BBC TV screened a debate yesterday on the future of old and new media. Panellists included Google founder Sergey Brin and Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. I’ll certainly be watching when the streaming video becomes available in the next day or two.
It’s a popular topic internationally at the moment. Even some New York newspapers’ futures are seemingly in doubt with online news media increasingly capturing eyeballs and eBay and other such sites diverting the classified advertising “rivers of gold” away from the traditional media moguls’ monopoly control. Hence all the “where is it leading?” navel-gazing. Eric Alterman had a fascinating piece in the New Yorker a few days ago, in which he both bemoaned and reconciled the likely passing of the era of the great print newspaper:
It is a point of ironic injustice, perhaps, that when a reader surfs the Web in search of political news he frequently ends up at a site that is merely aggregating journalistic work that originated in a newspaper, but that fact is not likely to save any newspaper jobs or increase papers stock valuation.
Alterman notes the increasing dominance of partisan news media outlets like Fox News and blog-based offerings like Daily Kos and Huffington Post that don’t even make a pretense of journalistic objectivity but instead work on a business model based on creating audiences as participant “communities” unified around ideological tribalism:
The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of newsand each with its own set of truths upon which to base debate and discussionwill mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of facts by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly red or blue. This is not utterly new. Before Adolph Ochs took over the Times, in 1896, and issued his famous without fear or favor declaration, the American scene was dominated by brazenly partisan newspapers. And the news cultures of many European nations long ago embraced the notion of competing narratives for different political communities, with individual newspapers reflecting the views of each faction. It may not be entirely coincidental that these nations enjoy a level of political engagement that dwarfs that of the United States.
Alterman argues that the great era of American broadsheet journalism was fuelled by an elitist liberal cognoscenti-based vision of the journalist’s role, fashioned by the influential writings of Walter Lipmann in the 1920s, and that the current movement back towards a more tribal or “community”-based overtly partisan model is to an extent an inevitable reaction to that elitist model. Moreover, the desirable notion of neutrality, balance and objectivity idealised by Lipmann was at best an impossible aspiration and in some respects outright fraudulent. Cultivation of a neutral tone and separation of fact from opinion often merely disguise bias in the choice of which stories are newsworthy and which aren’t, what “angle” to emphasise, and which aspects should be subjected to “investigative journalism” as opposed to those implicitly treated as self-evident fact.
On the other hand, commenter JB at Matthew Yglesias’s place notes:
Alterman misses the point. The importance of newspapers is not that they create a single national narrative, they’ve taken a back-seat to TV on that front since probably the 1950’s. The reason newspapers are critical is because they are the only folks doing actual boots on the ground investigative reporting these days. TV “reporting” is a joke. And blogs only exist to discuss facts someone else reported. Our whole news media infrastructure is dependent on newspaper reporters going out and investigating stories to generate the facts that everyone else then hashes over endlessly. The slow death of the newspapers is actually an important story…
However, maybe JB misses the point too. How often do most newspapers carry out genuine investigative journalism these days? Moreover, who said that whatever forms of electronic media that end up supplanting newspapers won’t still pursue or commission investigative reporting, even if it is mostly directed at their ideological opponents?
As for “reporters going out and investigating stories to generate the facts”, that has mostly been done for a long time by generic news agencies like Reuters and Associated Press. It seems likely that they will continue to thrive as providers of raw news stories for a wide range of media packagers or aggregators from multiple sources, even after the last print newspaper rolls off the press. Indeed today’s newspapers are already mere aggregators to a considerable extent, their copy republished from international news agencies with only a few stories generated in-house.
Internet-based media ventures are increasingly subscribing to and repackaging news agency material themselves, in flexible and innovative ways. Take the Voxant NewsRoom world news video feed accompanying this post. It packages video news feeds from Reuters, AP, CBC and other sources and allows bloggers and others to embed them freely in their websites, aiming at generating advertising revenue by these “viral” means. Voxant allows participating bloggers to gain some minimal revenue from the advertising while Voxant itself keeps the lion’s share. It’s not unlike Google Ads except that Voxant at least provides bloggers with meaningful content not just ads that pay pissant money.
What most interests me about this emerging Brave New World of media is an obvious question: where do bloggers fit? One possible answer is the one that Arianna Huffington and Marcos Moulitsas exemplify; huge advertising-driven tribal blogging empires of the like-minded engaging in mutually reinforcing “groupthink”. Even LP’s Mark Bahnisch confessed recently to finding it profoundly unsatisfying. The tribal stuff rapidly becomes mind-numbingly boring for all but the most deeply stupid. However, the broader blogosphere offers so much more. A leisurely browse at Missing Link almost any day of the week reveals it. Not so much in the straight political commentary sections, they’re mostly just as stereotypically predictable as Huffington, Daily Kos, Instapundit etc, although there are rare exceptions like Possum Comitatus, whose political commentary would stand out in any company.
However, take a good look at the range of offerings in the economics, law, issues analysis and arts sections of Missing Link. Most days you can read numerous thoughtful analyses from experts in their own fields, not to mention dedicated amateur afficonados, which leave most writing in the current mainstream media floundering in their wake.
We have already entered a new era of online media where media-savvy “geek” readers select their own preferred material using feed readers and other even more sophisticated technologies, while new media entrepeneurs large and small seek to establish themselves as “gatekeepers” who filter, aggregate and package material from a wide range of sources including blogs, and “value-add” through exercising a measure of editorial quality control for the great majority who don’t have the time or inclination to sort through mountains of information and opinion looking for material worth reading, but whose tastes and preferences can be logged and catered for flexibly by technological means.
In that sort of Brave New Media World, the material created by expert academic and other bloggers writing material for an educated general audience from diverse specialist standpoints (or at least informed by professional expertise that ordinary journalists can’t match) is extraordinarily valuable. It might even result in a finer-grained, more “organic” and less fraudulent form of the knowledgeable liberal elite journalism that Walter Lipmann envisaged all those years ago, arising Phoenix-like from the ashes of print journalism.