist website Jezebel was so convinced the photos were faked that they offered $10,000 for the original images, which led to accusations that the site was engaging in fat-shaming.

For her part, Dunham kept a cool head. She tweeted, saying, “Some s–t is just too ridiculous to engage,” and then encouraged doubters to take their money and simply order HBO. Vogue also released some of the original pics to refute notions of trickery.

For more on this story, see the following video:

Discussion Questions:

1.  Why would some Dunham fans feel betrayed if she was photoshopped by Vogue? Why is such photo editing seen as unethical by some people?

2.  Did Jezebel cross a line by offering money for the real pics? Why, or why not?

3.  How was Dunham’s response to the fiasco? Did she give the criticism enough serious consideration?