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Don’t Listen To The Old Lags

Martin Sims

Proof 2010: Journalists Defending Journalism
Set 1, January 2010 The Scale and Origins of the Threat to Journalism


Introduction: Rose-Tinted Gold

Reports of the death of journalism are exaggerated. The sector is ever-changing and a new generation should welcome the opportunity to fashion the media in its own likeness.

What’s the future of journalism? Near-terminal decline, according to many current commentators. In their doomsday scenario, newspapers are closing or contracting, caught in a perfect storm of a slump-induced decline in advertising revenues and the migration of advertising to the internet. The very profession of journalism is under threat from user generated content. Now that the public can report their experiences directly through ‘citizen journalism’, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter and the like, soon there will be no need for professional intermediaries.

It’s a sad story. Once again, heartless capitalists, who only care about making money, are undermining a vital public service. Journalists, those fearless crusaders for truth and justice, the dying breed which holds our politicians and public institutions to account, are close to extinction.

It’s a touch self-serving, isn’t it? Here we have a flattering picture of the journalist as Clark Kent meets Che Guevara, holding out against the inhumanity of big business. Most of these ‘think pieces’ are written by current or former journalists: the profession does not need to think twice about giving itself a good press.

About to enter the dark ages, we are being ejected from a golden time, allegedly. So when was there an ‘ideal’ number of journalists? When was the news industry at its optimal level? That golden time is strangely hard to find.

This reminds me of a journalistic cause célèbre from the previous decade: the ‘decline’ of the Daily Mirror, the left-leaning UK tabloid. Around the turn of the century, there were numerous complaints that it had lost its campaigning roots and become nothing more than a poor imitation of its right-wing rival, the Sun. Then editor Piers Morgan (now one of the ‘X-Factor’ judges) wrote a piece defending his record and pointing out the common trait in the criticisms levelled against him by former colleagues. They all claimed that the ‘golden age’ of the Mirror was, you guessed it, when they worked there!

Addressing The Wrong Question

Isn’t much of the ‘journalism in crisis’ argument either special pleading for a profession or lobbying for a particular industry – in this case news organisations? Job types come and go: domestic servants have largely disappeared during the past century but is the country any the worse for it? Not unless you are Mr Hudson or Mrs Bridges, butler and cook in Upstairs, Downstairs.

How should we assess the eloquent pleading of news publishers, now keen to talk up the public service role of their work as they seek to lobby government for sympathetic policies? We should remember that virtually every industry performs some public service contributing to the jigsaw of Western democracy: the mobility of modern society depends partly on steel makers creating the raw materials for cars and trains; modern medicine relies on the pharmaceutical industry. Tesco’s low margin, high volume operation provides the cheap food on which we depend, etc, etc.

Are news organisations really making a unique contribution to society, or are they just making self-interested efforts to undermine competitors like job search websites which have taken a huge share of their advertising? There is probably no simple answer, but we shouldn’t forget the commercial realities: maybe job seekers find the internet better serves their needs and is easier to use; maybe job advertisers find websites more cost effective.

There is a deeper problem with whole debate about whether journalism is in decline. It is asking the wrong question. The real issue is not whether a particular profession or industry is rising or falling but whether the underlying human needs are being met. And the need here is to communicate – to send and receive information, or as the UN Declaration of Human Rights puts it: ‘…to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media.’

The real issue is that our communicative abilities have been affected by two separate processes: technological changes and the economic downturn.

Taking the last one first, journalism in the commercial sector has always been affected by the economic cycle. Fewer ads mean less revenue so less money to spend on editorial resources. During a boom swollen advertising revenues make papers fatter adding extra pages and sections. Is this a good thing or bad? Doesn’t a larger paper diminish the opportunity to drive readers towards the common concerns identified by journalists? So the journalist’s role in promoting social cohesion and focussing democratic debate is possibly enhanced, not diminished in a recession.

Assessing whether the slump has damaged or enhanced our ability to communicate is a complex question with the answer likely to depend on which of the many aspects of communication you are considering. In some US cities there is now only one newspaper instead of two. Is this lack of competition good or bad? Intense competition is often said to lead to the dumbing down of journalism and, for example, the inflation of crime statistics in an attempt to increase sales. Won’t monopoly lead to higher standards? Maybe; maybe not. But one thing is certain: there is no strict correlation between economic recession and a slump in journalism.

Capitalism And Journalism Are Entwined

Journalism’s relationship to economic circumstances is a field plagued by muddy thinking. It is certainly NOT correct to think of journalists as somehow divorced from society. The media’s ‘fourth estate’ tag with its implicit comparison to the first estate, or priesthood, is misleading because it is based on a supposedly divinely ordained social order. For the media to compare itself to the priesthood, carrying out regular democratic audits just like the church oversees the moral welfare of the populace, is both conceited and confused.

Contemporary capitalism has played a huge role in developing the news media. People were prepared to pay for information partly because of the increasing complexity of business relationships: the eighteenth century insurance market relied on the Lloyd’s List newsletter for accurate information about a risky industry. The local and national press as we know it is the function of the consumer society which first emerged in the nineteenth century. Companies need to advertise products to a mass market: this is what pays the wages of journalists.

Journalism is to a large degree a by-product of our current stage of economic development. It cannot be divorced from it as if it were some neo-priesthood. Local newspaper journalism exists because it gets people to read classified adverts, job adverts, and adverts for other products. When it no longer does that it will cease to exist, in the commercial sector at least. Or it will evolve into another form – a point to which I shall return.

Better Communication Or Worse?

Are technological changes enhancing or diminishing our ability to impart or receive information?

It’s become almost a truism to say that websites, blogging, social networking sites, email, SMS and mobile phones generally have made small-scale communication much easier. Here I am talking about groups of 10,000 or fewer – close to the lower end of the local newspaper market.

What about mass communication, the province of the ‘traditional’ media? There have certainly been some achievements with people using websites to break into traditional media markets. The success of the online-only news site The Register in the highly competitive IT trade press sector is one example.

The influence of political bloggers is another.

In theory technological change has made mass communication easier, in practice the need for expensive marketing and higher staffing levels means it usually remains the preserve of well-funded organisations.

So let’s put the question in a way which can be answered: have the prospects for communication improved or declined in the past decade? Depending which sector you’re considering the answers may vary, but in general there has surely been an improvement.

More people than ever before now have the possibility of making themselves heard. Small-scale communication has been opened up as never before. Chinks are starting to appear in the monolith of mass communication: an edifice which both denied the variety of human life and brought together communities as political entities.

It’s Over To You…

It is true that some journalists are losing their jobs; but the field has always evolved, and some jobs have always been ploughed in with these changes. The commercial sector must always respond to changing circumstances: some churn is inevitable, but so are new opportunities. Indeed there was recently a suggestion that the number of journalistic jobs in the UK is going up not down.[i]

The exciting challenge for the next generation of journalists is to look at where those new opportunities lie. If local newspapers are beaten out of the jobs market, what sort of new editorial style could accompany the websites to which this type of advertising migrates? Perhaps the new context calls for a whole new genre of journalism, more orientated towards the personal psychology of the working world.

The MPs’ expenses scandal reveals the public’s disenchantment with politics as it is currently practised. But politics is nothing more than our desire to improve our own lives, that of our families and that of our communities. These aspirations have not gone away, but how can political debate be re-invigorated by re-connecting with the public’s concerns? It’s a project that cries out for Web 2.0 style interaction, and only people with journalistic skills can bring it off.

The list of possibilities is endless, but I would like to end with a plea to aspiring hacks: ignore the old lags bemoaning the decline of journalism. Each generation sees the world in a different way and tends to have its preferred method of communication. The baby-boomers had TV and an expanding print media which they shaped into new formats and styles. Forty-somethings had the multi-channel revolution. Thirty somethings had the internet mark one. You have Web 2.0; social networking; interactivity; social media; the long awaited arrival of IPTV; the rise of small-scale media; mobile platforms and their inter-relation with the internet.

There are endless possibilities for new services and new ways to reflect the unique experience of a new generation. It’s time for you to make your mark on the ever-changing project that is journalism.

Former radio reporter Martin Sims now lectures at the University of East London and publishes a newsletter on European media policy.


Note

[i] Comments by the chairman of the Guardian Media Group, Paul Myners,

to a House of Lords Communications Committee. 23/04/08 http://www.journalism.co.uk/2/articles/531447.php

 

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