No Future! A pessimistic and money-grubbing view of journalism

The Philistine phase of the digital age is almost over. The aggregators and the plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content. But if we do not take advantage of the current movement toward paid-for content, it will be the content creators, the people in this hall, who will pay the ultimate price and the content kleptomaniacs will triumph.

Rupert Murdoch, Beijing, October 2009

The writing is on the wall…but actually the content creators were not in Beijing with Rupert Murdoch; they’re scattered across the globe and Murdoch wants their content, he just doesn’t want to pay for it.

Can you imagine a future without journalism: a time in which journalists are replaced by “content directors” and amateurs?

As journalist and commentator Peter Kirwan put it in Wired magazine:

If traditional journalism is too expensive, and if user-generated content really is “good enough”, the way forward seems obvious.

For some news industry managers, this is a happy prospect: they can legitimately get rid of the expensive journalists, take your amateur copy for free and rake in the profits.

I have written about this new political economy of journalism and the news industry in News 2.0, which is with the publisher and should be on the shelves in the first half of next year. My argument is that the MSM has clearly learned from the open-source movement and also from social media and citizen journalism experiments such as Indymedia, Slashdot, etc and that – as capitalism does – the news industry is colonising these spaces that were once counter-cultural and oppositional in order to harvest the surplus value that’s lurking there.

We’re all familiar with “monetizing” the clickstream, well what we’re seeing here is the application of these principles to the news production process; CNN’s iReport is the clearest example: the “unedited,unfiltered” tagline on the site is plagiarised – I’m sure – deliberately from Indymedia.

And now Rupert Murdoch – often in the vanguard of media capital – is certainly aware of the need to “monetize” citizen and amateur journalism, as well as to throw up a paywall around the cheap and nasty copy his news organisations generate. In a speech at the World Media Summit in Beijing, Murdoch once again returned to his theme:

Media companies know that if you do not respond intelligently and creatively to the digital challenge, your future will be bleak indeed.

But don’t worry, he adds in coded language – we know how to capture the value and keep ourselves alive, bugger the quality, feel the width. Another Murdoch, heir-apparent James has also chimed in, attacking the BBC for having a monopoly and a subsidised advantage over Murdoch’s own British media interests. I have no doubt that the war for territory, eyeballs, advertising and profits in the media industry is hotting up.

Of course, we all know that journalists are the meat in the sandwich here, but I was intrigued by this tweet from NYU’s Jeff Jarvis this morning:

My advice to these unemployed J-grads: Start a blog, build a brand & business.

Jarvis was referring to this piece in the New York Times about twins who had completed journalism training, but couldn’t find work in New York. I’m sure Jeff thinks this snappy one-liner is good advice, but IMHO, it’s trite and worthless. The idea that somehow individual journalists can turn themselves into mini-Ruperts by becoming entrepreneurs in a crowded media world flies in the face of the trending political economy of journalism and the news industry. It is working, almost, for some big names who have managed to make a brand out of their personal space. But we’re talking about a handful of former senior correspondents, not two 20-somethings fresh out of J-school.

There’s a link here between Jarvis,  Murdoch’s speech and Kirwan’s piece in Wired: all three are signaling that the profound change in media and journalism is far from over and that it’s going to be a rocky ride. In a sense too, what unites Murdoch and Jarvis is a belief in a future where those troublesome journalists are no longer in the way of the money-flow.

Peter Kirwan’s piece in Wired, Imagining a future without journalism,  was published the same day that Murdoch senior’s Beijing speech was reported and it is depressing reading for anyone who thinks that quality journalism is still important:

David Montgomery is a former News Corporation editor who now runs Mecom, a quoted UK-based company that publishes 200 local newspapers in Scandinavia, Holland and Poland. Rather like Colo, with whom he has little else in common, Montgomery envisages a world in which perhaps 10 per cent of newspaper content – the “tip of the iceberg” – is written by journalists.

The rest will be contributed, for low or no fee, by citizen journalists. Legions of sub-editors – the introverted types who prepare journalists’ copy for publication – will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Montgomery isn’t very keen on editors, either. Soon, his newspapers will be managed by content directors, rather than editors. Mecom’s content directors will have a brief to “commercialise” journalism. “Our culture is a million miles away from what’s required for the coming years.” … “But when you start to think about commercialising content,” he added, “then you get to see what newspapers might look like in the future.”

The concern here has to be for the quality of information, particularly for news that informs and frames public debate. Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much if trade-style publications become PR repositories, but it matters more if business news is reduced to scads of quantitative data with no interpretive framework.

If this is the future of general news then we’re stuffed. As Kirwan suggests, the business model of cheap and cheerful content that has been pioneered in trade magazines, might spread like a swine flu virus:

In recent years, business publishers have pioneered a whole range of new platforms and techniques that that were subsequently adopted by mainstream media. Podcasting? Blogging? Webcasting? Online video? Centralised editorial production? Social media? Business publishing has had more than its fair share of early adopters.

The vision of a journalist-free future that’s taking shape within the sector may soon prove relevant in the wider world, too.

We have been warned.

We should also remember an earlier speech by Murdoch that garnered much attention at the time, but which has now been shown to have been false prophecy. Do you remember this?

“Power is moving away from the old elite in our industry – the editors, the chief executives and, let’s face it, the proprietors,” said Mr Murdoch, having flown into London from New York after celebrating his 75th birthday on Saturday.

Rupert Murdoch, Internet means end for media barons,  March 2006

Yeah right Rupert.

Murdoch made this speech at a time when media capital was still unsure about how to respond to social media and the shifting demographics of news consumption. Three years later, and they’ve got a handle on it: disestablish the journalism profession by stealth; copyright the free stuff they get from amateurs and start charging hard for online content.

There’s life in these dinosaurs yet.

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4 Responses to No Future! A pessimistic and money-grubbing view of journalism

  1. newswithnipples says:

    One problem with throwing a paywall around a news site is that the stories most people click on are the ones they’re unlikely to pay for.

    And will all the senior journos quitting/being made redundant, news rooms are now full of cheap young people who have grown up with weasel words and don’t notice them.

  2. As someone who has worked as a citzen journalism editor I’d be very surprised to see mainstream media being able to rely on free user generated content for a significant portion of their output. My experience is that readers submit opinion and label it news, ofen don’t spell-check, sometimes don’t fact-check, often don’t make any attempt to prove their accusations and hence are quite likely to commit libel. Not to mention the kind of trouble those aspriing to be “revolver journalists” but have no journalism training can get the news sites they publish on into (and I’ve dealt with such situations). I see many areas where eyewitness reports can be vital and valuable, where mainstream media can cooperate more and better with their readers/viewers/listeners, but I fail to see that cit-j poses any realistic threat to, or a realistic substitute for, journalism.

    I’ve also covered Mecom’s European adventure since 2006 and I struggle to see any realism in the dark scenario painted here. I’m intimately familiar with the situation in many of the company’s newspapers and the contribution to their output from their cit-j sites is miniscule and almost entirely dependent on journalists and other staff to turn it into a meaningful journalistic product.

  3. [...] It works on principles of price and profit so it favours the wealthy and powerful every time. Privately-owned media has a vested interest and strong interest in preserving the status quo. The public deserves more than [...]

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