The end of journalism?

Next weekend [17-18 October] I’m speaking at a conference in Luton with the dread-inducing title, The end of journalism? The question mark is probably the most encouraging symbol here. It signifies that it might no be the end.

The conference has been organised by journalism and media studies academics at the University of Bedfordshire and I was lucky enough to score a late invitation thanks to my new City University colleague, James. The conference organisers have outlined the purpose of the international gathering against the background of the commercial and confidence crisis now besetting the news industry globally.

The last few years have witnessed a fresh wave of claims for the potential of internet-based technologies to widen participation in the public sphere. This period has also witnessed a steady stream of jeremiads about the impact of user-generated content on professional journalism. This wide-reaching cultural debate takes places against the backdrop of the ongoing restructuring of the global news industries.  In some quarters these changes are regarded with deep suspicion whilst others see a bright future for the media. Central to arguments presented by both sides in this debate is the value of ‘journalistic’ function to wider society. [Conference blurb and agenda]

The conference title prompted me to do a Google search and there’s a couple of blog sites that also adopt the End of Journalism title, but without the comfort of the question mark.

So are we approaching the end of journalism? I’m not sure, but the tagline on End of Journalism blogsite seems to summarise the problems quite nicely. “Changing media Growing competition Vanishing trust

The aims of the site are good, it’s probably a must-check destination for anyone interested in the issues.

The End of Journalism? – EofJ – is a forum for people who feel uneasy about the current state of journalism and who wish to discuss and analyse the crisis. EofJ aims to open the floor for a dedicated discussion on the future of international journalism with the aim of improving the quality of communication in the public sphere.

You can sign up for an account at the site and it’s free. However, EofJ is not the only place on the InterWebs where you can find discussion of this issue. In 2007 the Center for Environmental Journalism raised the question in response to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2007 State of Journalism report. This report and the blogpost both make it clear that one of the key issues is the lack of a sustainable business model for the news media as traditional audiences and revenues collapse globally.

CEJ blog The end of journalism as we know it?

On Madison Avenue, talk has turned to whether the business model that has financed the news for more than a century — product advertising — still fits the way people consume media.

PEJ State of the News Media 2007 report

I found an interesting take on the end of journalism at SFGate, the online portal for the San Francisco Chronicle. Andrew Ross has simply collated a range of stories covering Rupert Murdoch’s buy up of the iconic Wall Street Journal. I had to suppress a smile thinking that this voracious capitalist might well be the “grave digger” for the burial of the old industrial journalism model.

In 2006 the issue was raised by journalism students at the College of New Jersey in response to a story that they struggled to cover. The story involved the disappearance of the son of a college professor. The students were upset at the way the mainstream media cannibalised photographs from the missing boy’s Facebook page and created an image of him that was at odds with what his friends and fellow students knew of him. The students were so upset about the mainstream media’s coverage that they wrote a collective editorial in their online publication, The Signal.

Our staff is comprised mostly of journalism students; we have been taught to believe in the nobler merits of the profession, the unflagging pursuit of truth. For the reporters who have haunted this campus since the investigation began last week, truth gave way to sensationalism and scandal. [read the editorial in The Signal]

This is a signal issue (pardon the pun) for journalists and scholars and it reflects the third stanza of the End of Journalism mission statement: “Vanishing trust”.

It seems we might have been approaching the end of journalism for a few years now. it’s probably slowly been dawning on us for about four or five years, but the pace of change has increased since the whole Web 2.0 technological power leap. In particular, declining newspaper circulation and television news viewing figures have been worrying news executives for a while. Their concerns are probably growing exponentially as we’ve seen no reverse in this trend, in fact the exodus from appointment news seems to be unstoppable.

Writing in The Washington Post and the San Diego Union-Tribune, George F Will, suggested that the long-tail of news consumption is disappearing as younger people don’t want to get involved in news watching or reading.

Baby boomers who became adults in the 1970s consume less journalism than their parents did. And although in 1972 nearly half of those 18 to 22 read a newspaper every day; now less than a quarter do…The young are voracious consumers of media, but not of journalism. ‘read George F Will, [Approaching the end of journalism]

This is one reason why business models are not working. Perhaps it’s not yet time to panic, but soon it might be. But there’s another interesting fault line that’s particularly evident in the United States, but has its cultural echoes in other parts of the world too.

In this trope, the decline of the media is not just (or even) a matter of audience disinterest and dropping advertising revenues, it’s all the fault of those nasty liberals and leftists who’ve taken over the asylum.

Writing on the Blogger News Network site, Chase Hamil made the argument explicit in relation to the failure of Time magazine to nominate George W Bush as one of the most influential people of 2007.

The selections (and omissions) of TIME’s 2007 Top 100 list are one more piece of evidence of the growing liberal slant of most major media outlets. Here are some of the bimbos and bozos who did make the list: Rosie O’Donnell, Kate Moss, Tina Fey, Sacha Baron Cohen (also known as “Borat”), Leonardo DiCaprio, and Justin Timberlake. [read Hamil’s opinions]

The dominance of liberalism and leftism in the American media is a well worn myth, but it strikes a chord with more conservative people and those who don’t really understand the cultural and ideological dynamics that operate in the media. Another complaint – that I’ve dealt with before on Ethical Martini – is the troublesome question of objectivity.

The influential blogger, Dan Gillmor, believes we’re seeing the end of objectivity, which is not the same as the end of journalism, but it might be the beginning of the end of journalism as we know it from the 20th century.

Objectivity is a construct of recent times. One reason for its rise in the journalism sphere has been the consolidation of newspapers and television into monopolies and oligopolies in the past half-century. If one voice overwhelms all the others, there is a public interest in playing stories as straight as possible — not favoring one side over the other (or others, to be more precise, as there are rarely just two sides to any issue)…

I’d like to toss out objectivity as a goal, however, and replace it with four other notions that may add up to the same thing. They are pillars of good journalism: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and transparency. [Dan Gillmor, The end of objectivity]

I tend to agree with this position and have written to this effect in the book I did with Roger Patching, Journalism Ethics: Arguments and Cases. Objectivity has been under pressure for many years, not just the past decade. I first became interested in the issue and considered it to be active when I read Hunter Thomspons’ famous lines about Richard Nixon and objectivity. Thompson called objectivity a “curse”. He was not one to shy away from strong language; in this case I think he was dead right.

I’m hoping that the Luton conference might provide some food for thought, though perhaps not a great deal of answers. I’ll be posting again when I’ve been and seen.

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