Take Two Steps Back: A Society Gets the Journalism it Deserves

[This is a response in part to Clay Shirky’s recent essay, Newspapers and Thinking the UnthinkableUpdate: Jemimah Knigh has a lovely meditation on the past and future of papers on her blog.]

When printing with movable type was introduced to Europe by Gutenberg and refined by Caxton it began a revolution that encompassed the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and laid the ground work for the current transformation being driven by science-based technologies, a transformation that is increasingly predicated on technology-based science as we benefit from one of those virtuous circles that occasionally catapults our species into an unexpected future.

For the past half-millennium printed books and their offspring, pamphlets and newspapers and magazines, have done the heavy lifting in the trade in ideas, spreading new theories and doctrines and ideologies around, and even offering their services to religion, mysticism and the anti-scientists who would undo all that western culture has achieved.

Analogue electronic media, in the form of television and radio, managed to complement print for a century or so although their role in the formation of ideologies and the distribution of ideas was clearly subsidiary to that of print. Televison and radio news still largely takes its agenda from that set by the print media, and the fact that we still remark on those few significant cultural highlights that are native to the broadcast world, like The Sopranos or ER, shows their failure to displace the printed text and the performed playscript in the broader cultural field.

Now print is being replaced by digital distribution and network-based forms of expression are taking over its role as the main conduit for cultural development and the dissemination of ideas, offering to do more with less, turning the fixed text into an an active document and moving us from a one-way model of publishing to a world that can take full advantage of rich complexity of interaction and social media.

Bytes have replaced glyphs as the primary carriers of data, and we are beginning to experience the consequences of this revolution as old media forms shrink and shrivel before our eyes, often before we have any real idea about what will replace them.

In Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable Clay Shirky analyses the crisis facing the newspaper industry and carefully undermines the many desperate arguments being made for their continued survival in a recognisable and economically viable form by those whose livelihood depends on the continued editing and distribution of newsprint. His arguments reflect those made by many others, including me, over the years and come down to the fact that once advertising moves online then moving newsprint around can never make a profit.

The end of the newspaper is clearly upon us in any territory where the network is pervasive and standards of living high enough to provide electronic access to a sufficiently affluent majority, although it may be a slow death and there will be many parts of the world where newsprint will remain central and important for decades or even most of the century.

However protracted the decline, it is happening, and it is clear that printed newspapers and magazines and broadcast television and radio have peaked as our primary tools for sharing news and opinion, that books are already being superseded when it comes to the heavy lifting of spreading and reinforcing ideas, and that interactive services based on easy online publishing, social media and the facilitation of physical propinquity are replacing pulp-based texts and linearly-scheduled programmes as the main ways in which we will acquire our knowledge of those things we collectively believe to be true about the world – the ‘news’.

We find out about the world from blogs, from Facebook and from the many meetings at bars and cafes and conferences that the social tools make possible, not from the daily paper or the network news.

However a crisis for newspapers is not a crisis for journalism, only for the type of journalism that is practiced in newspapers. Television and radio news face their own crises, but again this is not ‘death of news, pictures at eleven’ but rather ‘death of TV news, no pictures because we’re going off air, check it out on Twitter’. New ways of finding out, and new ways for those who find out to share what they have discovered, are emerging almost as rapidly as the old ways are falling apart.

As Clay points out, ‘print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case’. This sort of work is expensive, and has up until now been paid for through advertising or because it is seen as a necessary if unprofitable component of running a radio or television station that will attract a wide general audience to whom advertisements can be show.

However journalism and newspapers are not co-extensive, and a society’s need for journalism, understood as the task of discovering information and making it generally available to all, does not determine the means by which it should be carried out. The machinery of journalism is only loosely coupled to the practice of journalism, and while the affordances of different technologies will determine what forms of journalism are more or less easy – and profitable – to practice, it is important to separate the two discussions.

Instead of focusing on the current crisis we should take two steps backwards and ask ourselves where the drive to journalism comes from, what problems in industrial society have ‘journalism’ as their solution, and whether the networked society we are pushing towards so resoutely will have those problems.

It may be that free flow of data around a fully-networked culture in which all government documents are indexed and searchable, where geo-location data on every celebrity, politician and minor royal is instantly accessible through an open API and sensor networks provide comprehensive data on weather patterns, carbon emissions and traffic flows simply has no need for the vast majority of what is currently seen as vital journalistic output.

Or it may be that imperfect flows of information, inevitable defects in societal balance and the constant need to check the negative aspects of human nature mean that journalism emerges as a necessary consequence of societal complexity, epiphenomenal in the way that some evolutionary biologists believe that consciousness is a side-effect of having a complex neuroanatomy.

Karl Marx tells us that changes in the economic base of a society inevitably lead to changes in the social, cultural and political superstructure, even if we cannot predict the shape of the resulting society. Joseph Schumpeter tells us that innovations in manufacturing processes create opportunities for new entrants to seize opportunities that incumbents deny themselves because of their aversion to risk, resulting in creative destruction. And William Gibson tells us that the street finds a use for technology.

The digital revolution has brought us a globalised economy, low or even zero cost ways of collecting and distributing information, and a range of tools that would surprise even the most imaginative SF writer from the 1970s, and so it is hardly surprising that the business of journalism has been transformed. The new technologies have turned every eyewitness into a potential reporter, challenging professional journalists to reinvent themselves in order to remain relevant. They allow stories to be assembled and published as they happen, putting new pressures on old editorial structures and processes. They question the assumptions of expertise and privilege that were embedded in twentieth century journalism. And they undermine the business models that made journalism profitable in the industrial world.

The technology-powered wave of creative destruction that has swept through the newsrooms and editing suites is already crashing at the boardroom doors, and the innovators now are not only competitive businesses but every citizen with a cellphone and a Blogger account. It is far from certain that anything remotely resembling a ‘journalist’ will be around to watch it recede.

Even so, we should not mourn the passing of the newspaper, but ask instead what function it performed and look to see whether we are in need of a similar system in the new world. If it has no space to fill then we should pause before we try to carve one out for it.

Note: This essay was inspired by Clay’s publication but builds on my contribution to an Innovation Forum debate on ‘the new new journalism’ that took place in May 2008, organised by Nico Macdonald. It incorporates much of my opening statement from that event.

8 Replies to “Take Two Steps Back: A Society Gets the Journalism it Deserves”

  1. “This sort of work is expensive, and has up until now been paid for through advertising or because it is seen as a necessary if unprofitable component of running a radio or television station that will attract a wide general audience to whom advertisements can be show.”

    It supports your case that, in many cases, newspapers have ceased to even provide this service for some years now.

    However, it’s worth noting that – now that the Witch Is Dead, we are likely to be less in thrall to pure market-based solutions. Now would be a good moment for a degree of cultural Keynesianism.

    Pubic Service Broadcasting is a smaller industry than mobile phones – a spot of intervention to increase the quality of journalism and reportage (along the lines that a publically accountable organisation would provide these services as opposed to the way that the market does) wouldn’t go amiss. As a form of State Aid, it wouldn’t make a significant dent in any general commitment to open markets, and would be similar to the French ‘cultural exception’.

    The consequences of a publicly-funded redeployment of reporters into PSB-standard accountable reporting would have huge positive consequences for our democracy. It would cost very little and meet less resistance from commercial pressure groups than at any point in recent history.

    One other thing (an off-beam comment) – if newspapers are no longer prepared to pay journalists or carry public service content and are only conduits for advertising, why are they still exempt from VAT?

  2. I am not worried in the slightest.

    Who needs professional skeptics and investigative reporters in a world of impromptu citizen “journalists” equipped with laptops and cell phones, writing for commentary-rich but factually devoid blogs.

    I am certain these worthies are equal to the task of ferreting out corporate and governmental misconduct, waste and mendacity. In fact, I can hardly wait for the next Watergate break-in to see how well the new “New Media” handle it.

    After all, it is a new, networked age, and the evils of the past are . . . well, simply the evils of the past. As the derivatives scandal and the current economic debacle show, we are in good hands. To paraphrase the late Paul Jacobs, “precautions are being taken by those in a position to know.”

  3. First, in your sweeping historical analyses, I think you have to pause and ask if technology-driven science, as you have aptly described it, doesn’t undermine Western culture, too. It introduces many speed-up, collectivized tools that force collectivization and that creates a distinct danger of totalitarianism, just as technologies aided totalitarians in past centuries. Right behind Clay Shirky’s analysis of newspapers comes his own views about individuality being stripped away online and being constructed by networks, the ideologies of other collectivists like Beth Noveck on groups that posit networks as containers of knowledge and individuals only a node to be checked by groups. Ultimately, this has very severe consequences for control of the individual not only by the state, but powerful networked “tribes”.

    I think you also can’t posit Shirky’s sharp analytics posited on an an ardently wished-for state in keeping with his own opensource politics with what is actually occuring, which in part matches trends he identifies, but in part defies his trends. For example, Shirky is religiously opposed to the concept of micropayments because he wants information to be free. But micropayments are successfully being used in ways he is not admitting, even in the music industry and even in the news industry, not to mention in virtual worlds.

    Any prescriptions that involve having foundations, the rapidly dwindling containers of past centuries’ wealth, or governments fund a non-profit press are going to be partial-solutions that bring bias and vested interests.

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