March 20, 2009

Bloggers Ponder the Decline of Religion, Economic Prosperity and Newspapers

PEJ New Media Index March 9-13, 2009

The online conversation last week was strikingly different than the mainstream news agenda. While the traditional press focused on economic villains-such as AIG and Bernard Madoff-bloggers largely eschewed partisan squabbling and parsing of details for a more abstract and far-reaching discussion.  

As the economy struggled, a major newspaper shut down and a survey highlighted the diminishing appeal of organized religion, bloggers and social media pondered the dramatic social changes that might be taking place and what the implications could be.

The top subject was the decline in people claiming an affiliation with organized religion, as documented in a new study. This storyline made up 30% of the most linked to stories by blogs and social media sites for the week of March 9-13 according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The second largest story, at 24% of the links, involved the continuing problems in the U.S. economy. While some of the attention was focused on government actions, many bloggers focused on a prediction by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that the current crisis would change the growth model that has been the basis of the U.S. economy for the past 50 years.

Third (at 11%) was more  grim news for the newspaper industry as bloggers contemplated whether papers would be missed and what role online journalism would play.

The fourth story online (at 5%) was about a New York Times piece that suggested President Obama was considering starting a dialogue with moderate elements of the Taliban  to improve the situation in Afghanistan.

That was followed (also at 5%) by a New York Times profile of First Lady Michelle Obama that focused on her message of the importance of eating healthy foods

The only common thread between the top stories in social media and the traditional media last week was the economic crisis. According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, the mainstream press devoted 35% of its newshole to the topic, its No. 1 story. None of the other top online stories finished in the top 10 in the traditional press. Instead, the mainstream press focused on personnel in the new Obama administration, Bernard Madoff guilty plea, Obama’s decision to lift restrictions on embryonic cell research, and the Alabama man who killed 10 people before turning the gun on himself.

These are some of the findings of the PEJ’s New Media Index for the week of March 9 – 13. The index is an effort to monitor the content appearing in new media platforms. The biggest element of this Index is what appears in the more than 100 million blogs and other social media web pages concerned with national news and public affairs tracked by two monitoring sites, Technorati and Icerocket. Both track the commentary online by identifying what news stories bloggers and other websites link to. Each weekday, PEJ captures the top linked-to stories and analyzes their content. It then compares those findings with the results of its weekly analysis of more mainstream media, the weekly News Coverage Index. The Project also tracks the most popular news videos on YouTube each week.

Religion

Two articles last week had bloggers writing about the decline of organized religion. This marks the second time in a month that religion was a major topic in social media-the subject of Catholic indulgences was No. 3 the week of February 9-13.

The story that caught bloggers’ attention last week was a USA Today story which detailed the recent American Religious Identification Survey. The survey found that almost all religious denominations had lost ground since 1990 while the percentage of Americans who said they were not associated with any organized religious group jumped to 15% from 8% in 1990.

Blogger reaction was all over the map.

Some saw the findings as a positive development. "My theory behind the growing number of ‘Nones’ in America is in fact NOT that more and more people have fallen out of the ‘grace of God’ or have denounced religion," suggested Clay at More Than a Weekend. "It’s actually that it’s becoming okay to not be religious in any way, and that more people who might have ascribed to religion anyway are more free to make their own decisions."

"This Christian…says ‘Praise be!’" cheered Happening Here. "Too much tawdry drivel is peddled in the public arena as Christianity: a prosperity gospel that celebrates wealth; ‘moral’ stances that amount to primitive prejudices; ignorance that seeks to suppress science. I’m glad to see the appeal of that stuff waning in the general decline of religiosity."

Others were alarmed at the idea that more Americans considered themselves what one media account called religious "freelancers."

"This is what a generation of Americans taught from their youth to believe they’re little more than evolved chimpanzees looks like in its maturity – a godless bunch of moral relativists!" warned Michael G. Mickey at Rapturealert.com.

Some blamed the media’s coverage of religion. A comment on the blog Matters of Faith declared, "The media’s tendency to give inordinate attention to religious dimwits and crackpots has seriously damaged the credibility of religious leaders. You rarely read or hear of the miraculously generous work of faith communities in caring for the poor and infirm around the globe. But let someone suggest that the Virgin Mary has appeared in a plate of refried beans and the bulletins circle the globe in minutes."

A separate prediction about the future of religion also stirred up a large amount of online discussion. A March 10 editorial in the Christian Science Monitor by Michael Spencer (who writes the blog InternetMonk.com) foresaw a major collapse of evangelical Christianity within the next 10 years and the rise of an anti-Christian chapter in Western history. Spencer also ventured that new forms of Christian ministry will emerge less focused on politics and power and more focused on happenings within the church.

Bloggers weighed in. "The coming persecution will be for the good of the Church on earth for it will purge from her midst the false believers, those who say they are, but are not," suggested MacRanger at Macsmind. "Throughout the Church’s history God has allowed this very thing to ‘clean his house.’"

"I appreciate the fact this article made me think about the what’s and why’s of what I do," wrote a children’s pastor at samluce.com. "I do however disagree that evangelicalism is dead. I do think it is going through a transformation. In that transformation we must honor the past but be more loyal to the future. We can not forget the path that got us here nor can we stick to our path simply because it is safe."

The Economy

While some of the economic discussion revolved around the viability of the stimulus  plan or the fact that some banks were considering returning  the bailout money, much of the conversation was at a higher level, reacting to a prediction appearing in a March 7 Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times.

Friedman suggested that the economic crisis of 2008 may have marked an "inflection," or a turning point, that indicated the growth model  of the past 50 years is no longer sustainable-both for economic and ecological reasons. "We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children," Friedman quoted one expert as saying.

Many bloggers agreed with Friedman and appreciated his willingness to approach a tough, yet abstract, question.

"[2008 will] be marked as the year in history when both Mother Nature and Father Greed hit the wall simultaneously," argued Sab Kanaujia.

"Don’t miss the powerful lesson on markets coded within the collapse," recommended Beyond Confusion. "Friedman is one of the only mainstream voices I have seen questioning the assumption not that America will recover to its current economic heft, but rather whether it should."

Others felt Friedman’s argument was predicable and disingenuous.

"It wasn’t corrupt bankers, overconfident Wall Street wizards, or oblivious politicians at all that is responsible for the crisis," wrote Summum Bonum sarcastically.  "It was Us! Middle-class Americans, with their consumerism and desire for prosperity…It doesn’t matter whether or not we lived within out means. It’s our civilization that isn’t living within its means! Thus the focus shifts from individual responsibility (Did I buy a house I couldn’t afford?) to collectivist solutions…Thus Freidman attempts to harness our understandable anxiety about the economy to his climate-change agenda."*

Newspapers

Last week also brought news of more casualties in the hard-pressed newspaper industry.  On March 11, the New York Times reported that The Seattle Post-Intelligencer would soon publish its final print edition and discussed how many cities were facing the possibility of losing more.

Time magazine  published an article listing the 10 major newspapers most in danger of folding in the near future.

These two pieces caused many online to reflect on the decline of the newspaper.

"I always figured the newspaper business was secure because there would always be news," reflected Gary Nelson. "I guess what I didn’t figure-and what a lot of other people didn’t figure-is that the revenue to support newspapers wouldn’t always be there."

In general, most voices seem to suggest that the decline of the newspaper was not a bad thing, but an opportunity for online news to develop further.

"It is time for the daily newspaper as we know it to die," proclaimed former newspaper reporter Sarah Strohmeyer. "I know their time has come to an end…But that’s not to say journalism is dead. In fact, I would argue it’s more alive than ever. I read ‘more news’ now than I ever have, repeatedly checking my local newspaper’s online edition not only for breaking stories, but also for reaction from the community."

"It is not a death, but a metamorphosis," posited journalist Richard Klicki. "As long as the journalistic integrity and quality of content remains, these new all-digital news sites will not only survive, but hold a much better chance of building new audiences and, following traditional revenue theory, advertisers who believe more eyes on the site will translate into more traffic."

Still others, especially those with a local connection to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, were sadder.

"The idea that the city will have only one local news source in print…is just bizarre to me," described a Seattle resident at Scarlett Letters.

Top YouTube Videos

The PEJ New Media Index also tracks the most popular news videos on YouTube each week.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

March 7 – 13, 2009

1. An unidentified city council meeting is interrupted by the sounds of flatulence

2. A CNN news story of a man in Turkey surviving after being in the middle of a train and truck crash

3. Preview of a picture that supposedly shows blood in singer Chris Brown’s car that may be tied to allegations he abused singer Rihanna

4. A Filipino TV show pays tribute to the passing of rapper Francis Magalona

5. Associated Press footage of the same train collision in Turkey

If much of the online conversation last week was high minded, the most viewed news video was most emphatically not. It captured the kind of crude comedic situation that Mel Brooks would appreciate. The video is of an unidentified city council meeting that is interrupted multiple times by sounds of flatulence. Members of the council and people in the audience cannot keep themselves from laughing at the awkwardness of the situation.

Note: The data from Icerocket and Technorati was not collected on Monday, March 9. Therefore, the data for this report comes from data collected from Tuesday, March 10, through Friday, March 13.



The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the leading commentary of blogs and social media sites focused on news and compares those subjects to that of the mainstream press.

PEJ has launched the New Media Index as a companion to its weekly News Coverage Index. Blogs and other new media are an important part of creating today’s news information narrative and in shaping the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of online blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compared with the narrative in the traditional press.

Two prominent Web tracking sites, Technorati and Icerocket, monitor more than 100 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of social media, using the links to articles embedded on these sites as a proxy for determining what these subjects are. Using this tracking process as a base, PEJ staff compiles the lists of links weekday each day.   They capture the top five linked-to stories on each list (50 stories in all each week), and reads, watches or listens to these posts and conducts a content analysis of their subject matter, just as it does for the mainstream press in its weekly News Coverage Index. It follows the same coding methodology as that of the NCI. This process allows us to compare the New Media commentary, based on the Technorati and Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press.

The priorities of the bloggers are measured in terms of percentage of links. Each time a news blog or social media Web page adds a link to its site directing its readers to a news story, it suggests that the author of the blog places at least some importance on the content of that article. The user may or may not agree with the contents of the article, but they feel it is important enough to draw the reader’s attention to it. PEJ measures the topics that are of most interest to bloggers by compiling the quantitative information on links and analyzing the results.

While the News Coverage Index is comprised of primarily U.S.-based media outlets, the aggregators of blogs and other social media include both U.S. and non-U.S. blogs. In addition, stories that are linked to can be from non-U.S. sources. However, according to PEJ’s research over the last four months, the only non-U.S. news stories included in the top lists for Technorati and Icerocket have been the BBC (whose Web site is part of the News Coverage Index) and the Guardian.

The Project also tracks the most popular news video on YouTube each week.  

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.

Note: PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index includes Sunday newspapers while the New Media Index is Monday through Friday.