Philosophers and journalists – unlikely bedfellows? Bourdieu in the house!

November 19, 2009

[Thanks Jess for the link]

An interesting, if a little obtuse piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week about the fractious relationship between philosophy and journalism. I was struck most immediately by this paragraph, which IMHO sums up the situation reasonably well:

Still, broadly speaking, we need philosophers who understand how epistemology and the establishment of truth claims function in the real world outside seminars and journals—the role of recognized authorities, of decision, of conscious intersubjective setting of standards. And we need journalists who scrutinize and question not just government officials, PR releases, and leaked documents, but their own preconceptions about every aspect of their business. We need journalists who think about how many examples are required to assert a generalization, what the role of the press ought to be in the state, how the boundaries of words are fixed or indeterminate in Wittgensteinian ways, and how their daily practice does or does not resemble art or science.

Carlin Romano, We need ‘Philosophy of Journalism’

There’s another key statement in Carlin’s piece that I also identify with quite strongly. Here he’s talking about the insoluble and necessary link between journalistic and philosophical modes of thinking:

I’ve always insisted to the philosophy students that journalistic thinking enhances philosophical work by connecting it to a less artificial method of establishing truth claims than exists in philosophical literature. I’ve always stressed to journalism students that a philosophical angle of mind—strictness in relating evidence and argument to claims, respectful skepticism toward tradition and belief, sensitivity to tautology, synoptic judgment—makes one a better reporter.

There is no doubt for me that journalism is — at it’s core — an intellectual pursuit that has a high public interest attached to it. There is a necessary couplet between journalism as a practice and theories of democratic public discourse. It is an imperfect linkage — one that’s distorted by the ideological contortions of logic necessary to justify capitalism as a social formation and the dismal science of economics as some sort of rational explanation for human behaviour and human nature (both of which I utterly reject).

This is a long post, so you might want to print it off and read at your leisure. I am keen to discuss Carlin Romano’s timely essay, but also to further explore my own thinking in relation to what I regard as a core philosophical approach to journalism scholarship — the use of the dialectic as an organising and analytical tool to understand the social relations of news production in the widest sense.

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Some hope for the news industry yet

September 23, 2009

It’s only been 24 hours, but I think I’ve got a bit of post-writing depression.

I sent the manuscript for News 2.0 to my publisher yesterday and this morning a friend sent me a link to Michael Massing’s piece in the New York Review of Books from a couple of weeks ago.

It’s depressing when you work for two years on a project and just when you think it’s finished some new information comes along that you’d love to include. But I guess it’s the nature of books written about contemporary events; at some point the author and the publisher have to call a halt. Books that survey recent history and the process of ongoing change can never be more than a snapshot.

In this case Massing’s piece is about the financial health of the American news industry and the growing interest in paywalls (or, if you like “pay walls”) around online content. It seems that a number of publishers are now introducing them with some effect, though it’s not all beer money and skittles.

I’ve done a chapter on this issue and I’d have loved to get just one punchy quote from Massing’s piece in there; maybe I’ll get a chance during the editing process.

Either way “A new horizon for the news” is well worth reading, particularly if you have an interest in the future of journalism and the news.

“Hat tip” to Dave for the link; better late than never.

Buffett says “No”: Another nail in the newspaper coffin?

May 5, 2009

Investment guru Warren Buffett has made a damning pronouncement on the future of newspapers and, given the authority with which he speaks, it might trigger another downward spiral in the value of news stocks.

Speaking at the annual meeting of his Berkshire Hathaway group, Buffett responded to a question from New York Times business blogger Andrew Ross Sorkin on behalf of shareholders and readers of his DealBook blog.

I (somewhat selfishly) asked this question from Dennis Wallace:

“Given the current economic conditions in the newspaper and publishing business, can you please provide some of your thoughts on its impact on Berkshire. Given, that our investee, Washington Post Company has had a substantial decline in its stock value, is it still a good use of capital? And, given the ‘cheap’ trading prices of newspapers in the current climate, would Berkshire consider purchasing additional newspapers to add to its Buffalo News and Washington Post properties? At what price does it become compelling to invest in the newspaper business? Or is there no price where it becomes compelling in today environment?”

The answers from Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger were not very encouraging for those in the newspaper business.

“For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price,” said Mr. Buffett, whose company owns a large stake in The Washington Post Company. He added that he sees the possibility of “nearly unending losses” for newspaper companies. Mr. Munger called the industry’s decline “a national tragedy” and said that “what replaces it will not be as desirable as what we are losing.”

That just about says it all really, but there’s a bit more. This from another American blog with the long and confusing name The end of elite liberal media empires and the rise of citizen journalism:

“As long as newspapers were essential to readers, they were essential to advertisers,” he said. “But news today is now available in many other venues,” [Buffett] said.
“….These monopoly daily newspapers have been an important sinew to our civilization…” said one of Buffett’s executives at the Berkshire investors meeting.

The blog with the long name appears to be some form of rightwing citizen journalism hybrid, but there’s not much info about it.

State of Play: Commentary on contemporary journalism

May 4, 2009

I was able to catch an advanced screening of the new Russell Crowe flick, State of Play, over the weekend. Ben Affleck also stars as a rising Washington star who falls from grace.

All I can say is, if you’ve got any interest at all in journalism and the news business, go and see it when it hits a cinema near you.

I’m not a huge Crowe fan and certainly wouldn’t go to see State of Play because he’s in it. It’s the story that’s interesting.

The movie is a Hollywood adaptation of a BBC TV series of the same name. It’s a political thriller and the plot’s fairly standard for the genre – mysterious shooter pegs small time crook leading to bigger fish and a national security scandal. Anyone who’s seen it will instantly make comparisons with All the President’s men.

What’s very interesting about this version is that it’s been updated to the digital age and there’s lots of references to blogging and whether or not that’s “real” journalism. Jokes about YouTube and celebrity also help to keep it topical.

But for me, the drama is in Helen Mirren’s role as the publisher of the Washington Globe as she comes to terms with the declining health of her once great newspaper. That side of the story rings very true. Mirren has all the great lines: “Reporters don’t have friends, they have sources.”

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What will happen to APN?

January 27, 2009

An interesting report in the UK Guardian media pages yesterday (26 Jan) regarding Tony O’Reilly’s troubled Independent News and Media.

INM is a 39% stakeholder in APN, publishers of the New Zealand Herald. This stake was on the market, but INM has announced that it has given up on finding a buyer at the moment because of the shaky gobal financial system.

Globally the INM group is undertaking a series of cost-cutting measures which have already affected APN’s New Zealand titles, including The Listener, the Herald and a range of suburban titles, such as The Aucklander.

According to a statement issued by INM yesterday (26 Jan) the company is committed to shedding “loss-making” assets, but there is no indication of which parts of the company these might be. In Auckland APN staff must be wondering about their fate too. It seems that, for the moment, they’ve had a repreive.

The group’s UK assets, including the Independent, are also in a state of flux as a merry-go-round of moves in the UK newspaper industry continues. A Russian oligarch and former KGB officer, Alexander Lebedev, was able to buy the London Evening Standard newspaper last week for just one pound, which shows just how much of a crisis there is in news media assets.

Perhaps Mr Lebedev’s British staff will have to follow the example of reporters on his Russian paper, Novoya Gazeta,who have taken to carrying guns since a young journalist, Anastasia Baburova, was murdered in Moscow last week (21 Jan).

Anastasia Baburova, a journalist for the investigative newspaper “Novaya Gazeta”, and leading Anastasia Baburova and Stanislav Markelovhuman rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov were shot by a lone gunman after a press conference in Moscow given by Markelov, report the Glasnost Defense Foundation (GDF) and other IFEX members.

Markelov represented the family of Kheda Kungayeva, whose murder led to the first prosecution for the killing of a civilian during the Chechen conflict, is believed to have been the main target. He had just publicly denounced at the conference the release of Kungayeva’s murderer from prison.

Baburova, who reported on the conflict in Chechnya as well as on the activities of neo-Nazi groups in Russia, had attended the press conference and was talking to Markelov outside a Moscow metro station when the gunman opened fire. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Baburova was shot in the head as she tried to prevent the killer from escaping and died a few hours later. []

Fairfax cuts journalists’ jobs – global trend is down

August 28, 2008

The decision by Fairfax Media this week to cut another 100 jobs from its New Zealand news operations continues a downward trend in journalists jobs that’s worldwide.

One small bright spot though; Fairfax journalists in Australia are not lying down over this. They are organising union meetings and have a good website at Fair go, Fairfax.

Alan Kennedy, a long-time Fairfax employee who recently retired, is scathing of the company’s management and he’s right, of course:

[Fairfax journalists] are seeing an increasingly incompetent management team still paying themselves astonishing salaries, cutting and then cutting again as they pursue a model that is bringing diminishing returns. The one-trick ponies in management cannot see past making savings through retrenchment, non hiring and in their current manic campaign to slash the salaries and conditions of the most experienced staff.  [Alan Kennedy]

Newspapers like those owned by Fairfax are reacting to changing circumstances, but it is a short-term response. It is really a “cut nose,” “Take that face!” exercise. Profits are sliding so cost-cutting measures are put in place. This leads to a further decline in quality – despite what the company says – which can only mean further losses in sales and advertising and a bigger drop in profits.

Of course, Fairfax is not alone in going down this slippery slope. Last year New Zealand’s other large news media operation, APN, announced similar cuts to its newspaper staff and the outsourcing of most of its sub-editing operation to a company called Pagemasters. Ironically, Pagemasters major shareholders include APN and Fairfax Media.

Fairfax is hoping for $50 million in savings from its 5 per cent staffing cut. The news was reported in a very straightforward way in the Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald, which concentrated on the share price bounce and finance market reactions.

The copy reads like a close cousin of a media release issued by Fairfax Media announcing a “business improvement plan”.

This is the third wave of business improvement initiatives we have undertaken over the past three years. Over the course of the 2006 and 2007 financial years we achieved $52 million in ongoing real cost reductions. Cost synergies associated with the merger of Fairfax Media and Rural Press and the acquisition of Southern Cross radio produced a further $53 million in savings ($45 million Rural Press, $8 million radio). All of these synergies will be realised by the end of this financial year.

With the new organisation structure in place and line management operating effectively, now is the time to launch a third wave of business improvement which will deliver benefits over the next two years.

Media companies fit for the modern media world need to be lean and agile. This far-reaching program will position us well for the next stage of our growth and development.” [Fairfax media release]

Journalists’ union leader, Andrew Little was less sanguine in his media comments:

“Fairfax’s proposed redundancies will be a huge blow to already strained newsrooms and to New Zealanders’ democratic right to be properly informed about their country’s major issues,” said Mr Little, national secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union. [NZPA]

New Zealand and Australia now join the long list of countries in which newspaper companies are shedding staff. A recent post at Julie Starr’s Evolving Newsroom carries the bad news.