Old and new media

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. 

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Jc
Jc
13 years ago

I think papers moved away from doing indepth, beating the sidewlak type of stories, which makes the news a very commoditized “product”. How often do you read a fully lifted Reuters story these days?

Funnily enough tabloids do more of these type of stories.

Mark
13 years ago

Even LPs Mark Bahnisch confessed recently to finding it profoundly unsatisfying.

Not sure what the “even” is doing in that sentence, Ken. If you read any of the stuff I’ve written about blogging over the years, I’ve always been critical of the hyper-partisanship and superficiality of much (not all) of what passes for the “A-list” American blogosphere.

Kevin Rennie
13 years ago

You have to wonder exactly what investigative journalism is these days. Even when Bernstein and Bob Woodward were dazzling us with Watergate they relied heavily on leaks from insiders. Many deep throats do a Pulitzer make. Journalists were and are like the police. No grass, no result.
So-called citizen journalists are supposed to fill the gap left by a lack of quality professional inquiry in the mass media. The Web presents the opportunity for alternative news such as Norg but often end up as conduits for someone else’s story or analysis/commentary about what’s in the mass media.
We bloggers are a mixed bag and blessing but I don’t feel part of an elite community nor would most of us want to be.

Mark
13 years ago

Well, I disagree, Ken, for two reasons:

(1) LP encompasses ALP supporters, Greens and others who identify as lefties. If you look at all the Labor v. Green stoushes that go on in some quarters, I’m not sure that we’re all that tribal – hopefully a bit more inclusive than that.

(2) I hope we provide more substantive fare on the whole than Kos does… but that’s for others to judge.

Anyway, this is probably a distraction from the substantive points you make, though it’s a distraction you yourself invited too.

Mark
13 years ago

Fair enough, Ken, but I suspect I’m more sceptical of the degree to which cross-ideological conversation can be productive than you are. There’ve been plenty of examples in some of the comments threads around here where snark has trumped discussion – and that’s not a criticism, just an observation.

You seem to have caught the Zeitgeist here at any rate. A number of academic observers of the blogosphere, such as my Creative Industries colleagues Axel Bruns and Jason Wilson, have been making a similar argument about the potential of expert bloggers as contributors to public debate through a sort of citizen journalism role. I don’t disagree, or with a lot of the observations you make, but I doubt that expert opinion comes without its own political and ideological commitments, and I think it’s best for genuine debate if they’re not disguised under the guise of objectivity.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

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.

If I understood correctly, so much was in fact the intention, with regard to current affairs at least, of pajamasmedia.

And for a long time Arts and Letters Daily has served that kind of a function for, well, the Arts and Letters.

And as you note, missing link daily is something of that ilk for the opinion pages.

I think it is a good thing – especially the flexibility and customisability you describe. But ultimately people seem attracted to a ‘tribal’ ethos – and so flock to the various forums, etc, on their topic and attitude of choice – kind of like the on-line version. And whilst I agree about the negatives of that, I suspect it is the likely result for the majority.

One possible cure might be that as more people grow up with this sort of stuff, and are hopefully exposed more to blogs and comments threads in school, there might emerge a greater proportion of society both accustomed to and keen on dialectic and argument. Reading newspapers or watching the news is generally quite passive, and you have to bother thinking about it yourself to find the arguments implicitly addressed or assumed. On a blog like troppo, they will generally be put out before you in a comment thread. On a blog like LP, they might be, or otherwise, timblair will have mentioned them for you and a quick search will reveal that.

Personally I would see that kind of phenomenon as a public good well worth having.

Mark
13 years ago

Ken, I think you’re putting words into my mouth. I’m not defending “tribalism” because I don’t accept the terms in which you’re framing the debate. I agree with you on this:

Without question the ideal of dispassionate enquiry and detached academic objectivity are unachievable goals (as I noted in the primary post). However theyre goals worth striving for, at least by way of seeking to acknowledge ones own biases and present the other side of the argument where reasonably possible.

Laura
13 years ago

Re: Old media beyond news services, it’s surely interesting that the new editor of Meanjin is, among other things, a blogger, is not in the least opposed to onlining aspects of the magazine (though she’s planning to offer different content in the different channels) and is commissioning writing from bloggers as well as from writiers of the other kind.

Robert
Robert
13 years ago

Another perspective on tribalism for what it’s worth. Clearly the msm (generally; but becoming less so?) feels itself an institution with blogs and bloggers as their inferior. That could be regarded as tribalism, and it’s not difficult to see why those in it would think that way. Television, particularly, as an industry has a very strong culture where you are ‘in it or not in it’.

Not dissimilarly and equally understandably, bloggers themselves link, refer and relate to each other (online) with an obvious binding mindset if not culture being the mere fact they are bloggers. Bloggers and their pieces are linked and referred to differently, arguably, than had those same pieces, personalities or paras been included in some part of the msm, where, if in the latter, (arguably) those same referring bloggers may not give a tinker about it and might even shun it. This is evidenced by the otherwise non-partisan postings they make. By the same token found in msm, that’s tribalism.

Obviously each has its benefits and setbacks, in the pursuit of ideals mentioned here.

Tribalism may itself be an emotive and passionate word, struck-through with the desire to gather, protect, share, celebrate etc, and can go on to a hint of warfare – with us or agin us. (Emotion and passion are good things, not exclusively, yes?)

Humans want to gather – it’s a totally natural and beneficial thing to do; we see it in all manners of expression: sport, business etc. We can see dispassionately that in those fields a panoply of predispositions and personalities of peoples periodically or permanently preside or partake. They’re often called groups.

It’s the confection which is indeed pointless.

MSM tribalism of and within itself, and so too of and within blogging, is recognisably becoming eroded in some ways – those barriers may need to be much further eroded yet before either of them find their place in this brave new world. But it is inspiring that at the core of each is the overall binding quality of the human need to express.

jc
jc
13 years ago

Ken

An example of how new medium does so, so much better. Take business news for instance. You can now go Bloomberg and listen to all sorts of in depth interviews with all sorts of people involved in the business world, economics etc. that is quite frankly superior to what you get from newspapers.

Book reviews at C-span are quite frankly terrific.

Old media has a tough fight on its hands. There have been on going rumours that Google will take over the NYTimes and somehow mesh into its product suite as a way of using that fantasitic brand name.

We shouldn’t cry for these older entities. Our choices are now so much more.