It was great to be on stage at LATE a couple of weeks ago. The panel was talking about the future of journalism and I was there to give the ‘pointy-head’ view. Brent Impey, former boss at Mediaworks, represented the ‘hard-headed’ business perspective; Eric Kealy, head of TVNZ 6 & 7 was the ‘one-foot-in-both-camps’ semi-pubic broadcasting voice and Colin Peacock, MediaWatch presenter, was, as always, the voice of reason and ‘Mr Nice Guy’.
It was a load of fun and the feedback seemed to be it was one of the liveliest panels in a while and a bit of “biff” between the panelists was seen as a good thing. The audience certainly got involved; plenty of laughter and cheers in among the serious squirrel stuff.
The video is now online at the LATE site and on YouTube, so you can watch it without leaving the comfy frontroom of Ethical lMartini
There was a twitterwall too, mostly good comments and one or two snarks.
The possibility that TVNZ might be put up for sale by a second-term National government highlights some of the contradictions in the ‘hard head’ and ‘semi-public viewpoints about broadcasting policy and political economy.
A couple of weeks ago in the Weekend Herald John Drinnan’s column raises the idea of a TVNZ float and current CEO Rick Ellis is quoted giving a personal view that it shouldn’t be sold to foreigners.
Ellis says that the Kiwi-ness of the network might be lost and also its independent voice in news and current affairs; but in fact that is not the real issue.
Foreign or domestic commercial ownership of TVNZ will have an effect. It will no longer be even ‘semi-public’ broadcasting and perhaps the TVNZ 6 & 7 channels will become shell templates into which anything discarded as commercially to hard or not profitable will be dumped.
Eric Keally talked about this model @LATE, suggesting that such a split could work with 6 & 7 becoming the home of public service broadcasting. It seems that the plan being talked about at the highest levels is creating this kind of hybrid public service broadcaster that would include Radio New Zealand, TVNZ 6 & 7 and Heartland channels and (if the real hard-heads get their way) Maori TV.
The only thing stopping the MBS being shoved in kicking and screaming is that it would be a political hard sell to the Maori constituency. But, there’s generally derision and contempt for Maori TV in some circles. Plenty of the good and powerful think it’s a disgrace that the MBS got the Rugby World Cup and there’s a feeling that MTV is totally unwatched.
Patronisingly some folk say it’s good at doing “language” stuff, but that it should leave real broadcasting to the big boys. The same people are also scornful of the MBS ever being commercially viable and they take delight in pointing out that it only survives because of cosy deals with government departments.
You see, even while paying lip service to the ideals of public broadcasting the hard heads and the semi-publics actually want the same thing. To get their hands on more of the broadcasting pie.
As I mentioned @LATE and what got me most passionate on the evening was the whole “dumbing down” debate. The hard heads and sem-publics don’t really get this. They believe in market-choice and “let the audience decide”. They also fetishise the idea of “choice”, but it is the producers who are in charge.
The people in control of production determine the content; not the audience. And while there is a great deal of choice, particularly in the digital age of endless streaming of content via the Web what does it really do for us?
It’s a downside of the “Daily Me” that fragmentation of audiences destroys our collective conversation and shatters the public sphere into millions of sphericules that don’t intersect and hardly ever interact with each other.
A speech that wasn’t given
LATE is not the sort of function where one gives a speech, but I wrote one anyway; mainly to get my thoughts clear. It’s a summary of the arguments in News 2.0, so I thought I’s share it here.
News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet?
LATE @ the museum – 3 June 2010
A/Prof Martin Hirst, Journalism Curriculum Leader,
School of Communication Studies, AUT University
I’d like to thank the Auckland War Memorial Museum for the opportunity to speak at LATE on the topic of journalism’s future.
I have been to several of these sessions and I think they are an important and fun addition to the intellectual and cultural life of this great city and of New Zealand more generally.
To be invited here as a contributor, rather than an audience member, is indeed an honour.
Can I start by explaining the title of my forthcoming book, which is in two parts.
Consuming News 2.0
The first part of the title “News 2.0” refers to the emerging paradigm for news consumption and production.
In terms of consumption the key factor in the new paradigm is mobility. We are no longer locked into to only consuming news at certain times of the day.
Typically, people of my generation (I guess I’m a late baby boomer) would consume news in fairly static and sedentary ways.
It might start with reading a morning newspaper – at home or in transit to our place of work – or with listening to a radio broadcast over breakfast, or in the car.
And then we would go into a kind of news-free zone for most of our working day. We might hear some breaking news from colleagues or friends who had heard it on the radio, but by and large, our next dose of news would be the afternoon newspaper (now most certainly the dinosaurs of the analogue age) or we would sit and watch a broadcast TV bulletin sometime in the early evening – typically the lead in to what we still call, but with less conviction perhaps, “prime time”.
For most of the past 20 years we might also – if we were serious news junkies –watch a late evening bulletin before retiring for the night.
We no longer do most of our news consuming in that way anymore. Even us baby boomers have adapted – we’ve become digital immigrants – and we consume our news through wireless connections to our laptops and tablets, on our PCs at all hours during the working day and through our mobile phones.
In fact, it hardly seems fair or adequate anymore to call these indispensible hand-held communicators “phones”.
They are so much more. A phone is also camera for still and video images; they are personal jukeboxes and they are our permanent connection to the world of news and information.
News seems to follow us around like a bad smell. It invades our pores and the membranes of our brains and it seems we can hardly ever turn it off – even if we want to.
But there’s another problem too. The very definition of news – its taken-for-grantedness and the venerated values that turn information into news – is changing too.
With mobility comes mountains of extra choice and an endless supply of news-like information that can be infinitely tailored, redesigned and reconfigured to suit our personal, individual tastes and prejudices.
We have moved from the age of broadcasting to the age of narrowcasting.
This has been described as “The Daily Me”, our ability to customise the news we see through various online readers and aggregators, RSS feeds and by “following” our favourite news sources through social media applications like Twitter or an social networking sites such as Facebook.
Social media has changed the look and feel of news forever.
From consumption to production
I will return to that theme in a moment, but first let’s look at News 2.0 from a production point of view.
And here we can introduce another important thesis from my book. There is a two-fold crisis in the news industry today. It is a situation that many senior news figures, including Arthur Sulzberger Jr of the famous newspaper family, who calls the crisis a “perfect storm”.
The first element of the crisis is about the profitability of media capital. All the major players – from Rupert Murdoch to Mediaworks’ owners Ironbridge – are very worried about declining circulations, ratings, advertising revenues and therefore a shrinking bottom line.
The almost universal response – typical of crisis management in the capitalist economy – has been downsizing. Newsrooms have shrunk, story budgets have collapsed and there are no resources for expensive overseas bureaux and highly-paid senior and investigative reporters.
As a consequence – and a likely cause of the second element of the crisis – audiences are losing trust. We no longer believe in the factual and “objective” values of the traditional news media. Journalists are among the least respected of the professions – beaten into last place in most surveys only by hookers and hucksters.
In addition we are also suffering from an overload of public relations and marketing that is repackaged into a news-like text, but clearly has a commercial, rather than an informational purpose. Most recent studies from around the globe suggest that more than half of what we see in the form of news has its origins in PR and spin.
Journalists are out-numbered by 2 or 3 to 1 in most major news markets and this imbalance is likely to get a lot worse before – if at all – it begins to improve again.
So, a very clear result of this has been the emergence of alternative forms, sources and types of news.
While we have ever greater choice and – until the great paywall comes down – unprecedented access to news sources, we are in fact consuming less of what we might call “hardcore” public interest news and more of the softer, celebrity-focused, opinion-laden and frankly at times highly unreliable forms of news-like information that is generated from the blogosphere, the twittersphere and from the broadcast yourself social media such as YouTube.
Collectively this avalanche of social media is known as Web 2.0 and the first part of my title is a play on that; which brings me to the second part of my book title:
Can journalism survive the Internet?
Why is this an issue?
There’s one very clear and simple explanation for this – the Internet and the World Wide Web (and pedants tell me they are different things) have fundamentally altered the process of news consumption and news production.
There’s obviously a lot more behind this unsurprising observation and I’ve hinted at some of it.
In more pointy-headed terms I would argue that the whole political economy of the news media has changed.
In my book, which I hope is for a general and well-informed readership, I talk about this using the metaphor of the “singularity”.
The singularity is scientifically-defined as that point in time where machine intelligence outstrips the thinking capacity of the human brain.
But I prefer to talk about it in the language of Charles Stross, one of my favourite sci-fi authors whose book, The Singularity Sky tells the story of a hyper-evolved species of machine-dwelling sentient beings who cause a full-scale revolution on an earth-like planet that they decide to visit for a spot of fun.
At one point in the book one of the sentients’ camp-followers makes a telling remark to one of the human leaders of the planetary revolt:
“Talk you of tradition in the middle of a singularity?”
The planet’s ruling elite collapses under the sheer weight of the gift economy established by the singularity’s arrival and, I would argue, we can use this metaphor to examine the news industry’s responses to Web 2.0 – the explosion of social media and social networking across the Internet.
Can journalism survive the perfect storm of declining profits, the suspicion of audiences and the threat “from below” – the millions and billions of bytes of user-generated news-like content that is being published, broadcast, narrowcast, blogged, tweeted, uploaded and downloaded across the planet.
My answer is a qualified “Yes”.
It’s “yes” because I believe that the desire for information, for us to be informed and to want “news” of our neighbours, friends and enemies is fundamental to the human condition.
We have needed and found ways to circulate news-like information from the very beginnings of human social life. I don’t see that changing any time soon.
But I qualify my belief in the future of journalism because, frankly, we just don’t know what journalism will really look like in the future.
There are currently a number of proposals, talking points and even experiments in new forms of journalistic endeavour, but nobody is certain that one or another of these models will actually work, or will be a salvation for the news industry.
I think the news industry is resilient and the signs are that the whole cultural expectation that news on the Web will be free is being worried away and slowly wound back by paywalls – Murdoch is about to close off free access to his news properties and the New York Times will do so from next year.
In New Zealand there is a paywall around the Business Review’s premiere content and we may well see Fairfax and APN follow suit.
Paywalls come with their own particular sets of problems – not the least of which is our resistance to paying and the smaller returns that accrue in online media from both subscriptions and advertising.
Most experts agree that there is a cost to the company when a paywall is imposed and that any gain in subscription revenue could be eaten up by a loss in advertising as the viewing audience is restricted.
But news companies are also finding ways to monetize the clickstream around user-generated news-like content too.
CNN’s iReport is one example of a major legacy media giant adopting some of the principles of “D-I-Y” media culture. User-generated content becomes the property of CNN and any revenue stays with the company.
In political economy terms this is free labour that can be monetized and add to the bottom line for CNN and others who adopt this model – and most large media companies operate this way.
Finally, journalism will survive the Internet but with substantial changes. There is likely to be more UGNC, not less and more audience interaction, not less and more amateur journalism, more blogging, more tweeting and more use of social media to circulate news-like content.
Whether or not this is a good thing in terms of the public interest and the public sphere is yet to be seen.