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

We should not mourn the passing of the newspaper or the decline of public service broadcasting, but ask instead what function they performed and look to see whether we are in need of a similar system in the new world. If there is no niche to fill then we should pause before we try to create one in the new information ecosystem.

The recent overview of the ‘Fourth Estate’ by The Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief, Alan Rusbridger divided all media into three sectors: the press, public service broadcasting in the form of the BBC, and the clumsily-named ‘digital sphere’.

Alan’s speculation prompted a response from openDemocracy’s own Anthony Barnett which spoke instead to ‘the Web Estate’, arguing that whatever may happen in print or with public service broadcasting becomes immaterial when compared to the growing importance of web-based journalism. Barnett argues that it is ‘the forms within the web that will matter commercially and democratically’, and rightly takes issue with Rusbridge’s failure to acknowledge the many forms of journalism that the web supports.

However even this attempt to broaden the scope of the debate stops too short, and fails to encompass the scale of the change that is sweeping over not just the press but every aspect of life in the modern world. I want to argue that any speculation about the future of journalism needs to begin from an appreciation of the role that journalism plays in the wider culture, rather than the specifics of particular practices, business models or individuals, whether in print, over the airwaves or online.

In order to do that we need to look back a little. 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 Mad Men, 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.

This is not a new insight, and there have been many analyses of the situation and proposals for how to correct it. The paywall around The Times, Sunday Times and News of the World could be seen as a sophisticated piece of action research by News Corporation, trying to decide just what people will pay for while at the same time preserving their particular forms of journalism, while broadcasters grapple with the affordances of IPTV and hearken back to the simpler days of linear schedules and VCRs.

Alan Rusbridger argues that the current dispensation ‘allows for three entirely different ideas of what journalism is’ and prefers it to the press/TV duopoly that it replaced, but remains concerned that ‘the economic forces that are intrinsic to the digital sphere threaten to weaken the other two spheres – to the point of destroying the idea of plurality they have embodied’.

The ‘digital sphere’ is of course a rich and complex area in itself, as Rusbridger acknowleges in the Andrew Olle lecture he gave in Sydney, Australia on 19 November but his fears for the future of printed newspapers are, if anything, understated.

In an essay published in March 2009 titled Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable Clay Shirky analysed the crisis facing the newspaper industry and carefully undermined 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 increasingly 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. Alan Rusbridger is right to be worried about the future of the press.

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 Sci Fi 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.

Alan Rusbridger, Anthony Barnett and the other contributors to the debate are trying, each in their own way, to anticipate these new forms and to map a path from the old world to the new. But editors who have succeeded under the old dispensation, like diplomats who grew powerful under one monarch, are not necessarily best equipped to imagine, embrace or survive when the balance of powers shifts and territories and influence are traded.

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 or the decline of public service broadcasting, but ask instead what function they performed and look to see whether we are in need of a similar system in the new world. If there is no niche to fill then we should pause before we try to create one in the new information ecosystem.

Note: Much of this essay was originally inspired by Clay Shirky’s piece Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable  and published on my blog in 2009. It builds on my contribution to an Innovation Forum debate on ‘the new new journalism’ that took place in May 2008, organised by Nico Macdonald and incorporates much of my opening statement from that event.

About the author

Bill Thompson, new media pioneer, has been working in, on and around the Internet since 1984. Formerly head of new media at the Guardian newspapers, he writes a weekly column, the BillBlog, for BBC News online.