New Jersey’s Media Landscape: Can It Help Us Understand the Emerging Framework of Politics and Democracy in the Internet Age?

Written by Richard A. Lee

Richard A. Lee

Richard A. Lee, who has more than 30 years of professional experience in journalism, government and politics in New Jersey, is an assistant professor in the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University. Read more of Rich's columns at richleeonline and follow him on Twitter @richleeonline.

Wednesday, 09 November 2011 16:29

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Abstract

Although technology has changed significantly throughout the history of American journalism, the role of the news media in a democratic society has remained relatively constant – to ensure an informed citizenry. The technological advances provided by the Internet, however, have been so great that they have dramatically altered the manner in which news is reported and consumed. In this chapter, I examine the roles of the media, government and the citizenry in this new environment, paying particular attention to any changes in agenda setting, which traditionally has been the province of the media.

 

 



 

Introduction

Technology has played a role in many of the significant changes in American journalism, and that role generally has been twofold. First, there is an immediate impact, which takes place as news organizations use the new technology for improvements, such as gathering and reporting news more quickly and reaching larger groups of people at reduced costs. The secondary – and in the long-term, the more significant – impact is the cultural result of reaching more people with the news and reaching them in a different manner. This is a change that has the potential to affect not only the general citizenry, but also government, politics and the quality of democracy, wrote media economics scholar Robert G. Picard (2008) in an essay published in The Politics of News (2008, p. 223).

Today, with the Internet, we are in the midst of a great technological change (perhaps the greatest to date), and this change is creating a new era in American journalism. The development and proliferation of the Internet already has radically altered the manner in which news is reported and consumed. As Gary C. Woodward, a communications studies professor at The College of New Jersey, observed: “Common civic functions – campaign fundraising, consciousness-raising activities, and journalism, to name three – have already been significantly altered (2007, p. 79).”

However, even though tremendous technological changes already have occurred, we only have experienced the first phase of the impact of the Internet – the purely technological one. We have yet to fully experience the greater cultural impact that will result from the Internet (Kerbel). We are a bit like the bewildered Mr. Jones (a fictional character believed to be a journalist) in Bob Dylan’s (1965) “Ballad of a Thin Man” who exemplify the lyric of “you know something is happening but you don’t know what it is.”

In this chapter, I will attempt to shed some light on “what it is” by first discussing how technological advances historically have affected media and democracy, with a more detailed focus on the impact of the Internet and its role in American politics. Specifically, I will examine New Jersey’s 2005 and 2009 gubernatorial elections and explore the impact of the Internet on media, government and the citizenry during this four-year period, paying particular attention to any changes in agenda setting, which traditionally has been the province of the media.

There is a likelihood that the dynamics of the agenda-setting process are changing, shifting away from the media. Because the Internet makes it possible to track website traffic, news content is increasingly being determined – not by journalists or by news value, but instead by companies and individuals with the technological expertise to match content with audience preferences. As a result, news content becomes a reflection of audience preferences, effectively giving the public a greater role in the agenda-setting process, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted in its State of the News Media Report 2010 (2011).

While the changes emerging from the growth of the Internet are many and varied, any changes in the agenda-setting process would be among the most important because research has shown that the media have been setting the agenda not just for the public, but also for government leaders whose decisions determine public policy (Cook et al, 1983).

Media and Democracy

When the idea of democracy developed thousands of years ago in ancient Greece, philosophers thought a democratic system would not endure with more than 30,000 people because that was the number of people who could climb on a hill in Athens to see and hear one speaker at a time (Swerdlow, 1988). Americans live today in a democracy of more than 300 million people. It is not perfect, but it has endured. And among the many reasons for democracy’s survival in America and other democratic nations is the technology that enables an individual to reach far more than 30,000 people at a time.

Over the years, with each successive advance in technology, it became possible not only to reach more and more people, but also to reach them more quickly. James Carey (1989) wrote that the telegraph was able to collapse the constraints of time and space by allowing people from one side of the world to communicate almost instantaneously with someone on the other side of the world. What Carey articulated about the telegraph is applicable to other technological advances such as radio, television and the Internet. Telegraph communication was primitive by today’s standards, but it marked a revolutionary change in how people communicated across distances and over time. This revolutionary change became greater with radio and television and now has reached remarkable levels with the advent and proliferation of the Internet.

Although technology has changed significantly, the role of the news media in a democratic society has remained relatively constant – to ensure an informed citizenry. Political theorists and media scholars believe the media must not only inform the public, but also provide information that represents a full range of ideas and opinions. “The basic tenets of democracy hold that through the airing of such views citizens will be able to choose the most meritorious from among the ideas and that society will be advanced,” according to Picard.

Conversely, if the news media fail to expose citizens to dissenting and divergent opinions, they effectively reinforce the power of dominant ruling elites; self-governance becomes flawed, and democracy does not operate as it should. As Ben Bagdikian explains in The New Media Monopoly (2004), it is essential for the news media in a democratic society “to provide the balance that best serves rational decision making among the public at large” (p. 87).

Sociologist Herbert Gans (2003) raises an interesting question about the media’s role in democracy. Even if the media performs its role admirably and presents the complete picture, what guarantee is there that citizens will listen? “Journalists are not very curious about how the news audience becomes an informed citizenry, but merely supplying them with information does not make them into informed citizens,” he wrote in Democracy and the News (p. 56). To ensure that citizens do digest the material the media provide, Gans suggests an additional responsibility for journalists, namely incorporating motivational, rhetorical and educational techniques into their work.

Gans’s suggestions sound good in theory, but in reality, the news industry is hemorrhaging. Now is not the opportune time to take on new responsibilities, even if they are critical to the American democratic system of governance. However, because diminished resources are making it increasingly difficult for news organizations to keep the citizenry informed, there is ample reason for concern about the future of American democracy and also a need to develop new methods to provide the public with news and information, Princeton University professor Paul Starr (2009) argues in an article in The New Republic. “Along with other new technology, the Internet was supposed to bring us a cornucopia of information, and in many respects it has done so,” Starr wrote. “But if one of its effects is to shrink the production of professionally reported news, perhaps we need to understand the emerging framework of post-industrial society and politics somewhat differently” (p. 29).

In this chapter, I will attempt to help answer Starr’s challenge by examining the emerging framework of the media landscape in the 21st Century and exploring its impact on the news industry, on politics and government, and on democracy in America. Indeed, if the work of the media is essential to a healthy democracy, as media scholars suggest, then it is important to ensure a healthy media. This is a challenge that is more difficult than ever to meet, given the state of the industry and the drive for profit which led to consolidations and cutbacks before the Internet dramatically altered the manner in which the news is reported and consumed, placing new demands on news organizations at a time when personnel and resources had been depleted. “Newspaper owners look at one another and say, ‘Our rate of return is slipping a bit; let's solve that problem by making our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting,’ ” the late Molly Ivins, a popular newspaper columnist, told Barbara Bedway of Editor & Publisher in 2006.

The Internet also has undercut the economic structure that supports the industry at the worst possible time – the midst of a global fiscal crisis. Revenue once made from classified ads has all but disappeared, as a result of Craigslist, which offers free online classified as. Meanwhile, larger advertisers, such as retail stores and car companies, are finding that the Internet offers less expensive and more effective ways of reaching potential.

Technology and its Impact on American Journalism

There have been several distinct periods in the history of American journalism, among them times dominated by a partisan press, the penny press, muckrakers, sensationalism, television and the Internet era. While it is impossible to define a specific start and end point for each period, technology has played a role in many of the significant changes in American journalism. For example, advances in printing technology and the ability to manufacture paper more cheaply made it possible to print larger numbers of newspapers and to reduce their purchase price to just one cent, hence the penny press (Cook, 1983). Likewise, developments in photography and transportation (railroads) helped popularize the investigative reporting of the muckrakers (Feldstein).

The role that technology plays is twofold. First, there is an immediate impact, which takes place as news organizations use the new technology for improvements, such as gathering and reporting the news more quickly and reaching larger groups of people at reduced costs. The secondary – and in the long-term, the more significant – impact is the result of reaching more people with the news and reaching them in a different manner, such as with the immediacy we now experience with the Internet. This is in effect a cultural change that has the potential to affect the quality of democracy. As Villanova University Political Science Professor Matthew R. Kerbel explains in his 2009 book Netroots, although technological advances such as the telegraph, radio and television eventually “factored into the most important political transformations in our history” (p. 16), each was in inexistence for some time before it was used in a manner that resulted in a significant cultural change.

Continuing with the penny press example cited above, advances in printing technology and the ability to manufacture paper not only made the penny press possible, but also brought the news to a whole new class of people. No longer were newspapers the sole province of the rich and powerful who could use them to promote their own partisan interests (Starr, 2009).

Today, we are in the midst of another great change (perhaps the greatest to date), and that change is creating a new era in American journalism. I suggest that we are at pivotal juncture in that we already have experienced the first phase of the impact of the Internet – the purely technological one. Kerbel is correct when he writes that the Internet is still in its adolescence: “If history is an apt guide, it is likely that time will pass before this secret is entirely unlocked” (2009, p. 38). Despite the tremendous changes that already have taken place, we have yet to fully understand the greater impact that will result from a truly 24/7 news cycle that not only allows consumers to be more selective and interactive than ever, but may also make them a greater part of the agenda-setting process.

In fact, some studies have found that the Internet has yet to significantly alter news content. In reviewing news coverage of the 2008 presidential election, Georgetown University Associate Professor Diana Owen concluded that online election media “amplified the coverage of mainstream media” in “newfangled and sometimes more elaborate” formats, adding:

Audience preferences for particular types of delivery systems for news have changed, as people are abandoning hard-copy newspapers in favor of online sites,. However, these sites contain much of the same core content that is produced by professional print journalists. (2009a, pp.19, 23)

University of Michigan media technology professor W. Russell Neuman reached a similar conclusion and noted that, for the most part, the public is using the Internet more for entertainment than for public affairs: “It is a familiar pattern in the development of new media. Those who already have an interest in and knowledge about public affairs are those most likely to take advantage of the new resources” (2008, p. 243).

The Impact of the Internet on the Electoral Process

Ever since the Clinton-Gore campaign used a primitive version of the Internet to keep in contact with staff members in 1992, it seems that every successive election was labeled as a “net election” that would change the nature of politicking. Clearly, the Internet has been responsible for many changes and innovations since that 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign. Candidates began establishing web presences as early as the 1994 mid-term elections. “The efforts were crude compared with applications emerging in e-commerce and online gaming, yet they produced enough excitement so that by 1996 nearly all major candidates for office hosted a web site dedicated to their campaign,” Danielle R. Wiese and Bruce E. Gronbeck (2005) wrote in “Campaign 2004 Developments in Cyberpolitics,” a chapter in The 2004 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective (p. 219).

By 2000, candidates had moved beyond web pages and were using the Internet to recruit volunteers, raise money, and mobilize supporters. As the 2004 campaign began, Howard Dean, through the efforts of his campaign manager Joe Trippi, introduced a set of new dynamics and innovations to American campaigns, among them news-pegged fundraising appeals, “meetups,” and other net-organized local gatherings, and online referenda that allowed supporters to become part of the decision-making process. “Indeed this campaign cycle was a turning point, because the web and email became a dominant medium for both candidates seeking to communicate with the electorate and the public who tuned to the Internet as an information source,” Andrew Paul Williams (2005) wrote in “The Main Frame: Assessing the Role of the Internet in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Contest,” another chapter in The 2004 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective (p. 241).

The 2008 presidential campaign did more than merely continue the trend of increased use of the Internet. “The American public was more interested in the 2008 campaign than in any other in over 20 years, and attention to news reached new heights,” Owen (2009b) wrote in The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House. Owen found that online media had the biggest election-related audience gains: “Fifty-six percent of the public reported that they had gotten at least some news online, an increase of 15 percentage points over 2004. Thirty-six percent of the public named the Internet as their main source of election news.” Mirroring earlier patterns and trends, audiences for traditional media (print and network television) declined.

The presence of a charismatic candidate such as Barack Obama and the historic nature of the campaign clearly contributed to the increased interest in the election. The Obama campaign used technology so creatively and effectively that it may have permanently altered the dynamics of politics in America, and possibly in the world. “We were the Wright brothers proving that you could actually fly,” Trippi told New York Magazine columnist John Heilemann for a 2009 article. “Four years later, the Obama campaign is landing a man on the moon.”

Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, believes Barack Obama would not have become president had there not been an Internet (Heilemann, 2009). Through the web, Obama raised unprecedented sums from small donors and built a large grassroots network that helped to propel him to the White House. Heilemann noted the campaign’s grassroots network included:

  • 13 million e-mail addresses, including at least 3 million donors;
  • 2 million active users and 35,000 self-starting affinity groups on MyBarackObama.com;
  • 1 million cell-phone numbers of people who requested the campaign send text messages to them.

“They have basically invented their own party that is compatible with the Democratic Party but is bigger than the Democratic Party,” Republican consultant Stuart Stevens told Heilemann (2009). “Their e-mail list is more powerful than the DNC or RNC.”

One of the most significant developments that occurred during the Obama campaign and the elections that followed is the ability of candidates to bypass the media and communicate directly to voters. Citizens no longer need to rely on newspapers, radio and television to gather and deliver information about the candidates and their platforms (Calderon, 2010). Political information has become more readily accessible than ever. However, it often bypasses the gatekeepers of traditional journalism, whose role it is to scrutinize, challenge and verify information before it is provided to the public. Instead, campaigns now post their press releases, photos and videos online and email them directly to voters. For example, some campaign consultants contend that it no longer matters greatly if reporters show up to cover press conferences since campaigns can now record the conferences and send video clips to their contact lists. Christian Archer, who managed San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro’s successful 2008 campaign, made a similar observation about the advantages social media offers: “A lot of this stuff will never get covered. We’re able to communicate a lot of smaller things that might not make the 6 o’clock news, but yet are still important” (Calderon, 2010).

The implications of this trend are significant. If voters rely more heavily on unfiltered information from campaigns (as they may, due to the popularity of the Internet as an information source and the downturn in the media industry which has limited the content and quality of many new organizations), they are less likely to obtain the objective, factual information required to make informed choices in the voting booth. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (2009), this creates the potential for negative consequences:

All this makes it easier for those who would manipulate public opinion - government, interest groups and corporations - to deliver unchecked messages, through independent outlets or their own faux-news Web sites, video and text news releases and paid commentators.

On the other hand, political consultants acknowledge that, while the Internet and social networks are effective at mobilizing and energizing core supporters, they have been far less successful at moving undecided voters. In addition, despite the tremendous growth of the Internet, television still remains the public’s primary source for campaign information (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2011), so the impact of electoral materials that are provided through the Internet must be measured within this context.

Moreover, the Internet already has shown that it can be a useful tool in exposing falsehoods and exaggerations by candidates and elected officials. “A common characteristic of politicians in search of votes – a propensity to puffery – has run head on into an aggressive new culture that subjects them to 24-hour flyspecking by opponents, bloggers, the mainstream media and regular citizens,” Adam Nagourney (2010) wrote in a New York Times article about candidates who issued public apologies for exaggerating their military records.

Literature Review & Theoretical Framework

In the early years of the 21st Century, American journalism is experiencing a myriad of major changes resulting from the rise of the Internet and the downturn in the economy. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (2009), there has been a significant change in how people obtain news and information:

People are relying more heavily – both during peak moments and in general – on platforms that can deliver news when audiences want it rather than at appointed times, a sign of a growing ‘on-demand’ news culture. People increasingly want the news they want when they want it.

At the same time, the study found that the business side of the news industry continued to struggle. Only two news platforms – the Internet and cable television – grew during 2009; gains in both platforms were event-specific. Print newspapers fared particularly poorly in 2009. Circulation for daily newspapers in 2009 was 4.6% lower than in 2008 and 4.8% lower for Sunday papers. Since 2001, circulation has declined 13.5% daily and 17.3% Sundays.

Longtime newspaper editor John Carroll (2006) foresees a problem emerging from the growing popularity of the Internet as a source for news sites, coupled with the decline of newspapers. He contends that the majority of original news reporting is conducted by print journalists, and then followed up by radio and television and aggregated onto Internet news sites. As Carroll explained in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors:

If, then, in the worst case, newspapers fade away, and if nobody else steps forward to provide a new army of rock-turners, what will the American public know in the future? What stories will go untold? What issues unraised? What will serious-minded people have to talk about? (p. 7).

Starr (2009) takes things a step further when he warns about the implications of the decline of newspapers. Starr argues that reduced news coverage jeopardizes the integrity of government and the future of American democracy. He also suggests that corruption is more likely to flourish when those in power have less reason to fear exposure. “More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems,” he wrote (p. 28).

A case study by Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido (2009) supports Starr’s theory. The two authors examined communities affected by the closing of The Cincinnati Post at the end of 2007. “In towns the Post regularly covered, voter turnout dropped, fewer people ran for office and more incumbents were reelected,” Time magazine reporter Belinda Luscombe wrote in a March 2009 article about the study. “That is, when there were fewer stories about a given town, its inhabitants seemed to care less about how they're being governed.”

If the decline in the popularity will in fact weaken democracy, demographics offer little hope that the trend to favor the Internet over print is likely to change. Newspaper audiences are growing older, and the generation coming of age today grew up in an era in which the Internet was a primary source of information. In a May 2004 study of 18- to 34-year olds that was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, only 8% said they planned to use newspapers as a news source over the next three years. The Internet, with 39%, was the most popular response, followed by local television with 14% and cable TV with 10%. “This audience, the future news consumers and leaders of a complex, modern society, are abandoning the news as we've known it, and it's increasingly clear that a great number of them will never return to daily newspapers and the national broadcast news programs,” concluded Carnegie Reporter writer Merrill Brown (2005).

In addition to the age factor, the proliferation of handheld devices that offer Internet access provides another convenient alternative to print newspapers. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, nearly one-fifth of all Americans use the Internet on a mobile device each day. A survey conducted by the center found that the number of Americans who used a handheld device to access the Internet increased by 73% between 2007 and 2009. Although the survey did not delve into what content the respondents were viewing on the Internet, the numbers do suggest an increasing comfort level with accessing information such as news on handheld devices. As one indication of future trends, 53% of the young people (in this case 18- to 29-year olds) polled said they had used the Internet on a handheld device. This exceeded the overall average of all groups by 21 percentage points (Horrigan).

Agenda Setting

Researchers have found that when news organizations place attention on an issue, it results in increased public attention. As far back as 1922, Walter Lippmann suggested that the news media were a primary source for the public’s image of public affairs. Fifty years later, Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw (1972) examined the relationship between what the media report and the issues deemed important by the public and found that the media “exerted a considerable impact” on what the public regarded as the major issues. Their study, The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media, compared what voters identified as the key issues in the 1968 presidential campaign with the content of the news media they used to obtain information about the race. “Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position,” they wrote.

Since 1972, the “agenda setting” concept that McCombs and Shaw identified has been supported by more than 300 hundred published studies, which were conducted in a wide variety of formats both inside and outside of the United States. For example, a study by Lutz Erbring, Edie N. Goldenberg and Arthur H. Miller (1980) showed that heavy news coverage of a particular issue made that issue more salient for readers and viewers. “Issue coverage in the media serves as a trigger stimulus to salience perceptions,” they wrote in Front-Page News and Real World Cues: A New Look at Agenda-Setting by the Media.

Research by a team of seven scholars took things a step further in 1983. In Media and Agenda Setting: Effects on the Public, Interest Group Leaders, Policy Makers, and Policy (Cook et al), the authors demonstrated that media attention on an issue resonated even stronger with policymakers. The study compared two groups’ attitudes and opinions about home health care fraud. One group had viewed a national television report on the issue; the other had not. The members of the general public who watched the program placed a higher priority on the issue than those who had not, but it also had a more dramatic impact on government policy makers. “It altered governmental policy elites’ perception of the issue’s importance, their belief that policy action was necessary, and their perception of the public’s view of issue importance,” they wrote. As a result, after the program aired, a Congressional Subcommittee launched an investigation into the problem of home health care fraud. The panel’s hearings brought national attention to the issue and recommendations for new laws to curb abuse in federal home health care programs.

In an even more consequential example from 2001, then-Illinois Governor George Ryan announced a moratorium on executions and the creation of a special commission to study death penalty reform after the Chicago Tribune published a multi-part series that exposed flaws in the state’s legal system that may have led to individuals being wrongly sentenced to death. The series, which won a Pulitzer Prize, included numerous articles and editorials published over a period of four years (Ettema, 2007).

The research conducted by the scholars cited here – and others – provides evidence that a nexus has existed between frequent and well-placed news coverage of an issue and the importance placed upon that issue by audiences, which include not only members of the general public, but also decision makers with the power to actually effectuate change. However, more recent research and analyses indicates that the media’s agenda-setting role is declining.

For example, in the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2010 State of the Media Report (2011), the study’s authors, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell, suggested that the news industry has lost control of its future. They contended that content is increasingly being determined – not by journalists and news value, but instead by companies and individuals with the technological expertise to match content with audience preferences. They argued:

In a media world where consumers decide what news they want to get and how they want to get it, the future will belong to those who understand the public’s changing behavior and can target content and advertising to snugly fit the interests of each user. That knowledge – and the expertise in gathering it – increasingly resides with technology companies outside journalism.

Since nearly all news organizations rely heavily on revenue from advertisers to support their operation and generate profits, the ability to connect advertisers has long been a fundamental component of successful media companies (Starr, 2009). In the 21st Century, however, technology has emerged as a new and more effective intermediary (Rosenstiel and Mitchell, 2011).

“Of the many changes that the Internet has delivered to the nation's newsrooms, the ability to measure traffic for a given story, blog or video may be among the most profound,” Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote in a September 2010 article for American Journalism Review. Farhi noted:

Publishers, editors and advertisers have always tried to ascertain the public's preferences. But audience research and reader surveys were invariably slow and backward-looking. Until the Internet came along with its server logs and audience metrics, no system gave editors a near-instantaneous verdict on their editorial decisions. For centuries, journalists divined what the public wanted to know essentially by guessing about it.

Farhi also acknowledged that The Post has used items “with dubious or tenuous news value,” such as celebrity photo galleries, polls and trending topics on Twitter and Google to draw people to its website:

High-minded headlines and stories about foreign wars, the federal deficit or environmental despoilage might have paid the bills in the age of Murrow and Cronkite, but they only go so far these days. Shark videos and ‘naked Lady Gaga’ headlines get major play on ‘serious’ news sites for an obvious and no longer terribly shocking reason: They draw traffic.

While such practices may still raise eyebrows inside newsrooms at journalism stalwarts such as The Post, newer organizations have put policies into place that leave little room for discretion over content. According to veteran Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten, AOL’s chief executive officer, Tim Armstrong, has ordered the company’s news editors to use website traffic, profitability and turnaround time to evaluate potential stories. “Note all the things that come before the quality of the work or its contribution to the public interest and you've arrived at an essential difference between journalism and content,” Rutten wrote in a February 2011 column on the impact of AOL's acquisition of The Huffington Post.

Why Focus on New Jersey?

New Jersey is an appropriate place to study the past, present and future of American journalism. “New Jersey is just a more extreme version of almost every other state in the union,” Mark Lisheron observed in an American Journalism Review article on media trends.

One of the consequences of New Jersey being the most densely populated state in the nation is that public policy issues often emerge there before they affect the rest of the country. Likewise, New Jersey is among the first to react and respond to them. For example, when the automobile became affordable in the 1920s, thousands of New Jerseyans purchased cars, leading to the construction of the state’s basic roadwork years before other parts of the nation had the traffic volume to necessitate such actions (Lee, 2008). Similarly, in the mid-1980s New Jersey began running out of landfill space for its garbage while states in the Midwest and elsewhere still had plenty of room. New Jersey responded with mandatory recycling – long before similar initiatives took place in other parts of the country. In addition, the state’s large number of pollution and contamination problems eventually resulted in New Jersey becoming a national leader in identifying and cleaning up toxic sites (Kean, 1988). More recently, New Jersey enacted health care reform that contained many of the same provisions included in the national health care reform bill that President Obama signed into law nearly two years later (Washburn, 2008).

When it comes to the news industry, there is even more reason to view New Jersey as a microcosm of the nation. As with other public policy issues, New Jersey could once again be the first state to experience – and react to – changes in the media landscape. This is because the downturn in the economy and the rise of the Internet have hit the print media particularly hard (PEW Research Center). New Jersey is a state without a major television station, so its residents have long relied on newspapers for news about their home state (Aumente, 2007). As a result, declining circulation and cutbacks at newspapers are likely to have a greater effect on New Jerseyans than residents of other states (Weingart, 2009). The impact will be experienced in two phases as noted at the outset of this proposal – phase one being the cutbacks and layoffs, and phase two, the impact on public policy.

Another important reason to study New Jersey is the fact that demographics in the Garden State mirror those of the nation. For this very reason, Cherry Hill, N.J., has become one of the nation’s most popular and useful sites for focus groups (M. Kern, personal communication, November 24, 2009). New Jersey also resonates with national audiences, according to The New York Times. In an April 30, 2010, report on the state’s popularity, Stuart Elliott wrote: “The characters, culture and couture of New Jersey are being embraced by television networks, advertisers, magazine publishers and other shapers and reflectors of the popular culture.”

In addition, the timing of New Jersey’s last two gubernatorial elections provides for a valuable “before-and-after” comparison. Between the 2005 and 2009, elections, there was a significant decline in the personnel and resources at the news organizations covering the state. The Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, reduced its staff by about 40%. Many of the reporters who left were veteran journalists with vast institutional knowledge. Gannett, which operates six of New Jersey’s 18 daily newspapers, reduced its State House bureau to two reporters. The New York Times closed its State House bureau (Weingart, 2009). At the same time, there was a proliferation of new methods for citizens to obtain news and information. When Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester squared off against each other in 2005, YouTube was in its infancy, the only people on Facebook were students, and Twitter didn’t even exist. By 2009, all three were essential tools being utilized by the gubernatorial candidates.

Agenda Setting in New Jersey

There is sizable evidence that media in New Jersey have influenced public policy along the lines of what Cook et al found in their study on agenda setting.

For example, NJ101.5’s focus on state government’s decision to raise $2.8 billion in taxes in 1990 fueled a “tax revolt” that led to the defeat of a record number of Democratic legislators and eventually resulted in the rollback of some of those taxes. The station also played a major role in the enactment of Megan’s Law to protect children from sexual predators by airing numerous news reports and talk show programs in the immediate aftermath of the rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994.

In 2008, I conducted a study on the New Jersey news media’s impact on the development of the state’s transportation infrastructure. The study provided several examples of the media’s influence in the area of transportation, which are summarized below. Additional examples in other public policy areas will be added as this project proceeds.

Transportation Examples

Historically, the print media in New Jersey have been agenda-setters, especially in terms of moving policymakers. “Everybody knows that New Jersey is a newspaper-oriented state,” former Governor James J. Florio told me in a January 23, 2008, interview. “As a result of that, people look to newspapers for guidance and understanding.” Florio, a former Congressman who was known for his leadership on environmental issues, feels that the media’s attention on environmental issues helped to create public awareness and support for environmental laws. “They set the public agenda and they do this by editorial decisions – what goes on the front page,” he explained.

In the area of transportation, Florio believes the media were instrumental in preserving Amtrak. When proposals to “shred the system” surfaced, he and other lawmakers successfully mobilized the press to create public awareness of the consequences, namely the resultant increases in auto and air traffic if Amtrak’s rail service were not available. He added:

People would ultimately get engaged and convey their thoughts about the need to preserve Amtrak to decision makers in Washington, even those who were hostile. This is a wonderful example of where the use of the press, the use of the media was able to make a dramatic impact.

In a January 9, 2008 interview, John D’Amico, a Monmouth County Freeholder who was involved in efforts to improve rail service in the late 1970s, recalled how the New Jersey media played an essential role in influencing public policy. He remembered how disgruntled commuters began staging a series of protests, ranging from blocking rail tracks to stopping payment on their checks for train tickets. “The media started paying attention and reporting our plight,” he said. “That’s when things started to move politically.”

On a smaller, but still important, scale, former Trenton Times transportation columnist Michael Lavitt recalled two instances where items mentioned in his column led to quick action by transportation authorities. In one case, shortly after he wrote a column suggesting that NJ Transit offer email alerts when trains are delayed, the agency put such a program into place. The other case involved a new procedure that was causing delays for buses exiting the New Jersey Turnpike at Interchange 16E. Lavitt did an analysis of how much money was lost, based on the average salary of the bus commuters and the number of buses passing through that interchange. The next day, officials from the Turnpike took a first-hand look at the long lines at the interchange and decided to change procedures.

While he acknowledges the impact that he and other journalists have had, Lavitt believes that in most cases, news organizations do not set out to change public policy. They choose to cover issues that are important and the coverage catches the attention of the public and then, the decision makers.

A Model for the Future?

Perhaps the most compelling reason for focusing on New Jersey is the possibility that its current media landscape may be indicative of the industry’s future throughout the nation. What has evolved in New Jersey over the past few years are a wide variety of platforms in many different shapes and sizes, which cumulatively disseminate the information citizens need. Whether the impact of this development has been positive or negative is a separate issue that can be argued back and forth. What is clear, however, is the fact that the media landscape in New Jersey has changed substantially, perhaps at a more rapid pace than elsewhere.

Although traditional news entities such as newspapers continue to play a role in New Jersey, they are much different than they were 5, 10 or 15 years ago. Today, newspapers also exist as online entities that no longer merely replicate their print versions. The online versions are updated regularly and feature audio, video and interactive elements. Radio and television – despite the dominance of the New York and Philadelphia markets – also remain a part of the state’s media landscape. Talk radio, most notably NJ101.5, reaches and influences large numbers of New Jersey listeners. The station, which is part of the Millennium Radio Group, expanded its presence in the New Jersey media landscape in June 2010 by starting State House Steps, an Internet news site devoted to politics in the Garden State.

Beyond the traditional entities, New Jerseyans are finding news in many other places. Topic-specific websites provide news and information on subjects of particular interest to different audiences. For example, political junkies who need to keep tabs on breaking news and analysis are likely to visit sites such as PolitickerNJ and In The Lobby, and to subscribe to electronic newsletters such as Politifax. Similar topic-specific sites and newsletters cater to sports fans, educators, environmentalists and more.

Online-only news sites are becoming increasingly popular. NewJerseyNewsroom, an online site started about a year ago by a group of former Star-Ledger reporters, has attracted as many as 78,000 unique visitors in a week – a figure about equal to the circulation of a midsize daily newspaper. Following the success of NewJerseyNewsroom, three private foundations are providing the funds to support NJSpotlight, a similar endeavor launched by two former Star-Ledger reporters in May 2010 (Ruth, 2010).

Hyperlocal news sites, such as The Alternative Press, also are attracting large numbers of readers by offering news on community activities, civic affairs and scholastic sports. “What is going to happen is that sites like ours will play a greater role because you are not going to have an in-depth coverage as people are accustomed to, and I think that people are going to be looking for that kind of coverage,” said Alternative Press editor Michael S. Shapiro (2009).

As is occurring nationwide, social networks are being used by politicians, businesses and all types of New Jersey organizations to bypass traditional media outlets and bring their messages directly to the public. By their very nature, Facebook and Twitter also have become vehicles for members to share, spread and even break news stories about developments in the Garden State and beyond.

College newspapers also are displaying the potential to play a significant role in New Jersey’s media landscape. A news story first reported in The College Voice, the student newspaper at Mercer County Community College, later was followed by state and national media. The story recounted an incident in which a county official responded to a professor’s statements about him by showing up in the professor’s class to confront him. Likewise, news stories in student newspapers at The College of New Jersey (Mike Huckabee’s comments on same-sex marriage) and Rutgers University (increases in administrative salaries at the university) have attracted attention outside of their respective college campuses.

New Jersey also is home to a large number of public policy organizations and academic institutions, each of which provides citizens with news and information in its own unique manner, whether it be the virtual debates sponsored by the Hall Institute, the public opinion polls conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, or the seminars and lectures presented by the Eagleton Institute of Politics. While such institutions traditionally relied upon the news media as a vehicle to share their findings with the public, they now are using the Internet and social networks to communicate directly with citizens.

Moreover, these entities are working collaboratively to pool their resources and produce valuable information for New Jerseyans. For example, NJBIZ, the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, and the Kaufman Zita Group created Capitol Insights, a monthly survey of about 100 experts who offer their thoughts about news and developments in the Garden State. In 2009, a coalition of groups led by Leadership New Jersey not only sponsored the state’s first Lieutenant Governor debate, but also presented a daylong forum on the new office.

Between the rise of the Internet and the downturn in the economy, the news industry has been in a state of flux, searching for new models and platforms to meet the demands of today’s 24/7 news cycle while generating enough revenue to survive financially. In all likelihood, there is no single perfect model that will surface to meet the needs of the media and the public in the 21st Century. Instead, news and information will be delivered and digested through a variety of platforms that will include traditional news outlets, social networks, and entities and organizations not previously considered to have a role in the field of journalism. And New Jerseyans already are receiving their news in this manner – from traditional news sources, websites, social networks, the think tanks and other entities – therefore providing one more reason for turning to the Garden State for the answers to major questions confronting journalism and democracy in America at the start of the 21st Century.

Methodology

For a topic as narrow as media trends in New Jersey, a sizable amount of data is available. Because the data had been collected for a variety of purposes in different formats, it may at first appear difficult to compare “apples with apples.” When studied collectively, however, the data does provide useful information about how New Jerseyans obtain their news. What it does provide is a comparison between topics covered by the news media in the Garden State and the issues New Jerseyans identify as their top priorities.

By and large, the most recent studies and reports show that media trends in New Jersey mirror the national picture, where television is the most popular source for news and information, newspapers are losing their audience, and the Internet is growing rapidly. Those trends differ from the results of a 2005 Monmouth University Polling Institute poll which showed newspapers were the most popular source for information about the state’s gubernatorial race, with 48%, followed by television with 31% – results most likely attributable to the fact that New Jersey has no major commercial television station. An Eagleton Institute of Politics study of television coverage of the state’s 2005 gubernatorial election supports this theory. The study concluded that the network affiliates in New York and Philadelphia failed to provide significant coverage of the race (Hale). Indeed, newspapers were the most preferred source for political and election news, according to a 2006 study by the New Jersey Newspaper Association (NJPA). Of those surveyed, 44% listed newspapers as their top choice for political and election news, followed by television with 37%.

During the 2009 campaign for governor, the Monmouth University Polling Institute conducted a poll similar to its 2005 survey and the results at the top of the survey flipped. In 2009, television, with 41% of the respondents, was the most popular source for news about the election. Newspapers were second with 28%, a drop of 20 percentage points from 2005. Television also was the most popular means of learning the 2009 election results, according to a Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey survey.

Between the 2005 and 2009 elections, the Internet experienced the largest gain in popularity, increasing from 6% in 2005 to 19% in 2009 (Monmouth). The 2006 New Jersey Press Association study also showed the Internet with a low number: 8%. The newspaper association conducted another study in 2009, but it was designed to illustrate the benefits of advertising on the websites of New Jersey newspapers and did not contain comparable figures for audience preferences. However, the results did show that New Jerseyans are “tech savvy” and visit newspaper websites frequently. In addition, the NJPA’s decision to conduct a marketing study that highlights the popularity of New Jersey newspaper websites suggests a significant increase in the use of the Internet as a source for news and information in the Garden State.

As for future trends, the New Jersey data also mirrors national patterns showing a continued increase in the migration from traditional news sources, such as television and newspapers, toward the Internet. As is the case nationally, the migration to the Internet is due to the large numbers of young people who not only obtain their news online but also use handheld devices to access it. Analysis of 2009 raw data from the Monmouth University Polling Institute, which breaks down results by age and other demographics, supports this theory. Likewise, the 2009 NJPA study showed that New Jerseyans under 35 were more likely to go online than older residents of the state.

Information from interviews with academics, journalists and politicians is consistent with the data compiled in the various New Jersey studies, as well as national research.

In a September 8, 2009, interview, Joseph Cryan, who was New Jersey State Democratic Chairman from 2006 to 2010, noted the news cycle in 2009 was much shorter than in 2005, when gubernatorial campaigns focused on print newspapers. “People read the newspapers now as much during the day on-line as they did when they got them in the old days with their morning cup of coffee,” he said. “It is completely a new perspective.”

One sign of the substantial number of New Jerseyans who turned to the Internet for news and information in the 2009 gubernatorial campaign was Republican candidate Chris Christie’s decision to use YouTube to announce his choice for his Lieutenant Governor running mate, according to former New Jersey State Republican Chairman Jay Webber (2009). In addition, since the Christie campaign did not have the financial resources of its Democratic opponent, the campaign posted video ads on the Internet as a means of getting reporters to write about them, without having to spend money to put them on TV in the New York and Philadelphia media markets (DuHaime, 2010).

Webber also said social networks such as Facebook and Twitter provided a different element for communicating campaign messages, one that allowed candidates to bypass traditional media and bring their message directly to the public. “I think it’s exciting to have the opportunity to communicate directly with voters,” he said. “It allows candidates to communicate ideas in a more thoughtful and extended way without the filter and limitations of the media.” Although Webber regarded the changes as “good for democracy,” others echoed the concerns expressed by individuals such as Starr. Montclair State University Political Science Professor Brigid Harrison (2009) said cutbacks at New Jersey news organizations have resulted in “a real absence of a critical eye on state government,” particularly since many of those who lost jobs were older, more experienced reporters with far more institutional knowledge and contacts than the younger reporters left to fill the void. She also said incumbent Governor Jon S. Corzine’s frequent appearances on national cable television programs during the early stages of the 2009 campaign were a reflection of the downsizing of newspapers in New Jersey, as well as the continued absence of a major television presence.

Conclusion

The Internet has radically altered the manner in which citizens obtain news and information. This development has profound implications – many of which have yet to be fully realized -- for the media, government, politics and the public. This study examined the changing media and political landscape in an effort to contribute to greater understanding of the issues and challenges confronting society in the 21st Century and build a foundation for a stronger future.

 


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TABLE 1

INTERVIEWS CONDUCTED BY RICHARD A. LEE

Hall Institute Podcasts

During the 2009 gubernatorial campaign, I conducted a series of podcasts on the race, interviewing people who had some connection to the election. In most cases, I included a question about changes in the media between 2005 and 2009. All the podcasts are archived, and the responses have been transcribed. The interviewees included:

  • Bob Franks, President of the HealthCare Institute of New Jersey (October 13, 2009)
  • Julia Hurst , Executive Director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association (September 30, 2009)
  • Jerry Casciano, political photographer (September 29, 2009)
  • New Jersey Democratic Chairman Joe Cryan (September 8, 2009)
  • Murray Sabrin, former independent gubernatorial candidate (August 25, 2009)
  • Hollie Gilroy, President of the Women’s Political Caucus of New Jersey (August 18, 2009)
  • New Jersey Republican Chairman Jay Webber (July 21, 2009)
  • Joshua Leinsdorf, candidate for NJ Governor as a member of the Fair Election Party (July 14, 2009)
  • Thomas Dallessio, Executive Director of Leadership New Jersey (June 23, 2009)
  • Chris Daggett, independent candidate for Governor (June 16, 2009)
  • Joseph Marbach, Seton Hall University Dean of Arts and Sciences (June 9, 2009)
  • Brigid Harrison, Montclair State University Political Science Professor(June 2, 2009)
  • Michael Shapiro, The Alternative Press Editor (May 26, 2009)
  • Ingrid Reed, Eagleton Institute of Politics (May 19, 2009)
  • GOP gubernatorial candidate Rick Merkt (May 12, 2009)
  • Ben Dworkin, Director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University (May 5, 2009)
  • Tom Meyers, Manager of the Uncle Floyd for Governor Campaign (April 28, 2009)
  • Patrick Murray, Director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute (April 21, 2009)


Hall Institute Television Programs

My responsibilities at the Hall Institute include co-hosting a public affairs television program. The three programs listed below have focused on media issues in New Jersey:

  • Joshua McMahon of New Jersey Newsroom, former Star-Ledger political editor
  • Jerome Aumente, Rutgers JMS Professor Emeritus and author of From ink on paper to the internet, a book about the history of newspapers in New Jersey
  • Debbie Borie-Holtz, media blogger for PolitickerNJ
  • Sid Dorfman, owner of Dorf Feature Service, who has been involved with New Jersey journalism for 75 years
  • Maurice Carroll, former New York Times and Star-Ledger reporter
  • Harvey Fisher, former State House reporter for The Record
  • Dan Weissman, former State House reporter for The Star-Ledger
  • Nick Acocella, founder and editor of Politifax (scheduled for May 5, 2011)
  • · Michael Shapiro, the founder and CEO of The Alternative Press (scheduled for May 5, 
New Jersey’s Media Landscape: Can It Help Us Understand the Emerging Framework of Politics and Democracy in the Internet Age?  

Recent Articles by Richard A. Lee: