Whither journalism: round two

My debate on the net’s effect on journalism with Jay Rosen has entered the second, rebuttal round over at the Economist’s site.

Here’s my rebuttal:

Jay Rosen grants that the internet has left us with “a weaker eye on power” while increasing “the supply of rubbish in and around journalism”. As a counterweight, he gives us ten reasons to be cheerful about journalism, most of which revolve around the “democratisation” of media. (I will resist the urge to point out how appropriate it is to provide a defence of the net’s effects on journalism in the form of a Top Ten list.)

I join Mr Rosen in applauding the way the net has reduced barriers to media participation. Having written a blog for many years, I can testify to the benefits of cheap digital publishing. But I do not take on faith the idea that democratising media necessarily improves journalism, and, unfortunately, Mr Rosen provides little in the way of facts to support his case. In place of hard evidence, we get dubious generalisations (“journalists are stronger and smarter when they are involved in the struggle for their own sustainability”), gauzy platitudes (“new life flows in through this opening”) and speculations (“data journalism is a huge opportunity”).

One of Mr Rosen’s most important claims crumbles when subjected to close scrutiny. He notes, correctly, that the net has dissolved the old geographic boundaries around news markets, making it easy for people to find stories from a variety of sources. But he then suggests that the effect, on the production side, has been to reduce redundant reporting, leading to less “pack journalism” and “a saner division of labour”. That would be nice if it were true, but it is not.

Much of what has been lost through the internet-driven winnowing of reporting staff is not duplicative effort but reporting in areas that were thinly covered to begin with: local and state governments, federal agencies, foreign affairs and investigative journalism. Having a strong, stable corps of reporters digging into these areas is crucial to having a well-informed citizenry, but since these forms of journalism tend to be expensive to produce and unattractive to online advertisers, they have suffered the heaviest cuts.

As Mr Rosen admits, coverage of state governments in America has eroded significantly. The number of journalists stationed in state capitols fell by a third between 2003 and 2009, creating big gaps in oversight. “In today’s capitol pressrooms,” American Journalism Review reports, “triage and narrowed priorities are the orders of the day.” The situation is similar with federal agencies in Washington, according to another AJR study. Between 2003 and 2010, the number of reporters at the Defence Department fell from 23 to 10; at the State Department from 15 to 9; at the Treasury Department from 12 to 6. “The watchdogs have abandoned their posts,” concludes the study, and “the quality of the reporting on the federal government has slipped.”

Foreign reporting, which is particularly expensive, has also suffered deep cuts. Over the past decade, nearly 20 American newspapers closed their foreign bureaus, and many others fired foreign correspondents. In Britain, daily newspapers have significantly curtailed their overseas reporting, according to a 2010 study by the Media Standards Trust, and alternative online sources are not taking up the slack. Research indicates that “the public do not seek out foreign news online”, according to the study. As foreign news is drained from the popular press, it becomes ever more the preserve of an elite.

If lone-wolf reporting is suffering in the web era, pack journalism is thriving, as evidenced by the swarming coverage of the Casey Anthony trial and the Anthony Weiner scandal. “The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories,” notes the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. What we are discovering is that in a world where advertisers pay by the click and readers read by the click, editorial attention and resources tend to become more concentrated and more keyed to spectacles. The upshot, contrary to Mr Rosen’s rosy assumption, is a division of journalistic labour that is even less sane than it used to be. Gadget blogs and gossip sites boom, while government beats go untrodden.

Despite the many experiments in online journalism, we have not found a substitute for the cross-subsidies that allowed newspapers to use the profits from popular features to pay for broad, in-depth reporting. The cross-subsidisation may have looked inefficient to economists, but as Clay Shirky, a media scholar, recently put it, “at least it worked”. Thanks to the net, it does not work any more.

It is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of information that blows in great gusts through the internet. But we should remember that the primary function of journalism always has been and always will be the hard, skilled work of reporting the news. The subsequent sharing, tweeting, tagging, ranking, remixing and (yes) debating of the news are all important, but they are secondary functions—and, indeed, entirely dependent on primary reporting. Unless Mr Rosen can wave a magic wand and repair the damage that the internet has done to reporting and reporters, his argument that the net has improved journalism will remain an exercise in grasping at straws.

The third and final round comes next week.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Whither journalism: round two

  1. My prejudice is to be on your side in this debate. But I have to say I am surprised by the complete lack of facts that Jay Rosen has to bolster his case. I’d be shocked if you don’t win handsomly.

  2. Mattfoley1978

    It sounds to me like you’re talking about the problems with the profit-motivated US media. The Internet may have highlighted & exacerbated these problems, but they long precede the Information Superhighway.

    James Fallows wrote “Why Americans Hate the Media” in 1996. Neil Postman wrote in 1985– citing Lewis Mumford on clocks, btw– that a news media devoted to being “entertaining” was antithetical to reasoned discussion.

    Jay Rosen– usually such a sharp analyst– is indeed surprisingly uninterested in facts to support his libertarianish fantasizing about “stronger and smarter” journalists. So you may well win this debate.

    But it seems to me like the larger, pre-Internet problem here is that a profit-driven news media would always rather talk about Casey Anthony Weiner (and even when talking about politics, about personalities and polls than policies) than the pea-eating of local & foreign news, and the nuts and bolts of policy.

  3. for publishers the internet fragmented and collapsed an already dwindling advertising and subscription market which has made the sensationalist toxic tabloid journalism possible

    subscribers and advertisers have shifted from supporting publications to the likes of Google

    News Corp’s global production system reflects the economics

    In this global news factory network, the cheapest form of content is sleaze, then sport. Next is gossip. Then opinion. In the UK its ok to do all of this, there is a market. In the US, the Republican moral majority does not allow titties on television, but Fox News is built on gossip. Research is expensive and often reveals unwelcome truths for the proprietor or his advertisers. Sleaze, sport, gossip and opinion are cheap and can be used to attack enemies

    The UK newspapers are one small set of a single, global newspaper production system which has included the New York Post for many years and now the WSJ.

    140 newspapers share a single production system where all news is shared. So a crime in one newspaper is a crime for all.

    The cancer metaphor is important because, like any multinational corporation, it has an integrated production system. In the case of the newspapers at News Corp, roughly 150 newspapers share a single platform. There is very deep intermingling between newspapers brands, within locations such as Wapping, the news factory for News of The World (and The Sun, The Times etc) and between geographic locations.

    Economies of scale in newspaper production drove the consolidation of newspaper production on a single platform, and the need to syndicate finished stories and rapidly share leads and editorial processes within the corporation and against competitors means there is a very big chance that the NoTW toxic tabloid journalism contagion will spread. The criminal content did not remain isolated in Wapping, instead it would of been spread throughout the 150 newspaper network.

    Cross media would also have ensured the textual content would of been spread into other formats like TV. In Australia FoxTel and Sky, in UK BSkyB, the US Fox.

    News International’s newspapers are a small set of a single, unified, global, newspaper production system. Its integrated principally by the digital pagination and advertising system, which operates on the same software as airlines or banks. Its a real-time market for matching ads to editorial and selling content. There are 140 newspapers around the world ALL sharing the same production system. The printing presses are also part of the system, and KRM has made massive investments in these news factories over the years.

    So, an editor in Australia can see into the news desk of the News of the World and see what is happening! Staff are moved around the empire all the time. Journalists and editors loyal to Murdoch, and prepared to do the dirty work are rewarded and the industrial fuedalism of personal loyalty is very strong.

    In this global news factory network, the cheapest form of content is sleaze, then sport. Next is gossip. Then opinion. In the UK its ok to do all of this, there is a market. In the US, the Republican moral majority does not allow titties on television, but Fox News is built on gossip. Research is expensive and often reveals unwelcome truths for the proprietor or his advertisers. Sleaze, sport, gossip and opinion are cheap and can be used to attack enemies.

    Fox News is tabloid journalism for the TV age. I hate to think what is being done at MySpace.

    It will be hard to contain the criminal liability just to the UK papers when the business and editorial systems are global. 140 newspapers which now includes the WSJ

    Just like the financial systems spread contagion in realtime, so too the toxic journalism and criminal content is automatically syndicated worldwide

  4. I guess I’d support the comment above — I think a lot of these trends were already in progress by the time the internet started impacting journalism, so it is hard for me to see the internet as the cause here.

    The Murdoch story has been really interesting, because you look at that initial “A Current Affair” show he put out, and you see how that — more than the internet, more than blogging — was the moment that set journalism on this course, e.g. this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPZ-G5bFEek

    Looks like normal TV now….

  5. in relation to print, obviously radio, then free-to-air-TV, the pay-TV (cable & satellite) and then movies and computer games progressively, in layers, eroded the monopoly of print. Driving the trends you mention.

    But, I remember working in internet section of a newspaper conglomerate the very moment the advertising market for internet ads became first bigger than outdoor, radio and TV, and then bigger than internet.

    Really it was Google who cemented the connection between making some sense of the internet with search technology, and making the results of that search a marketplace for advertising.

    The truth is for sale.

    See PBS’s documentary News War for an indepth, including interviews with Yahoo and Google execs, Eric himself I think

  6. Nick,

    As I was reading the above, it found a resonance with me. Enough that, if I really wanted to, I’d probably blog something on the subject myself. I have some ideas in my head. But for the sake of being very brief, I would offer you this much. Look at a TV series such as ‘The West Wing’. I don’t why, but following the financial meltdown and all of the troubles with sovereign debt here in Europe, and in particular with Ireland and Greece, I watched quite a bit of the West Wing in the last year.

    I was conscious of the fact that during the meltdown that occured in 2008, the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was doing laps of the Atlantic in an airplane trying to figure out what was going on, both at home and over yonder.

    The fact is though, it would be difficult to make a series such as ‘The West Wing’ in the 2010’s decade, for many of the reasons you outlined above in your blog entry. There aren’t as many reporters, nor in my opinion would there be the equivalent of a Claudia Jean Craig, White House Press secretary. The two went hand in hand. The press corp and press secretary staff spent an extraordinary amount of time together during the four year terms. So there is a symbiotic relationship there, which is neatly presented in ‘The West Wing’. What the TV series is like, is a play, where you get to go behind stage afters with the stage actors. You get an insight into the backdrops, and matter of which the theatre is made of, and the people who achieve the hard-to-find balance that is required.

    In particular therefore, check out the episode if you can where Joshua Lyman becomes addicted to writing responses on his old fan website, Lemon Lyman dot com. It is funny in that instance how the press secretary C.G. Craig has to tell the assistant chief of staff, in quite explicit terms (which I won’t repeat here), how to straighten out. What is really interesting about ‘The West Wing’, is it is a series that will be useful to look back at, years from now. Because it contains so many incidents such as that, that capture the transitional period between the serious journalism and what was to follow.

    All the best, BoH.