(Not quite) The end of journalism

Over the past weekend I was at a conference hosted by the University of Bedfordshire in Luton. The conference, of mainly journalism academics, was provocatively titled ‘The end of journalism?’ It turns out that the conference organisers were having a bit of fun with us.

Like all good journos (and former journos), they could not resist the punning headline. The ambiguity was at first lost on me. I assumed we were talking about the end of (as in the finish of), but Alec Charles and Gavin Stewart also had in mind the end of (as in the purpose of) journalism.

In this sense, they argued, bloggers and internet reporters could be seen as continuing a forceful and individualist culture of anti-authoritariansim that has motivated some of the best reportage for centuries.

So if we are not witnessing the end of journalism, at least we can be around for the birth (perhaps) of something new, but that also celebrates and continues the tradition of journalism into the digital age.

The problem with a conference like this (in fact almost all academic conferences) is that as a participant-observer, you only ever get to see and hear half of it. Parallel sessions allow the organisers to cram in more great papers, but audiences are then left with some difficult choices.

News workers are also today facing difficult choices. The  most difficult is whether to embrace or resist the intrusion of digital technologies into the news production process. Is it true, as I once read somewhere, ‘Resistance is futile

You can read the Luton conference abstracts and most of the papers online, but for me the most interesting conclusion is that there is some consensus around the key issues.

The 20th century business models in print and broadcasting are failing; traditional journalists are threatened by the emergence of D-I-Y news and we don’t really know what the future holds.

However, one issue-that I touched on in my paper-which was not widely canvassed was the role of journalists in all this confusion. I started my session with a quote from media theorist John Hartley and for me it sums up at least a part of the problem:

Journaism will be reinvented, but judging by what is currently done in journalism schools and in the name of journalism studies, the last people to know may be professional journalists.

I was interrogating the role of the ideology of professionalism in journalism and the ways in which it blinds journalists to some of the basic industrial issues around the introduction of digital technologies.

For example: the outsourcing of editorial/subbing and layout functions; the use of cheap freelancers and the gleaning of copyright control over user-generated content are all serious issues brought about by the incursion of digital technologies into the newsroom. But how to understand this?

Is it simply a function of the technology itself-it can, therefore we will? This seems to be the view of some as I was reminded recently by an article in the Guardian Media section (hat tip to Meals for the link).

Blogademic Jeff Jarvis wrote an article suggesting that journalists themselves have to shoulder some of the responsibility for the decline of newspapers and traditional media. He says we have to take some blame for the ‘fall of journalism’:

The fall of journalism is journalists’ fault. It is our fault we did not see change coming soon enough and ready our craft for its transition. It is our fault we did not exploit – hell, too many resisted – the opportunities new media and new relationships with the public presented. It is our fault we lost readers and squandered trust. It is our fault we did not give adequate stewardship to journalism and left business to the business people. It is our fault we sat back and expected some princely patron to support us. (Jarvis in The Guardian 13 October 2008)

I have to declare an interest here. Two of the people Jarvis is critical of this in this piece are associated with the Department of Journalism and Publishing at City University in London. I’m currently based here on sabattical, so I share an office with both Adrian Monck (head of school) and Roy Greenslade (visiting professor)

Adrian suggests-with some validity-that the crisis in journalism is more a product of changing audience habits:

The problems journalists are confronting are to do with the changing social habits of people who once purchased newspapers and were thus appealing to advertisers. (Monck on the decline of newspapers)

There’s merit in this argument, the economics of newspaper publishing are changing. Failing circulations lead to declining profits and media capital reacts with predictable counter-measures. In this case cuts to newsroom bugets and staffing and the outsourcing of production tasks to cheaper (and in extreme cases) offshore providers. The changes in the newsroom, I would argue, are therefore not so much a simple product of technological change, but an effort to reconfigure the journalism production model to make it more ‘efficient’-that is to drive down the cost base while hanging on to as much advertising revenue as you can.

But I find myself disagreeing with Professor Greenslade’s comments that suggest the process of change is way beyond the control of those still working in newsrooms.

The truth is that we are being assailed by revolutionary technological forces completely outside of our control. To make it worse, the wider global financial crisis means that we are caught up in something of a perfect storm. It is wrecking the business models of newspapers and overturning all the old certainties. (Greenslade 3 October 2008)

Roy’s right to a degree that the current global financial crisis is not helping, but the crisis in journalism has been around for the past 3-4 years at least. While it is exacerbated by current problems, the root cause is deeper. It is not, in my view purely a result of technology ‘deux machina’ scything through the industry.

Technology does not simply exist in some kind of social and cultural vacuum; it is always under the control of someone. In this case, it is under the control of media capital. Technology is applied with a purpose. In this case the purpose is to drive down wages and production costs.

In a second post on the topic responding to Jeff Jarvis, Roy makes this abundantly clear. Jeff took it upon himself to issue a collective mea culpa on behalf of all journalists:

It is our fault that we did not give adequate stewardship to journalism and left the business to the business people. It is our fault that we lost readers and squandered trust. It is our fault that we sat back and expected to be supported in the manner to which we had become accustomed by some unknown princely patron. Responsibility and blame are indeed ours. (Jarvis – the fault is ours)

In response, Roy recognises the pervasive political economy of the news industry today:

[Jarvis] assumes that journalists have power, that they could have exploited the opportunities of new media without the support (or otherwise) of newspaper owners and managers. In truth, in a newsprint media overwhelmingly controlled by large media companies, journalists have had no room to manoeuvre beyond the wishes, and pockets, of their employers. (Greenslade 14 October 2008)

And Roy’s half-right about this last point too. The room for journalists to manoeuvre industrially to protect jobs, wages, conditions of employment and ultimately the quality of the news product is severely hampered by many social forces, economic, legal, cultural and ideological.

Which brings me back, in a round-about way, to my paper in Luton. My key point is that the ideology of professionalism, while based on a viable set of sociological principles (monopoly over production tools and skills) and social values (ethics, honesty, public interest) masks the true class nature of journalism and journalists.

Journalists are workers. The labour power of news ‘professionals’ (outside the ranks of a celebrity elite) is harnessed directly to media capital. It is a cost of production (what Marx called ‘variable capital’) and as such can be varied by capital to suit its needs. The heavy investment by news companies in digital technologies is a direct parallel to the investment in new plant and equipment by car manufacturers or fast food companies. It is a way of increasing the productivity of labour in such a way that the capitalist gets a higher return on their investment.

The crisis in journalism is a direct result of this inexorable process within the capitalist system as a whole. In this regard media capital is no different from any other form of investment. It is subject to the same business cycles, the declining rate of surplus value and the tendency for the organic composition of capital (the relationship between plant and equipment and human labour power) to rise in favour of machinery over human labour.

And what of the future ‘end’ of journalism. There is an idealistic wish-that I share to some degree-to create new and more democratic forms of journalism, but here lies another dilemma. Again Roy’s on the money with this insight:

The power lies with the employer. While some owners are encouraging their staffs to be inventive they are, at the same time, reducing staffs to levels that stifle the possibility of innovation.

So the dilemma for journalists who wish to build a new journalistic Jerusalem is, like everything else in this world, an economic one. They need to make a living and must necessarily make compromises to do so

This is the digital dialectic in play across the mediasphere today and particularly being felt in newsrooms in many parts of the world. The tension between wanting to change the world (in this case, to influence the future of journalism) and needing to survive in the harsh reality of 21st century cyber-capitalism is very real. Cyber-capitalism is a term coined by the Marxist academic Nick Dyer-Witherford, his work is, for me, one of the clearest expositions of the digital age so far written:

The doctrine of the information revolution, as it has unfolded over the last half century, has proven to be much more than just futurist speculation or even sociological description. Rather, it has become an indispensable ingredient in a massive reorganisation of advanced capitalist societies, centred on the introduction of new technologies. Formulated and promoted within the think-tanks, policy institutes, laboratories, government offices and consultancy circuits of the most powerful and prosperous centres of the capitalist world economy, the theory of an inevitable information revolution provides the rationale for this restructuring, legitimisation for social dislocation, and exhortation toward a radiant future.

In the end then, I agree with Adrian and Roy. To blame journalists for this ‘rock and hard place’ situation is wrong and ultimately can only serve to further demoralise them at a time when their confidence is low and the struggle ahead looms large.

But I don’t agree with those nasty Vogons. Arthur Dent got annoyed enough to stop the inter-galactic bypass and save the planet. Resistance is both a right and an obligation. The key issue is to figure out what we’re resisting and why. More importantly it’s then to work out how to put in place a model that overcomes the tendency towards the end of journalism.

That’s the galaxy-sized question we face today. It’s comforting to know it’s the Cybermen who’ve been relegated to the dustbin of history; let’s hope journalism doesn’t end up in the same trashcan.

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