The other night I went to see Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s fine play about a photojournalist who searches for the never-identified Chinese man and hero of an iconic picture who stood defiantly in front of a line of tanks just after the massacre in Tiananmen Square.
On the way out of the theatre, I bumped into a fellow journalist. The newsroom dialogue was witty and sharp we happily agreed. And our favourite among those bits we also agreed was the crusty American editor spitting with rage about online comments below the newspaper’s online articles.
Frank, the editor in the play, is killing the search for the “tank man” because it costs too much and because the paper now has Chinese investors. Joe, the photographer, provokes this pungent speech from Frank by telling him that as an editor he’s supposed to be a guardian of a free press. Frank, sick of change, replies:
“Don’t you dare sit there and suffer at me, hell I suffer too! You think I enjoy using the word ‘multi-platform’? That I think it’s desirable to employ the best writers in the country, then stick a comments section under their articles, so whatever no-neck fucker from Arkansas can chip in his five uninformed, misspelled, hateful cents because God forbid an opinion should go unvoiced? Assholes Anonymous validating eachother in packs under my banner, that’s not a democratic press, it’s a nationwide circle-jerk for imbeciles.”
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that the news media shape, frame and alter public opinion. Only up to a point: the exceptions to this rule help to explain public reactions to both the use of nerve toxins in Syria and to the surveillance revelations of Edward Snowden.
This morning, pundits on both sides of the Atlantic are scrambling to assess the British parliamentary vote against military action against the Syrian government. The way in which public opinion is moving on Syria, surveillance and relations between Britain and America can be partly explained by two striking qualifications to the simple idea that news media tell people what to think.
Sometimes, public opinion moves independently of discussion in the media and does not reproduce the prevailing consensus inside mainstream newsrooms. In the 1990s, British (and Danish) public opinion began to turn doubtful on the European Union before sceptical opinions started turning up in newspapers. Media opinions in Britain were not unanimous about joining the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, but there was majority in favour; public opinion was against. Most editorials in London this week tilted in favour of action in Syria; public opinion is solidly opposed.
Secondly, when the tone and conclusions reached in the public sphere differ from what opinion polls tell us people think, the difference is usually the result of long, slow deep changes in mood and thinking. Journalists like to present change as something sudden which has just happened. Big changes in consensus don’t occur as right-angled turns. They are gradual, tentative, empirical and often only half-observed.
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The sale of the Washington Post for $250m to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may have taken Washington DC unawares – newspaper people are good at being secretive when it matters – but nothing in this emblematic story is surprising. There’s every chance that this is a good development. Here’s why.
The Post, owned until Monday by three generations of the Graham family, had been struggling as a media business and had sought a way out by buying into businesses which looked likely to help keep the company afloat. It had become an electronic education corporation with a famous newspaper as an appendage. Last month, the company bought a furnace business; it stopped describing itself as a media business some time ago.
Editorially, the paper still holds the attention of Washington’s older movers and shakers; its reporting can still set the capital’s agenda. But advertising revenue had fallen steadily, partly because it was not recruiting younger readers in sufficient numbers. Its editorial personality has lost much of its self-confidence.
I’ve written a book (published next month) which tries to explain exactly how this kind of crisis has come about in the European and American print news media. I argue that despite the threnodies for mainstream newspapers in difficulty and decline, the future prospects for journalism are good. As it happens, the book’s graph showing how online advertising income has not compensated for the loss of print ad income uses the example of the Washington Post.
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To judge by the prevailing tone of public discussion, journalism in Europe and America has been suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown. Jobs are lost as newsrooms contract, print circulations shrink and online news startups fail because they can’t make enough to survive. The portrait of some newsrooms painted by the Leveson Inquiry was not pretty.
Writing a book which examines these issues, I’ve come to think that most of this gloom is overdone and out of date. Certainly, much is lost in a phase of change. But I am sure that the net impact of digital communications on journalism will come to be seen as positive and not negative. My book is called Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Era and here is the elevator pitch version of its argument.
- Journalism is being renewed and re-engineered for new conditions. It is almost impossible to measure with scientific precision, but the generative energy needed to adapt the ideals of journalism to radically new possibilities does exist. Established journalists often seem determined not to see the evidence of this.
- The fact that a single business model to sustain journalism hasn’t been found to replace the broken print-advertising one doesn’t mean that online news businesses can’t succeed without philanthropic or state support. Gradually, larger numbers of new platforms are succeeding even as many fail.
- I reached this optimistic frame of mind not only by looking at the present and speculating about the future but by recalling the past. Journalism exists in inherently unstable conditions (the junction of social and democratic purposes with the market) and is always being renegotiated, improvised and the subject of experiments. The dominance of printed journalism, for example, began crumbling earlier than most people realise. The aggregate circulations of British national newspapers peaked in the early 1950s.
- The greatest single driver of change is the quantity of information available. That shifts the emphasis of reporting and editing to the management of abundance, for information in quantity is not the same as information on which you can rely. Many journalists have yet to come to terms with this shift. (There’s an excellent piece on this theme here from Slate’s business and economic writer Matthew Yglesias).
- Why have journalists (myself included) been slow to adapt? Possible reasons include…the news business is inherently conservative because its practitioners are so caught up in the daily/hourly struggle…the importance of independence to journalists has meant a resistance both to change and to accepting advice (such as from software geeks).
- But a corner has been turned. The long trends show that print won’t disappear, but that as a vehicle (and a culture) for news it will be much less important in the future. As digital re-routes the way information travels and changes access to knowledge, the exciting challenge is to adapt journalism’s basic aims to a new phase.
That’s the short version: I naturally hope that you’ll read the longer version (you can pre-order here). I’m about to take my summer break, but when the book is published in September I’ll most probably be writing about it again….
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Does any media person in New York and Washington ever read any history? Viewed from the English side of the Atlantic, there is a weird debate going on in the United States over journalism and partisanship. Irrespective of the opinions, the really peculiar thing is that the disagreement is happening at all.
The electronic spying revelations made by Edward Snowden and reported by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian have spawned a side-exchange of fire among American journalists in which Greenwald is accused of partisanship. His strong opinions, it is implied or said, disqualify him from the status of reporter and should place his stories under suspicion. This is poor logic and wilful ignorance of the past. Much better to ask: is this stuff true?
Jack Shafer, the inimitable US media critic, does read history and here he collects the American material to rebut the idea that you should or can have journalism without strong ideas and passions. Here also is an interview given by Nick Lemann reminding us that, once, all journalism was opinion.
I find the American discussion of this very odd to read, not least because I’ve been looking at what the changes of the last two decades (digital technology, the internet) do to journalism for a book which comes out in the UK and US in September. My perspective is more Anglo and European than the strictly stateside Greenwald debate, but the conclusion is the same. Journalism is not a branch of mechanical science.
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Hat-tips to Gordon MacMillan and Jay Rosen respectively.
Any time from this week, we may hear news from the government ministers assigned to solve the conundrum of press regulation. Consultation on one of the many royal charters which have been written since the Leveson Report was published more than six months ago has finished and we may hear how the government hopes to get out of the deep doo-doo it’s walked into.
Or possibly not. Lord Leveson remarks more than once in his report that press regulation is a subject about which politicians may have, or even voice, opinions. When in office, they rapidly conclude that they are determined to do as little as possible. The toughness of the present dilemmas isn’t going to change that.
Any system of press regulation which is “independent” of the state and politicians can’t, by definition, be compulsory and even if it were, news publishing groups increasingly pivoting to become global online publishers could operate from outside British legal jurisdiction. Yet a cross-party majority of MPs want, and have voted for, a tougher system of accountability than the three largest national newspaper publishers will accept.
There are now six versions of Royal Charters in play, all claiming to be to be the best balance between freedom and restraint. These six versions have all been generated despite the claim made for Royal Charters – that they protect the independence of a press regulation system from future political interference – having been strongly challenged. Six charters may just be the start.
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Two quick reading links for the weekend. Both of these excellent pieces would fall into the category of “explainers” but do it so well that the explanation rises to the level of useful originality.
- David Gardner’s analysis for the FT of the very dangerous context for the decision by the US to arm the Syrian rebels – or at least to try to arm only some of them. Gardner concentrates on the centuries-old Sunni vs Shia warfare as the driver of events but concludes that outside intervention is preferable to none.
- Steve Richards dissection for The Guardian of the electoral gloom affecting both major British political parties. He is surely right that this pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cool illustration too.