Jodi’s Journal: Media, smartphones and why we won’t cover politics

By Jodi Schwan

The only thing worse for an elected official than being interviewed by a political reporter, I said at an event I moderated recently, probably is being interviewed by a former political reporter.

With years of questions stored up and no one to fire them at, who knows what might happen.

 

I was speaking, mostly jokingly, about myself as I prepared to interview U.S. Sen. John Thune in front of an audience gathered for a technology showcase put on by AT&T and SDN Communications. I covered politics years ago before transitioning to working in city government and then business journalism.

It was fun making a brief foray back. Thune and I talked about a broad range of topics, including the Senate Commerce Committee that he chairs, which includes lawmakers who deserve recognition for their — unfortunately, rare — ability to work in a bipartisan manner to actually pass a significant amount of legislation.

For the political junkies among my readership, you can watch the replay here, about four hours into the video:

We talked, of course, about President Trump and working with his unconventional administration. We noted how it’s hard to get used to refreshing a Twitter feed to learn the latest from our commander-in-chief.

At one point, we took some questions from the audience. A man from northeast South Dakota mentioned that he had had to move to be in business because the section of rural South Dakota where he lived didn’t have Internet service.

Thune talked about the importance of expanding service in outlying areas.

At some point, I added, half-seriously, that such places could become sought-after vacation spots. I got a number of nods from the audience.

A few days later, I read two pieces in the September issue of The Atlantic that made me think back on that moment because they captured where many of us in the media and society find ourselves today – drawn into a digital universe where clicks, shares and likes drive everything from revenue to psychological health.

A former editor at The New Republic talked about his initial enthusiasm when one of Facebook’s founders decided to invest in the storied publication. It didn’t take long, though – less than two years – for the new investor to decide the magazine’s content wasn’t driving enough digital traffic to grow revenue. The approach to content changed. Long-form journalists were cut.

It became “a bump on Silicon Valley’s route to engulfing journalism,” author Franklin Foer wrote. “Data have turned journalism into a commodity. Something to be marketed, tested, calibrated.”

In a separate story, The Atlantic traced the effect of the smartphone on the current generation of teenagers – known to some as iGen for the indelible role the iPhone has played on its childhood.

In 2012, for the first time, the majority of Americans owned a smartphone.

Fast-forward five years and the effects on its youngest users appear pretty profound. Teens today, research found, spend more time alone with their phones and less time physically in the same place as other teens. Multiple pieces of research have found that the more time spent texting and on social media, the more likely a teen is to be unhappy and lonely.

I could and likely will write more on the broad-ranging effects — good and bad — of this phenomenon, but the important point for now is that digital access to information is becoming only more ingrained in people’s lifestyles, starting at extremely young ages.

It reminded me that my comment on vacation destinations where the phones don’t work might have some merit.

For those of us in media, the smartphone and social media offer a mixed blessing. We can use them to more easily reach people and to determine what sort of content resonates with them.

But, as Foer noted, journalism has started subjecting assignments to a “cost-benefit analysis – will the article earn enough traffic to justify the investment?” I have seen this and have run the same analysis myself many times.

The difference now, thankfully, is that I run the business and get to determine the cost-benefit analysis. And I believe that when we become fixated solely on driving digital numbers up and on creating only the sort of content that will tease, shock, enflame or scare people into clicking and engaging, we risk becoming part of a bigger societal problem.

This is especially prevalent when the media covers politics.

This Labor Day signals the start of another season: election season. The campaign talk, asks and advertising in local, state and federal races will increase from here.

I’m excited to see interest from so many varied individuals in running for office. It’s going to be interesting to watch many of these races unfold.

I’ll mostly observe from the sidelines, though.

You won’t see SiouxFalls.Business carrying candidate announcements, debates or political advertising. There is a lot to be said in business for knowing who you are and what your role should be in the marketplace and then fulfilling that role the best you can.  For us, it’s covering Sioux Falls-area business. And there is plenty of that news to cover. While I don’t rule out addressing issues of relevance to business that come up in the course of a campaign, that’s about the only minimal coverage I anticipate doing.

I figure you have plenty of places to get your campaign news. The digital metrics we all rely on generally show political coverage performs well. People naturally are inclined to engage with stories they support or oppose. So I don’t think you’ll see any shortage of this content elsewhere in the media.

But I’m happy to report we just wrapped up a record month for digital traffic at SiouxFalls.Business, and we didn’t go out rounding up so-called “clickbait” stories to do it. We continue to focus on providing timely, relevant content and growing our audience by doing quality work that they want to share with others. Thanks very much for helping us achieve this milestone!

I told someone the other day that we could have even higher numbers. We know which stories will bring in thousands of readers and which might struggle to get into the hundreds. But that doesn’t mean we neglect news that our decision-maker audience needs in favor of pieces that might appeal more to the masses. I’m fortunate to have many businesses partnering with us that think the same way.

It’s a complicated, fast-changing time – whether you’re an elected leader, a business owner, a member of the media or a parent. We’re all trying to navigate the changing way we consume information and interact. But I’m increasingly convinced that taking the occasional break from the smartphone and pausing before you post can only help.

Jodi’s Journal: Media, smartphones and why we won’t cover politics

A series of events recently captured for me where many of us in the media and society find ourselves today – drawn into a digital universe where clicks, shares and likes drive everything from revenue to psychological health.

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