Roles of media evolve with multitasking, local niches

Journalists today face new challenges as reader interests shift at a breakneck pace.

The difficulties that communicators and their audiences face was presented during “People Like Me,” last night by Mizell Stewart III, managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal. The University alumnus gave his insight from his experience and observations gained throughout his career and engaged audience members in an interactive discussion.

Communicating is more complicated today as we are living in a diverse, fragmented and displaced society, Stewart said.

“Journalists are also intermediaries between people of different generations, different cultures, different religions, different backgrounds, different ideologies and different interests,” Stewart said, adding the role of journalists is becoming marginalized as more people ignore them.

“At my newspaper, we talk about ourselves as watchdogs, guardians of public interest and of public institutions,” Stewart said.

Stewart touched on the issues that have separated people as a community and the role media plays in that separation. Three challenges newspapers didn’t face in the past are how consumers are multitasking, fragmented and displaced.

Each person has individual interests and multiple ways of getting information. According to Stewart watching television while surfing the Internet is one example of multitasking behavior.

Stewart gave statistical evidence of how Americans multitask when taking in information. A 2004 study done by the Media Center at the American Press Institute found that 70 percent of those surveyed tended to absorb two or more media outlets at once.

The other element he described, fragmentation, describes how media audiences have narrow interests, which splinters society into smaller niches but allows audiences to get the specific information that they seek, Stewart said.

As a result of multitasking and fragmentation, the audience becomes displaced.

“You have to figure out, as a professional communicator, how to get a message across in this environment,” Stewart said.

The demographics of news consumers are changing as people are becoming more interested in information that reflects their lives and experiences, as opposed to what is happening in their state, the nation or world, Stewart said.

“If we don’t do a better job of reflecting the real lives of the people we serve in everything we publish, broadcast or blog, people will find a source of information that will,” he said

“Information is a resource, but creating and living in a community affirms life itself,” Stewart said.

The challenges of living in a community are what Stewart defined as the “ties that divide us.” Race, class, gender, generation, geography and ideology are what he referred to as fault lines, or the filters through which we see the world. The term “fault lines” was originally used by Robert C. Maynard, former editor and publisher of the Oakland Tribune.

Stewart uses MTV as an example of this disconnection to the audience because of the variety of backgrounds and lifestyles targeted audience members have.

Stewart quoted Maynard, who said: “A newspaper should be a tool for community understanding a place where you see not only your own life, but also the life of your neighbor accurately and fairly represented.”

Crossing those fault lines is something most people will only do when they have to, such as being placed with a roommate in the dorms who is different in one of those characteristics.

“The first thing you need to do to cross that barrier, is to understand yourself,” Steward said. “I would urge you to invest time, not on the phone, not online, but invest time in building face-to-face relationships.”

Samantha Sims, senior, wanted more advice from Stewart on crossing the barriers.

“I thought it would have been interesting if he would have shared how to go about crossing those barriers,” Sims said after his presentation.

Barb Consiglio, senior, said Stewart brought up some good points about how disconnected people are from each other and how something should be done about it. She was able to relate to Stewart’s point about the media poorly reflecting its audience.

“College students are characterized as lushes and partiers, and I don’t think that reflects every person,” Consiglio said.