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Journalism Is Dead, Long Live Digital Journalism

Peter Rodenberg

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

Introduction: Crisis, What Crisis?

Earlier this year, the Journalism Department at the University of Westminster, the oldest in the UK, hosted a conference entitled ‘Journalism in Crisis’. The facts seem clear: after the disaster and the credit crunch, the crisis of journalism is in full swing.

Indeed, statistics show that newspaper readership is continuously decreasing, while advertisers, coerced by budget cuts, are looking for new, cheaper channels to post their promises of material salvation. At the same time, the young generation in particular is turning to the internet where information is easy and, above all, free. Additionally, citizen journalism and amateur blogging, celebrated as democratic participation in the opinion-making process (in contrast to the hegemonic selection and distribution of information by the traditional media), challenge the traditional channels of news distribution by providing new ways of news reporting and alternative, unfiltered approaches to current affairs.

But is journalism really in crisis or are we witnessing another transformation in the continuously changing history of the public sphere? In his keynote essay, Andrew Calcutt has stated that publishers see user-generated content ‘as an opportunity to cut costs by reducing the number of professional journalists involved in the production of media content.’ In a slight twist of his statement, I would like to emphasise that the technological possibilities of today are many and various, depending on the context in which they are played out.

In the context of neo-liberal hegemony and its cost-cutting consequences, there certainly has been a close association between user-orientation of the media and the de-professionalistion of journalism. But this association is by no means inevitable. In a different political-economic context, user-orientation and its associated technologies may well lend themselves to the re-professionalisation of journalistic content-production. The solely text-oriented hack of old might disappear to a great extent, but the demand for professional, multi-platform journalists will almost certainly rise. After all, UEL’s journalism programme, which offers cross-platform modules, is a wonderful indication of this entirely plausible outcome.

Crisis As A Way Of Life

Historically speaking, crises and ruptures are nothing new to modern journalism. Driven by technological innovation, the presentation of news has traditionally taken place via all communication channels available, forcing journalists to adapt to an ever-changing variety of techniques and technologies. The supremacy of the broadsheet ended with the emergence of the magazine in the late nineteenth century, and the dominance of print journalism received a severe blow with the new visual medium of the newsreel. One of the remedies was the new photojournalism of middle-brow mass magazines such as Life, Look and others.

In the 1950s, television entered the scene, eventually forcing newspaper journalism to go visual and include photography to a much greater degree than before. And then came the worldwide web, prompting publishing houses to establish online versions of their papers. All the time, the profession has reacted to successive challenges with diversification and the development of specialised skills. So far, the co-existence of the various channels for bringing news to the public sphere has not led to the end of journalism but rather to an expansion of the modes of expressing news content. Andrew Calcutt is quite right when he insists that ‘the simple equation of internet expansion with the contraction of professional journalism does not add up’.

However, I have to admit that the digital revolution presents by far the greatest challenge to professional journalism when compared to previous developments. Nevertheless, I would like to challenge some of the seemingly given truths that underlie most assumptions about the present crisis of professional journalism. For this purpose, I will construct my argument around three questions:

1. Is the economic argument as self-evident as its proponents would like us to think it is?

2. How can we rethink the internet in its function and functionality for twenty-first century journalism?

3. What do we see as the function of journalism in contemporary society?

The Economic Argument

Recently, Torsten Meise, executive officer for a network of freelance journalists in Hamburg, Germany, published some observations on the future of journalism. In his blog (, he argues that, rather than being a crisis of journalists, the crisis of journalism is a crisis of the publishing houses, and he accuses the latter of not having recognised in time the ongoing structural transformation of the media market. In his provocative manifesto, Meise further concludes that the economistic turn of the publishing houses originated in a blatant lack of creativity on their side and in the failure of corporate management to react appropriately to the present problem.

There seems to be an important point in this argument. Western societies have seen the rise of neo-liberalism going hand in hand with a general tendency to argue and perceive societal reality solely in economic terms. Going almost unnoticed, this economic perception has replaced political, social and moral concepts of the character of society, marking a remarkable shift in the superstructure of advanced capitalist societies. In their one-sidedness, the recent arguments against professional journalism belong to the prevailing, general trend to put economic considerations above social, let alone cultural, use-value. It is a tendency that can be seen in all sectors of society related to the public sphere, such as museums, higher education or broadcasting, or other fields formerly deemed essential to ‘civilized’ society. It is important, however, to realize that this economistic response to the structural transformations of post-industrial society is not based on a factual constraint; rather, it is man-made and therefore deliberate, and by definition subject to possible alteration.

In other words, we should not fall victim to a purely ideological argument. Rather, it is our duty as intellectuals to provide for a reframing of this one-sided discourse on journalism by arguing against its biased interest.

The Technological Argument

The oft-mentioned technological subversion of publishing structures by new internet-based media, is usually just an excuse for outdated adherence to old and dearly held publishing practice. In the analogue age, publishing houses or broadcasting companies, public and commercial ones alike, controlled access to news by controlling the means of news production. Without access to radio, television and newspapers, there was no free access to the public sphere. The new media have changed this. In the digital age, reaching the public has become a matter of just a few mouse-clicks. In other words, the old publishing houses have lost their oligopoly and their reaction is sheer panic.

But is it really such a problem to take up the creative challenge of the internet? The problem, so runs the argument, is that nobody is willing to pay for information he or she can get for free on the web. Indeed, newspapers in their printed form may be diminished in number; although, judging from the experience of that past, it is doubtful that they will disappear altogether.

However, is the number of clicks on a webpage not a more reliable indicator of the reader-user’s attention to paid-for advertising than the sales figures of the print edition? Of course, catching the attention of the computer-generation will require new and more creative kinds of advertising than it took to address the traditional reader of a broadsheet or print-magazine, as the American media sociologist Clay Shirky has pointed out in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008). But this is a problem to be solved by creative work, not an insurmountable obstacle which threatens the very future of commercial publishing.

And, please, nobody tell me that there are no new ideas! Walter Isaacson, former managing director of Time magazine and now CEO of the Aspen Institute, has proposed a different approach. He argues that, as the use of the online-editions of newspapers shows, the demand for reliable information is unbroken and newspaper audiences are growing. With advertisers reluctant and subscription rates not yet satisfactory, Isaacson’s hopes rely on an efficient and easy to handle micropayment system allowing readers to access individual articles and other news items or a day’s full edition for the marginal fee of a penny or dime. As evidence, Isaacson quotes the success of iTunes and the digital reading device Kindle (Time, March 2, 2009, p. 25).

New Ways of Functioning

But it is not only the publishing side that has to change course and be creative. Likewise, journalists will have to be prepared to think in terms of new aesthetics. With newspapers and television likely to become just another form of the internet on one digital platform, new and more interactive modes of reception will have to be established, with far-reaching consequences for the aesthetic form as well as narrative structure of journalistic items.

Commercial web-advertising may have given us a clue as to what to expect. In 2007, the French avant-garde fashion label Shaï produced several three-minute, X-rated internet video streams with small green dots appearing near the clothing of the actors. The user could mouse-click these dots in order to purchase a particular piece of clothing while continuing to watch the actors undress and do their thing.

Although Shaï’s sex-packaging failed to sell their merchandise, the technology applied in this experiment may have more to it than meets the eye: it points to a transition from producer-created narrative to a user-produced one. Inter- and intra-textual zapping is likely to become the predominant way of ‘reading’ and receiving online-news. The traditional, coherent mode of reception of a news item (if it ever existed), might be forced to undergo fundamental change.

The potentially random choices of today’s user-viewer-reader tend to undermine rigidly structured programmes as well as the linear narrative structure of the individual news item or documentary film (which is, however short, an exposition followed by an elaboration of the topic and a finalizing conclusion). Broadcasters currently offer ‘segmented’ parts of their schedule for podcasting, in an effort to keep at least remnants of the traditionally planned structure of their programmes. But there’s no telling how long these structures will last; and there is no reason to suppose that the survival of journalism itself is inextricably linked to their longevity.

One of the consequences of new modes of news reception is that the individual exercise of authorship as we know it might become obsolete. Texts or films in multi-media web-environments will no longer be read by the spectator in a predictable order, i.e. the specific sequence as preconceived by the journalistic author. This implies that in the worst of all cases, the interactive mode of digital consumption might produce a diarrhoea of loosely connected eye-catching images and free-floating information, bobbing up and down in the mind of the recipient as it does already in the tabloids. However, this new mode of active reception might also result in a multitude of linked information on the production side. At any given point of a news item, the user-viewer might thus meander to another clickable mixed-media item which provides further information and contains other mixed-media links, before he or she (in the case of a film clip) may or may not return to the original item meanwhile recorded on the electronic device’s hard-disk.

Let me emphasise that I am aware of the ambiguous implications of this vision. It is also an invitation for a total commercialisation of the media. We may well be granted the questionable freedom of ordering the latest trendy product we do not really need, simply by mouse-clicking on the item while watching and at the same time being distracted and diverted from quality documentation or reportage.

In its innocent form, we could be offered a wealth of thematically related documentation; but the same technological facility may also mean the total commercial subversion of journalistic content and thus potential damage to journalistic credibility. Nonetheless, such facilities do suggest sensible ways of creating revenue; once again, the publishers’ dictum that the internet does not pay, is shown to be an absurd excuse for their failure to innovate.

More importantly, all this demands expertise in form, content and technology; expertise which only professional journalists can provide. They will, however, have to consider a much-changed audience taking user-friendliness for granted. But who can prove that the majority of people really read in one go those long articles that once made up the greater part of the more respectable newspapers? And, to counter-act my own tendencies towards cultural pessimism, have there not always been outcries about the demise of the printed text when the new visual technologies (first the movie and then television) were introduced? Printed books themselves were once subject to scepticism, when anxious physicians published long medical treatises about the negative physical consequences of extended motionlessness while reading.

And finally, while the introduction of television eventually diminished the number of movie theatres, nonetheless Hollywood with its thousands of jobs seems to be more alive and kicking than ever. Note for the concerned capitalist: domestic box office revenues of the American motion picture industry amounted to US$ 9.68 billion in 2008, up US$ 2 billion on 2007 (Screen, January 7, 2009).

The Societal Function of Professional Journalism

‘All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true, if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts.’

So wrote the great American journalist Walter Lippmann in 1920 (Liberty and the News, New York, 1920, p. 11). ‘Trustworthy’ and ‘relevant’ are the key words in his statement. Living up to these keywords requires professional journalists trained the proper way, and with a keen, knowledgeable intellect and analytic mind to look beyond the masquerade of today’s culture of make-believe.

In the economistic framework of today, trustworthiness and relevance often find themselves replaced by ‘authenticity’ and ‘sincerity’. The latter attributes are seemingly guaranteed by audience participation, but even if they are realised, their realisation does not necessarily mean that the participating audience will be well informed; and even a well informed audience is not necessarily connected to analysis of the social and societal implications of an event.

On the other hand, quality of information and depth of connection are just what journalism has to offer. To quote Lippmann again: ‘If truthfulness were simply a matter of sincerity the future would be rather simple. But the modern problem is not solely a question of the newspaperman’s morals. It is […] the intricate result of a civilization too extensive for any man’s personal observation’ (op. cit., p. 13).

Hence the recurring demand, even in the twenty-first century, for journalism that goes beyond ‘any man’s personal observation’, and for professional journalists to produce it.

Professional Interpreters

To come back to my initial argument: in today’s advanced capitalist society wide areas of public life have submitted to the neo-liberal logic of economic efficiency and control, and society is increasingly administered at a level remote from the input of the ordinary citizen. As the German philosopher of the public sphere Juergen Habermas has noted, the protective boundaries between the public and the private sphere, society and the individual, the system and everyday life, have seriously deteriorated to the point where analysis of the social dynamics at work becomes nearly impossible for the individual citizen.

(I do not want to discredit blogging or visual community activism. But compared to journalism as I understand it, their social function lies more in creating an atmosphere of conviviality, to steal another term from Andrew Calcutt. They have an important part to play in establishing informal networks of resistance against the dissolution of the boundaries between system and personal life; but this not the same as the role of journalism.)

Democratic public life, Habermas concluded, can only thrive where trustworthy institutions enable citizens to take part in the debate on questions of public importance on an informed basis. In other words, a competent democratic self-governance of society rests on the rational discourse of enlightened persons devoid of illusions and self-deception. For such a socially balanced and just society, transparent and accessible discourses of qualified expert cultures are indispensable. Professional journalists as members of one of these expert cultures can provide this transparency by their very training and vocation.

‘In describing one experience the professional journalist also inscribes it with other experiences’, Andrew Calcutt argues in his opening manifesto, ‘so that in making an account of it, journalists render every experience commensurate with all other experiences.’ Here – I am sorry, Andrew – I do not quite agree with you. I do see your point of professional journalists as some kind of licensed special agents of social discourse and of journalism as a privileged practise among other practises of societal discourse of lived experience. I would, however, go beyond this and boldly state that professional journalists in their analytical training (vocational or academic) are mediators between the otherwise hermetic expert cultures and the non-expert public. In other words, by selecting, reporting and presenting newsworthy events they assume the position of translating interpreters who are continuously reversing the obstructive and misleading dissolution of the boundaries between system and lifeworld.

It is in their analysis, which in its form appropriates reality in an amalgam of discursive reasoning and artistic sensuousness, that professional journalists reclaim the meaning of things for the public, so that the ordinary citizen can enter the egalitarian non-expert discourse that counterbalances the hegemony of the various expert discourses in a democratic society. In my career both as a television journalist and producer as well as an academic, I have become very aware of the necessity of intellectual proficiency and theoretical analysis as key skills for this interpretive function of journalism. In our complex societies, the self-made journalist is the exception to the rule; in fact, he is a rapidly vanishing species, and this is necessarily so.

As Andrew Calcutt also observed in his essay, only journalists paid well enough to be able to afford time- and cost-intensive investigation into complex societal matters can fulfil this vital function for society. Journalists’ ability to reflect on both the societal context of their own activities as well as on the social implications of their findings, as a pre-condition for the public to participate in the discourses of civil society, cannot be achieved without considerable prior financial investment in the education of journalists themselves. The interpretive analysis of highly complex matters so that non-experts can comprehend them, has its price in an extended prior period of costly academic or other vocational training for journalists; and it is only legitimate that in compensation for their own personal investment accompanying society’s investment in them, individual journalists should be able to expect a certain lifestyle and level of income.

However, the ultimate gain for the publishing houses or broadcasting companies, and for society as a whole, is the maintenance of journalistic credibility. This is not to deny that news journalism has always had the twofold character of commodity and social communication. But if credibility is sacrificed on the altar of hyperbolical economic greed, this also tears apart the very social fabric which even the news companies are woven into (though they often tend to forget this). It can hardly be called idealistic to be aware of the vital ethical and regulatory function of professional journalism in today’s ever complexifying and increasingly deconsensualizing world.

Conclusion: More, Better Journalism Is Possible And Necessary

All this leads to a paradox: despite the premature announcement of the death of professional journalism, the potential of the new technologies results in a proliferating need for more professional journalists in an increasingly multi-linked digital news environment. The question of the endurance of professional journalism is thus not only a question touching on the survival of journalism worthy of the name; it is also the question of the survival of civil society.

Peter Rodenberg is a former television journalist and producer, and Professor of Media & Communication and American Cultural Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany; he has also served as external examiner for Journalism courses at UEL.


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