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Professional Journalism Is Not A Business Model; Blogging Is No Guarantee Of Democracy

Sean Bell

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


Introduction: Indispensable, But Not Guaranteed (Financially)

Andrew Calcutt’s defence of professional journalism in the face of the perceived threat of user-generated content (UGC) is cogent and timely; I want to enlarge upon it.

Journalism, especially online, is said to be writing itself out of the social, cultural and democratic processes it helped to create, maintain and develop. Journalists are supposed to be an endangered species caught between apparently incontrovertible truths: (1) everybody is a media outlet; and (2) everybody has a free view of everybody else’s content. If this were really the case, it would mean that journalists are now a professional class which no one needs. When everybody else can do journalism they don’t need specialists like us and, even if they did, they wouldn’t pay us for it.

Journalists and professional journalism are indeed threatened by many things: the restructuring of the television and newspaper industries that carry our stories and employ us; the migration of news (like most information) to the internet; and most threatening of all, journalism’s openly suicidal response to these problems. Andrew Calcutt’s manifesto for the defence of journalism is, hopefully, just in time. But in his emphasis on therelationship between the social role of journalism and its economic prospects, Calcutt comes close to losing sight of the essential distinction between them.

It is true that journalism developed as a commodity in an era of centralised mass production; and it is frequently pointed out that now, in the new era characterised by networked, non-hierarchical organisations sharing information freely, the business models of commodity journalism are bust. But the job journalism does, and especially the role it has played and continues to play in the public sphere, are not the same thing as the business model hitherto employed to distribute it.

Similarly, while it is the case that milking advertisers has been key to financing journalism and consequently to the practice of journalism, and it is also true that nowadays there are fewer advertisers standing around waiting to be milked, nonetheless the sum of journalism’s parts is not reducible to the sums of advertising revenue (whether or not they can be made to add up). Leaving aside the mechanisms of how it is paid for, there is something about the way we live which requires that people get to know how other people are living and what’s happening to them. And that’s journalism.

Where there is modern life, in other words, there is going to something like journalism. It is a basic requirement of modern society. Of course the fulfilment of this requirement is not to be taken for granted. People have to work to meet this demand, and at times like these we are also obliged to find new ways of working. But like the banks that suddenly became insolvent, journalism is simply too important to society to be let go. Put another way, lives led without journalism cannot not be part of modern society; if such lives were to exist, they would have to be of an altogether different order.

No Guarantee of Democracy

Professional journalism once enjoyed an exclusive relationship with the hardware of media production, from printing presses to transmitters. Journalism all but monopolised the origination of news through purpose-built channels that comprised the mass media. Now the process of origination has been democratised in a technical sense; the many can engage directly with the many, and that is a good thing because it opens up so many democratic possibilities. But just as it is misleading to conflate the business model that created journalism and influenced its practices with its democratic role, it is also incorrect to assume that the role played by many-to-many publishing is necessarily, in and of itself, the realisation of democracy.

Democracy requires not only popular participation but also popular orientation to questions of power and the exercise of it. Were Roman circuses democratic simply because crowds of people applauded the gladiators? Not while the power of life and death was unquestioningly reserved for the emperor or his representative. Similarly, the facility for self-expression offered by digital media, and the increasing take-up of this provision, do not guarantee that the ensuing media content will assume a political character, whether democratic or authoritarian. Just as journalism is not reducible to the economics of distributing new information, so the new facility for self-interested self-expression is not identical to the continuation of democratic politics by other means. The absence of guarantees works both ways.

Their Business Model; Our Journalism

When all media technology was expensive so, too, was access to it. Consequently, (professional) journalism produced by accessing (expensive) media technology commanded a relatively high price that could be offset by advertisers’ readiness to pay for that access. In the age of internet, however, professional journalism’s access to print distribution and broadcast ceases to be such an advantage either to its practitioners or to advertisers. Unsurprisingly, businesses modelled on the assumption that information will be produced and owned by a few are proving to be less successful in a period of many-to-many communication.

That’s business, the business of journalism as was and will be no more; but that is not the future of journalism per se. Yet, in response to the loss of our employers’ business model and their loss of revenue, we journalists seem to have collectively decided that anybody (or everybody) can do our jobs better than us. In the short term it may seem to be in the publishers’ interests to identify the failings of the business model that financed journalism with the failure of journalism itself; but it is not in our interests to do so. In the long term, it is not in their interests either.

Seeing the writing on the digital wall, the more sanguine among us declare that journalism is just going through a period of adjustment from one media platform to another. But those who hold this view too often take it that advertising revenue will simply migrate online also, in sufficient quantity to compensate publishers for the provision of free content. But this view is more rosy than realistic.

Advertisers are spending less money overall. The advertising industry developed as the reciprocal partner of the traditional media which have been pronounced terminally ill. Why should advertisers continue to use the Mad Men’s specialised skills any more than those of journalists, if they can find ways to place their products in the public domain without paying anyone?

Then there is the prospect of pay-per-view. Rupert Murdoch has announced that the Times and other titles will stop distributing so much of their content freely and make users pay for it online. The technical (but crucial) difficulty is that an effective micro-payment system for news has not yet been invented. The Financial Times and the New York Times have managed to extract some payment from users for specialised products at the high-end of the market, and the latter recently launched an online subscription package for the general reader, but it is not proven that the public can be made to pay for non-specific news.

The Guardian, online in the USA, and the Times, online in India, have built their brands in those markets, and their efforts to generate revenue will be significant, but not necessarily sufficient to establish a pattern for other news organisations. The BBC is a unique broadcaster and publisher and it may play a very significant role in distributing many kinds of content, but its singularity means it cannot be a business model for others. To the contrary, there is a growing volume of complaints from the others, to the effect that news coverage put out by the BBC and paid-for indirectly by UK license-payers, is skewing the market and spoiling the development of pay-per-news.

Simon Jenkins has suggested that newspapers could go to market with a ‘long tail’ of businesses such as conferences and other live events that generate revenue by building on the brand. Thus the Guardian becomes the Guardian Experience (‘Goodbye Guardian. Hello Guardian Experience’, Jenkins, S, p25, the Guardian, international edition, 11/08/09).

I don’t buy this. I’ll buy the Guardian and pay to read what it says but I don’t want to join a Guardian ‘lifestyle’ or ‘affinity club’. Newspapers will migrate to digital forms and will continue develop subsidiary revenue streams (as the trade press has with industry awards), but they can’t just become something else entirely. Why do news if you’re a promotions company? And if the brand you’re building is becoming less closely associated with news, whatever it is that’s being branded, it can hardly be a news organisation, first and foremost.

Hacks all, folks!

As Calcutt points out, embracing digital journalism, according to much of the currently received wisdom, means that publishers have put great emphasis on creating special relationships with users online. In an uncertain and dramatically changing situation, the consensus (more or less) has been to build what Calcutt calls an inclusive community of ‘citizen journalists’ who will called upon to help create a whole new world of content possibilities. But as Calcutt also points out, there’s no reason to assume that even the successful use of quasi-journalism for ‘engineering inward-facing, small scale societies into short-term existence’ can somehow be monetised or otherwise exploited commercially.

Journalism faces problems right across the board, regardless of the medium of its distribution or the business model that funds it. Some of us may like to envisage some special, so far undiscovered content that somehow encourages people to spend money on it. But no one is really sure about this because the distribution of loads of content, by click or by truck, does not seem to make enough money unless advertisers are prepared to pay heavily to occupy the space right next door to it. As I write, and as others have been writing since the first wave of internet advertising failed to materialise more than a decade ago, advertisers are turning out to be stubbornly unwilling to do this.

The Shock of the Nearly-New

Old local newspaper hacks (like me) recognise the value of freely collected and cheaply processed reader-generated content. We learnt this in the days of manually typewriting our copy onto little strips of paper, back when the word ‘web’ was usually preceded by ‘spider’. We have exploited community correspondents, sports and society reports, amateur dramatics and entertainments reviews, teen reporters, work experience seekers, events listings and all kinds of stuff both online and off. When we opened the gates around our content so that this kind of stuff could get in, did we make our papers more democratic? Well, maybe a little bit.

The point is that there has been a series of attempts to incorporate UGC, many of them pre-dating desk-top publishing let alone the internet, but none has managed to halt the long, long decline in local newspaper readership; and there’s no reason to assume that a new version of this second hand tactic will arrest the commercial decline of this or any other print sector. The internet makes possible an instant interaction not conceivable with any other medium; but if the content is more snow pictures, now reproduced digitally, then all we have gained is more slush; and slushy content is not going to unfreeze the cash needed to pay for the production of the whole (paperless) paper.

New technology is, of course, the future of everything (except for costumes in competitive swimming!). But just because content can now be generated and distributed by mobilising the good old general public, it doesn’t mean that anyone is going to pay to read it, or pay us to edit it for them.

Chancing It

Calcutt established that seeking to emulate non-journalistic content can obscure the special qualities of professional reporting, and thus undermine the basis of the very media brands which are in a position to offer such quality and even exploit it commercially. He is surely right to emphasise the uniquely comparative character of professional reporting, which is brought into play whenever reporters compare and evaluate what they are witnessing with what has been witnessed and evaluated before, i.e. each time they do their job. This is a quality of observation, cognition and mental reconstruction, by whatever medium the latter is subsequently disseminated. Even if new media kit has levelled the technological playing-field, the distinctly comparative, evaluative process of professional reporting constitutes a different ballgame.

Thus there’s nothing wrong with a bit of Tweeting by professional journalists. Done well, Twitter is a useful device for taking a snapshot of what’s happening as it happens. But while professional journalists may use Twitter to capture fragments of an event outside themselves, most Tweeters are holding up a tiny mirror to their own miniscule actions. They are engaged in an essentially different process.

For the majority of participants, the news function of Twitter is secondary to its existential role: it tells me and my friends (me and the extension of me) that I must exist because right now I am doing x,y or z and you can confirm I am doing it because I have just used Twitter to tell you that I am.

Twitter, like most UGC, serves primarily to confirm the existence of the people who generated it. Depending on what’s happening to these people at the moment of content origination, what they generate may or may not contain something that qualifies as news to the rest of us. Accordingly, the news content in UGC is likely to be either negligible or of a lesser order, not least because news is not first in the order of priorities for UGC. If it so happens that newsworthy content has been generated in this way, this can only have come about because the content generator happened to be in a place where something significant happened to be happening. With UGC, it all comes down to happenstance.

Professional journalism, on the other hand, is a concerted, conscious effort to deploy people trained to find significant events and to find out what is significant about them. Of course it is easy to pick holes in the track record of professional coverage: less than comprehensive, inadequate, misleading, just plain wrong etc, etc. But for all the examples of journalists behaving badly, journalism’s redeeming quality is that human beings have developed it over time and by design as their chief means of getting to know what’s going on. To abandon this tradition, to declare, as even some journalists are now inclined to do, that UGC is something equivalent or even superior to professional journalism, is not only an act of professional suicide; it amounts to the rejection of purposeful human activity in pursuit of information about the world we live in. It means leaving news to chance.

Journalism Is Not Dying From a Surfeit of Journalism

Falling viewing figures, shrinking circulations and diminished revenues did not afflict media brands because they spent too much on developing good journalism. Rotary printing and desktop publishing aside, newspapers at the end of the twentieth century were pretty much as they were when invented in the nineteenth. Local papers saw their revenues decline when the recruitment, car and property ads went elsewhere. Way before the internet, the distribution of free admags had already damaged their revenue streams. The locals’ response was to cut staff and streamline their titles and editions, thereby cutting back on the journalism that should have been their strongest selling point. And what’s made the situation worse is that journalism has not responded in terms of its use to society as journalism, but in terms of its industry’s uselessness as a profitable system for information distribution.

Having conceded more than half the battle, both journalists and publishers are turning to UGC. But this does little to confirm the significance of journalism. The identification of UGC as an especially important connection with the potential audience is partly encouraged by the success of social networking, and partly prompted by the desperate desire to recover a relationship with readers/viewers/listeners which the old media assume they have lost. Such is our anxiety about being left behind that fellow-journalists have jumped on every bandwagon setting off on the trail.

I can now watch a local reporter read me a story on my local paper’s website (the BrightonArgus), and scroll through pictures and video footage. But why would I do any of this if I’m not interested in the story? Supposing I am interested, and I am not visually impaired, why shouldn’t I simply read it? And if I don’t want to read it, putting it out like this with bells and knobs on, is not going to make me any more interested in it.

Away From ‘Old Media’, Inside the Other Camp

The democratic impulse implicit in accessible digital technology is wasted if we assume that communicating for public consumption is the same as chatting with friends. Most of the content of blogs, Tweets and the social networking sites is not crafted for wide public consumption, but aimed at networks of friends.

It is good that anyone can publish, no question, but the potential for greater democracy is not realised by everybody publishing just anything; all this does is cast more shadows of doubt over the significance of news as a public service. In this context it is especially important for the experts in news, professional journalists, to show how it is done best.

Because of the importance of blogging and Tweeting to the opposition movements in Iran, Burma and elsewhere, some bloggers in Britain correlate their eponymous activities with those of freedom fighters, regardless of the content of their blogs. Whether naive or cynical, this is gross over-estimation. NightJack was not a whistleblower. Belle de Jour may have something to say, but the fact that the account of the sex work she performs is blogged, does not in itself challenge the political system.

Blogging, or something like it, is surely part of the future. It’s clear that there are many possibilities, especially where the specific expertise of the blogger, combined with the expertise of many others, can achieve unprecedented effects for the public good. An outstanding example is the online network that has arisen to support Simon Singh in his resistance to a legal suit by the British Chiropractic Association, as has been described by the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre (‘An intrepid, ragged band of bloggers’, p28, Goldacre, B, the Guardian, 30/07/09). But this network is a temporary one that relies on more permanent networks of scientific media watchers. The ongoing efforts of those networks are maintained by a common desire to take group action on particular issues defined by specific scientific fields and prompted by the recognition of the poor job that the traditional media have made of reporting them.

This user-co-ordinated scrutiny would be immediately devalued by close involvement with a news organisation, even if the people who organise and co-ordinate it allowed such a thing to happen. The journalist’s job is something altogether different.

YouTube, Facebook and the rest seem to suggest that the public is colonising everything, along with the news. However, as the philosopher of science and mind Dr Robert Clowes has pointed out, these technologies are themselves consistently repurposed and redeveloped by public interaction with them, which in turn facilitates further interactions between people that are enabled by the repurposed technologies.

These new kinds of social interaction have both public and private uses, hence the difficulties in recognising where journalism ends and more private discussion begins. Journalists and journalism specialise in the public, regardless of which bit of the public you’re aiming at. News itself is both a component of the public consciousness and an interactive tool freely available for use between different fields of that general consciousness.

Facebook was once an electronic Harvard yearbook. At last count, as I write, it has 250 million users after a little more than five years of redesign, repurposing and application adding as its user numbers grew. Similarly, blogs were once in the vanguard of citizen journalism but many millions of them have now become dormant. Increasingly, the best blogs are transforming themselves into media brands that bear no relation to private and individual practice; or they are places where the collective actions of many people are co-ordinated by people with social authority.

Mercurial Networking and Established Authority

Twitter is booming, but for how long? The big media that bought into Bebo, Yahoo Messenger, MySpace and the rest may yet seriously regret it. Young people have fled the colonisation of Facebook that older people undertook two years ago, again changing both the purpose of Facebook and the uses to which it is put. The time spent on Second Life is falling across its usership. To maintain a serious presence on any of these platforms becomes more and more time-consuming for the individual. When the fad slows, people spend less time in those spaces that have been established; the search for the public and the spaces it inhabits moves on to the next place, and the next.

IT industry insiders tell me the next big thing is less likely to be the new killer platform, application or device. They predict a concentration and rationalisation of the many platforms that people use, according to their individual needs and tastes. Although insiders have said this before, it seems likely that user-customisable reception of newly integrated networks and services will offer even more uncertainties and opportunities within our wired (and constantly rewired) world.

Media organisations and journalists signalled something of this possibility when they commenced multi-platform production of their content, regardless of whether they started from a broadcast, print or internet base. But fiddling with the form of transmission of information, simply making sure it can be carried by whatever device or application is being used by your target audience, has a limited effect on the relevance of the information to its receiver.

The Huffington Post is successful because it explicitly challenged the political position of established media without having to raise the cash needed to launch in print. It offered different content, much of it written by professional journalists, to an audience it could see was dissatisfied with the venerable print titles that it may now outlive. The internet allowed it to come into existence financially but its continued success is the result of its content. Distinguished by its journalism, it has carved out a loyal readership and a position of authority across the whole news ‘ecosystem’. Technology allowed the Post to be born but a political, motivated approach to journalism has seen it thrive.

When talent show contestant Susan Boyle got 120 million hits on YouTube, it wasn’t simply because of YouTube’s ability to share video. She had already appeared on the most popular weekend programme on British TV, which is closely followed by Fleet Street, from red-tops through to broadsheets. Wide reporting of her first 60 million hits, and good old word of mouth, doubled the numbers.

What people look at on YouTube and other sites doesn’t acquire significance in itself, however many people view something, because the discussion, the buzz, is not generated on the comment boards of those particular sites. This kind of news only becomes news when other, more authoritative organisations imbue it with significance and/or controversy.

Equally, when any item, however generated, becomes real news it ceases to be simply the video on YouTube or the photo on Flickr; it is the starting point for a general discussion of its significance, because it has migrated from its origins to the rest of the media. Flickr and YouTube have commentary facilities, but they cannot support the cultural exchange that characterises authoritative journalism.

Bringing the Two Camps Together?

Jeff Jarvis, writing in the media section of the Guardian, quoted the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, to the effect that collaboration with its readers amounted to the ‘mutualisation of news’ (‘User-generated content is only the beginning’, Jarvis, J, p4, MediaGuardian, 08/06/09). Rusbridger has told staff that the separation between reporter and reader is blurring, and that this is both the future and the ‘natural state’ of media.

But it is misleading to assert an equal partnership between the Guardian and the users who generate content for it. For example, in the event that the Guardian took some interest in my local group (as in the past have the Brighton Argus, the Publican, the Telegraph, BBC-online, BBC1, Radio Four and a few Australian newspapers), who would be the senior ‘partner’ in this relationship? I don’t think it would be me and the Brighton Salon. And quite right too.

The Guardian has won its authority and with it the discretion to select and therefore elevate any old stuff that falls out of the blogosphere, if it chooses to do so. I read it in old-fashioned, paid-for-by-me, print form every day. It retains its authority because it generally has not, so far, transformed itself into a blurry partnership of newspaper and citizen journalists. If a news organisation lends its authority to content that is little different from an old-fashioned reader’s letter, Rusbridger’s ‘mutualisation’ may come true, but painfully so. It is not UGC itself but its presentation as something else that reduces the separation of reader and reporter in a way that now threatens the very concept of the reporter and, eventually, that of the reader, too.

I’m all for UGC being used imaginatively, but mostly it’s the result of a bunch of amateurs getting hold of media equipment. I have a camera but that doesn’t make me a photographer unless I happen to be standing close enough to something worth photographing. If you have blog, that doesn’t make you a journalist unless you have a story; and even then, unless you adopt a consciously impersonal stance in the way you tell it, having a story makes you a source, not a reporter.

It is striking that when reading popular books that try to rethink the future of the world in the age of the internet, such as Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky and We-Think by Charles Leadbeater, the same few examples of what is possible crop up again and again. While the views of these are thought-provoking, they feed off rare successes extracted from a vast pool of failure. Shirky might say that this is a good thing and that only mass-participation in a constantly recurring process of trial and mostly error, can create the future. He is right to maintain that democracy is necessarily experimental; but this is not the same as simply standing by and allowing people to ‘crowd source’ the news. In order to minimise error (and maximise the democratic content of the experiment), news must be accountable not only to a self-selecting group of users but also to its own industry standards; and it doesn’t help democracy if the standard bearers (the professionals) have already walked off the job.

The sweeping view in which hierarchical organisation can only ever stand in the way of innovation, assumes we can learn little from the past, simply because its forms of organisation are expensive and its revenue streams defunct. But this is another case of the mistaken identity referred to above. Journalism as a practice, and a hierarchical practice at that, has been much more like the professional end of the open-source operating system, Linux, that web gurus worship.

Conclusion: Journalists and Users Should Keep Their Distance

Journalism, even before its current crisis, was said to be the least trustworthy occupation, with journalists roughly on a par with estate agents. But members of the public also trusted journalists to provide most of their news, most of the time.

It’s not generally talked about in these terms, but what Calcutt came close to describing as the universalisation of experience by professional journalists, is broadly appreciated by members of the public. They feel our objectivity, even as many of us have disavowed it.

However much we may be detested personally, there is a visibility to what we do that distinguishes us from others. We can do things that the anonymous blogger, perpetually undercover, cannot aspire to. Working for a newspaper, TV station or a professional website that has gained authority and recognition, is what allows journalists to comment, doorstep and demand access to investigate. This authority is based on professional and indeed public appreciation of the ability to capture the particulars of experience and at the same time generalise from it; an ability that sets journalists apart from society but also gives us a place in it.

Yes, at the present moment it is hard to see how this ability will thrive commercially; all the same, it is not reducible to the business models which hitherto allowed publishers to make a profit from having us exercise it.

Sean Bell is completing his dissertation for the MA in Journalism & Society at UEL.

 

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