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The blind newsmaker

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
26 January 2008

The mass industrial media, at their best, perform two basic public functions. First, they monitor and hold to account, and second, they form and maintain a common purpose, an ``imaginary community''. These are ``negative'' and ``positive'' tasks: avoiding the worst excesses of power and rule by experts; and defining and sustaining a common good.1

Tocqueville saw these roles early and clearly:

The principal citizens who inhabit an aristocratic country discern each other from afar; and if they wish to unite their forces, they move towards each other, drawing a multitude of men after them. In democratic countries, on the contrary, it frequently happens that a great number of men who wish or who want to combine cannot accomplish it because as they are very insignificant and lost amid the crowd, they cannot see and do not know where to find one another. A newspaper then takes up the notion or the feeling that had occurred simultaneously, but singly, to each of them. All are then immediately guided towards this beacon; and these wandering minds, which had long sought each other in darkness, at length meet and unite. The newspaper brought them together, and the newspaper is still necessary to keep them united.

But newspapers and magazines have been gripped by a slow-ending death drama: advertising revenues from print are falling; online advertising revenues are rising; does Act III, the denouement, see the online inching ahead and rescuing the venerable institutions of news? and what shape will they be in? Will they still be there to fulfil those two basic functions?

I will paint the scenario which shows that the scars will be devastating to the essential functions. Importantly, those functions were always accidents of the business of newspapers--spandrels, in the biologists' useful language. They are accidents whose conditions are disappearing.

Techno-optimists believe that the hyper-modularity of the future of news-making will allow us to re-assemble whatever value was produced in the old system. But the two essential public functions of the news are inherently the products of un-fragmented processes. The troubling question becomes: who will protect us from the excesses of power? and what sorts of common projects and shared identities will flourish in the fragmentary world? What power will we permit to emerge, and who will we become?

First some history - what were the conditions of emergence of professionalised journalism? what allowed it to happen? The nineteenth century hack is typically paid by the column-inch, part-time, and deeply involved as an actor in whatever he is reporting about. But about 100 years ago, in the UK and in the US, the press barons like Hearst and Beaverbrook - create commercial papers that employ full-time writers and editors. The style of journalism starts to change--from the absurdly verisimilitudinous sequential accounts of every piece of observed political ritual--to an analytical style, with the power of framing being recognised and brought to the fore. (This description of journalism's professionalisation owes much to Schudson's illuminating account in ``The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life''.)

The tempting materialist explanation of these changes is that the advertising-driven commercial newspapers understand that appealing to a market segment, a socio-economic class, is commercially more interesting than being narrowly political. The development of professional journalistic virtues, according to this explanation, is a part of the commercial logic of middle-class consumer appeal.

Schudson, however, is very insistent that simple materialism is an insufficient explanation--commercialisation was not a sufficient condition. Schudson sees the development of that sense of professional identity and ethic as part of a more general pattern: industrialisation, urbanisation and the development of mass society in all spheres was creating a demand for new types of belonging that reflected the new ways of organising social existence: the new professions allowed the employee to be part of something bigger, and more stable, than a single firm. This helped not only deliver a sense of identity, but also all the corporatist benefits of guilds: rules designed to exclude others, most clearly seen in the powerful journalist unions.

The accident is important: the advertising-driven commercial paper created a zone of freedom in which professionalism could emerge. This is identical to a phenomenon familiar in evolutionary biology--the spandrel. Stephen Jay Gould, the Marxist evolutionary biologist and science populariser, introduced the notion to soften the reductive determinism that Darwinism sometimes encourages. Spandrels are the architectural feature that is created wherever arches meet a straight surface. They can often be ornately decorated and emphasised--Gould points us to the Spandrels of San Marco in Venice as particularly fine examples.

San_Marco_spandrel.jpg

A spandrel in San Marco's. (With thanks to Maria Schnitzmeier).

The important thing about the spandrel from Gould's perspective is that while the dome is selected for (for beauty, for engineering prowess, to let light into a public space, etc.), and the arches are selected for (to airily sustain a roof), the spandrel has independent value which is not selected for. Darwinian selection will never of itself generate a spandrel, yet a spandrel is valued for itself.

Professionalised journalism should be seen, in Schudson's account, as a spandrel: never selected for, but produced ``in the spaces'' left by commercial mass media. Schudson points out that the proprietors had no say in the matter of this development. If they wanted commercial papers, this is simply a way people found to work in newspapers--decorations between the sustaining arches of commerce and sociology. The important thing with respect to the functions of journalism is that they have been delivered for the past 100 years by accident, not by design. They were not selected for, they were permitted.

As print advertising revenue falls, and before online advertising revenue catches up (if it ever does), what happens? Notice that the newspaper is being fragmented--its sections are being cherry-picked by the new logic of advertising. First, classified ads, which were up to 40% of newspapers' revenues (according to Pew). These have absolutely no need to be related to stories or journalism. They need to get to a group of people that used to be approximately defined by a paper's readership. Craig's List was the first to slice a vital organ off the paper because it was the easiest to disassociate from the old, professionalised journalism. Next come leisure and lifestyle: film reviews, holidays, book reviews are all attractive targets for a slice of fragmented newspaper: writing about exotic destinations sells holidays; hi-fi reviews sell kit. These are already emerging as disaggregated pieces: the three-person web operation can mount serious competition to a whole section of a newspaper.

As the milk is repeatedly creamed, what remains loses all the nutritious revenue of the old mix. The skinny liquid left has international news, commentary, analysis, investigation, public policy discussion, public monitoring. What we see as the central public goods of the newspaper are the ones that are squeezed out by the new commercial environment.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, argues as a paper-optimist that the old institutions will simply transfer online, and that revenues online will rise fast enough for the old model of production to survive. (This optimism has been called the ``Rusbridger Cross'', after its graphical representation. This is the media's equivalent of the ``hockey stick diagram'' that financiers learn to judge with great scepticism--the graph that shows things getting worse right now, but getting better, and spectacularly so, just a bit later. Some numbers for the US are available from this Pew Research Centre study.)

But the Rusbridger cross will fail because of the spandrel nature of the old model of journalism. Think of it this way: the production and financial logic of high industrial capitalism meant that the unit of selection in the evolutionary race of the market was the whole newspaper--not its various sub-components. There was no efficient way, for example to distribute only classifieds. Going back to the architectural analogy, Cathedrals and Palaces were selected in Venice, not even domes, nor yet arches and windows. What the new technology brings is the fragmentation of the newspaper--we are now selecting for single arches.

The heart of Gould's point about San Marco is that if you select for single arches, then you don't get spandrels. But does this mean we should be pessimistic about the emergence of post-paper institutional forms that will deliver monitoring and the positive creation of a common purpose? In a recent London Review of Books article, the philosopher Jerry Fodor takes the idea of the spandrel a step further. Why, he asks, does the fossil record not contain flying pigs? The flying pig was never tested and rejected--it simply never could exist, because there is no physically or biologically plausible way of starting from a pig and getting it to fly. Evolutionary processes work at certain levels: it is not just because pig phenotypes are useful (to their genes) and wings are useful (to the genes of winged species) that we will find winged pigs. Evolution selects whole systems, not the components that contribute to their different types of fitness.

Evolutionary thinking may lead to a priori pessimism, but the economy and civil society, with its plan-making and good-recognising actors might be different. The newspaper's public virtues are recognised as goods, and the fact they were once delivered by a spandrel does not mean they always will be. After all, post-modern architecture, some would say, has learnt to give us the valued architectural features of building with none of their old functional baggage.

1323594857_fd2b396b9a.jpg

Bofill shows that postmodernists can deliver spandrels too, even without an arch. (Here in the Antigone, Montpellier).

 

The basis for techno-optimism

The simplest techno-optimism derives from a legoland view of the world: take any good that industrial capitalism produced, and we can fragment it into building-blocks that digital-capitalism will produce. Better than reproducing the goods industrial capitalism, digi-capitalism allows endless recombination of blocks into new forms. To continue with our evolutionary analogy--while industrial capitalism built institutions to deliver goods-the equivalent of organisms-the new form we are now building produces the individual genes. Just watch the organisms develop!

So, on this view, all the components of the newspaper's two core functions will continue to be produced, often in a very fragmented way. Here are two examples, one for the negative power of speaking truth to power, and one for the positive function of creating commonality. Security Council Report seriously follow everything the security council does--it is an excellent example of the first. It reports the facts. From its mission, we learn:

 

 

The vision for Security Council Report stems from the belief that the lack of consistent, high quality, publicly-available information about the Council's activities—and those of its subordinate bodies—is a consistent barrier to the effective performance of the Council itself as well as constituting a major handicap for the member states at large, and the wider public.

 

Security Council Report seeks to fill this gap by establishing an independent professional capacity, supported by a first-rate research staff, to provide timely, accurate and objective information and analysis on the activities of the Security Council. Security Council Report publishes regular reports on the Council's existing and prospective agenda, supplemented by ad hoc Update Reports on breaking news.

 

Arts and Letters Daily is an example of the pure ``communo-genic'' function. It creates a lens for the cultured, conservative Anglo Saxon, entirely by selecting from other web sites 3 noteworthy articles per day. We notice it at openDemocracy--when it lists one of our pieces we see the traffic spike. Arts and Letters Daily creates its cultural commentary through careful aggregation--it builds it with the smaller lego pieces available elsewhere. The traffic spike that we see from it suggests that Arts and Letters Daily has real credibility amongst its readers: they trust it to take them places worthy of attention. It is a sort of Michelin guide for that tribe. When I click through an A&L Daily article, I arrive at it with all sorts of preconceptions: I arrive at the article not with a mind as a blank slate, but ready to resume my conversation with the cultured right. A&L has framed my reading just as a newspaper's commentary pages does.

So, with these two types of institutions in mind, can we rest assured that the pieces of the newspaper will be re-assembled with no loss? Or will there be a systematic ``blind spot'' created by the mechanisms of fragmentation and re-aggregation? Conceptually the blind-spot is plainly there: where what is produced depends for any part of its character on the particular aggregate that it will form, the breaking of the link between the pieces of lego and the final assemblage will change what lego is built.

But, concretely, how does this translate to the newspaper? When an editor commissions a piece, she is doing it in relation to all that she and her paper have written before, to what all other newspapers in her orbit have written, to all the meaning-making bodies that make up the world of reference of the publication. In her requests, conversations and guidance to authors, she shapes the article--the piece of lego--to the whole. When the writer responds to a commission, its context is important: ``...I am writing an NYT opinion piece: this tells me already what register I am in ...''. These are some of the ways in which the component responds to the aggregate, which is itself, with all its inertia and history, shaped by the components. (There are also ways that reportage, rather than analysis and comment depend on the aggregate. To believe that efforts like Security Council Report are a substitute for reportage and investigation, or even provide most of the raw materials, one has to assume that facts and values are separable. The whole literature on ``thick ethical concepts'' is convincing that they are not: there are few facts in our social world, and our attempts to make them often resort to changing the world rather than describing it.)

So the lego model of digi-capitalism makes something that is going to be different from the old--they are not substitutes--but do we lose anything valuable in the transition?

The public functions of the newspaper are closely related to their unique aggregating properties. Returning to Tocqueville's quote:

...The newspaper brought them [associations] together, and the newspaper is still necessary to keep them united.

The second part of that, ``keeping them united'', requires the creation of an ``us'', a common identity, which comes partly from the common interests of the association, be they professional, or national, or class, but importantly also from the newspaper itself--its history, its perspective, the way it paints the world for its association beyond its obvious economic and political interests. The association creates the paper, the paper creates the association ...over time, an institution with the power to change the world, with its own causal agency, emerges.

Walter Benjamin, in writing about art in the age of mechanical reproduction associates the era of cultural production based on identifying the uniqueness, the irreducibility and wholeness of an artefact, with the use of the work in the cult--in creating the community in an almost ritualistic sense. This is an elaboration of Tocqueville's notion of the newspaper keeping the group together. He opposes to this the era of mechanical reproduction of the work, in which the work becomes designed for reproducibility, and in which its function, he thinks, becomes political. Thus we are to move away from the cultish to-and-fro described by Tocqueville.

Benjamin might have liked the legoland opportunities of the new media. His assertion of ``modern man's legitimate claim to being reproduced,'' points to the myriad opportunities for self-realisation in new media. But his rejection of the cult-ural seems wrong: the apparently ephemeral realm of meanings has solidity: identities and brands not only change the world, without them we would have to re-invent all knowledge at every instant. Benjamin thinks that the old culture of ritual converts into fascism in the modern setting. But not to have them confines us to an impossible degree of individualism. If we lose the distinctive aura of a publication, we lose something not only valuable but essential to constituting ourselves. This was supplied by a spandrel that disappears in the ``legoland'' of digi-capitalism. To be truly techno-optimistic, one has to find a different model.

 


Footnotes

... (draft)1This article owes much to the enjoyable session on these themes with the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago with Kathy Im, Elspeth Revere, Jonathan Zittrain and John Bracken

tony curzon price 2008-01-26
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