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IS THIS THE END OF “OLD” JOURNALISM, OR THE BEGINNING OF A “NEW” ONE?

The trouble is that this golden age is thought by many to be a brief prelude to headlong decline, at least in the public interest journalism that keeps governments and institutions in their toes. For the new web-based media are taking enough readers and advertisers from the old media to damage its business model without having the inclination or resources to continue its boring-but-worthy coverage of local legislatures, law courts, planning inquiries and so on. One of the reasons that the new media cannot replace the serious bits of the old is that people are used to getting it for nothing. In theory that could be reversed –we could even go further and fax email– but the industry consensus is that it is now too late to charge. That leaves state subsidy or philanthropy to fill the gap. Instead of endowing university chairs, perhaps trusts or philanthropists will, in future, pay for investigative reporters. This already happens in the trust-owned Guardian, one of the few British papers that still put money into investigations.
So, a first question is: can “old” journalism survive?
By another point of view, expressed by distinguished journalist and academic Ian Hargreaver, journalism entered the 21st century caught in a paradox of its own making. We have more news and more influential journalism, across an unprecedented range of media, than at any time since the birth of the free press in the 18th century. Yet, journalism is also under unprecedented attack, from politicians, philosophers, the general public, and globalization radicals, religious groups and even from journalists themselves. This is an attempt to explain this paradox and to explore the possible implications.
The first stage of the paradox, the ascent in journalism’s influence, is easily explained. Its underlying cause is the growth in the cultural, political and economic value of information, facilitated by the emergence of new, cheap electronic technologies to distribute and display news and the industry of commentary which today surrounds the news. It is now widely understood that without abundant and accessible information, we can have neither the democracy in which we believe, nor the economic growth and consumer choice we desire.
Also, when information travels as fast as it does, it can wreak destruction before there is time for it to be understood. In the world of instant journalism, reputations are destroyed and privacies trivially invaded in the time it takes to switch TV channels. Junk food may be convenient and taste OK at the first bite, but its popularity raises longer term questions of public health; so too with junk journalism.
The circumstances of modern news thus test the journalist’s judgement and honesty, not in fundamentally new ways, but more routinely and at greater speed than ever before. If the journalist is secretly the tool of some invisible public relations machine or vested commercial interest, it is the public whose interest is betrayed. In politics, democracy itself is at stake in this world of high-speed, always-on-news. Political reporters pronounce sudden verdicts upon the politicians they often outshine in fame and, as a result, parliaments everywhere feel themselves reduced to side-attractions in the great non-stop media show.
There are many symptoms of the difficulties now pilling up around this pervasive journalism. We know, from opinion surveys, that journalists are less trusted and less esteemed than used to be the case. In terms of trust, journalists rank alongside the politicians they have helped drag down, but behind business executives and civil servants and way behind the most respected professionals such as doctors, teachers and scientists. Through several events, sceptisism about journalism has started to eat at the soul of our democratic values. Under these circumstances, in the US, but also in Greece and probably in other European countries too, a movement of “concerned journalists” has emerged, advocating a return to basic professional standards of accurate and balanced reporting and campaigning against what it sees as an over-commercial new media.

NEW CHALLENGES

It’s a fact that today newspapers are in remorseless, if gradual, decline. An American research reports that today a minority of people say they read a newspaper the previous day –compared to 60% only fifteen years ago. In Greece, more than three quarters of people today do not regard newspapers as an important source of news, whereas almost everyone watches television news.
This change is of huge significance, not least because of the difference in political and economic culture which attended the birth of the press and the electronic media. Newspapers have their roots in commercial markets and a period when citizens were struggling, via their newspapers, for democratic rights. By contrast, radio was born on the threshold of a totalitarian era in Europe and, for technical reasons, developed initially either as a state monopoly or an oligopoly licensed by the state, based upon the state’s ownership of broadcast spectrum. Television, which came to maturity in the second half of the 20th century, also involved very strong state influence, either through licensing in democracies, or direct control in more authoritarian settings.
In this third, digital era of electronic news media, based around the internet and other broadband communications technologies, the formative creative and political cultures are different again, this time based upon a fusion of economic liberalism and globalization with a technology rooted partly in the Pentagon and partly in the world’s leading research universities. The effects of these waves of technological change upon culture, ethics and practices of journalism, have already been profound. Today there are instant news services from all sorts of communities of interest, from cancer sufferers to anti-capitalist campaigners, the latter styling their own “anti-media” organizations “independent media centers”. “Anyone with a modem can report to the world”, says Matt Drudge, the Hollywood-based internet journalist and gossip-monger, whose work precipitated crisis at the Clinton White.
This short report is an attempt to describe the forces at work upon contemporary journalism and to judge the concerns of the defenders of “old news” values against the enthusiasm of the “new news” generation. My assumption is that journalism matters not just to journalists, but to everyone. Good journalism provides the information and opinion upon which successful democratic societies depend –you corrupt that, and you corrupt everything.
Therefore, a discussion must follow within our Association –and it is urgent.