The post-newspaper world
The current issue of The New York Review of Books includes an excellent piece by Michael Massing about the future of news. In contrast to the angst and aggro that often surrounds the subject, Massing’s piece is laudably clear and uncoloured by either Wired-style techno-utopianism or stupidly reactive declaratons about the enduring importance of newspapers and the frivolousness and pointlessness of new media forms such as blogging.
To his credit Massing seeks to tease out the increasingly symbiotic relationship between bloggers and conventional journalists, and to emphasize the increasing role bloggers are playing in breaking news, both as part of the daily news cycle and in a more sophisticated, investigative mode. And, interestingly, he suggests the real danger in the shift to decentralized modes of news gathering and dissemination is less about the loss of the resources of the major media companies, and more about the sort of echo-chamber effect that too often predominates on the net, in which people balkanize into self-reinforcing conclaves of shared opinion.
In a way, of course, Massing’s article is a counterpiece to Clay Shirky’s now-famous article, ‘Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable’, which argued that the current convulsions in our media landscape are analogous to the convulsions which reshaped European society in the years following the invention of the printing press. Indeed Massing pushes Shirky’s argument one step further, suggesting a further analogy between the printing press’ role in loosening the grip of the Catholic Church on medieval society and the manner in which blogging and new media are undermining corporate and government control of the flow of ideas in contemporary society.
I don’t think either Massing or Shirky would argue they know what the future of media looks like. But as both make clear, we’re beginning to see some of its outlines. Fewer large media companies and fewer newspapers. More rapid dissemination of opinion and ideas. A shift away from professionalized news-gathering and opinion towards news-gathering and dissemination by amateur or non-traditional sources. The increasing predominance of news services defined by their ideological positions.
All of these make many of those familiar with old media such as newspapers deeply uncomfortable, just as the rise of television news has traditionally unsettled those who give primacy to the sorts of values that are supposed to prevail in print journalism. Yet for my part I’m broadly optimistic about the future. Partly this is about my feeling that newspapers have never been the paragons of liberty their defenders claim them to be. But it’s also about recognizing that what’s happening is, in some sense, inevitable and evolutionary. As the technological underpinnings of our society change, so will our society, and there’s a level at which it’s better to see that as a positive, rather than fighting a rearguard action you’re destined to lose. What’s happening is painful, but it’s also exciting, and creates new possibilities on every side.
None of which is to say I don’t have concerns about how we manage the process, not the least of which is the question of how we manage to finance new media organizations capable of breaking news and carrying out investigative journalism in smaller countries such as Australia. Massing goes to some lengths to point out that rather than being parasitic, as they are often accused of being, increasing numbers of American political bloggers are now generating sufficient revenue to take on larger and more complex stories, involving considerable research and travel.
This revenue seems to be being drawn from a range of sources, but the bulk of it still seems to be coming from donations. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but I do wonder whether it’s a model we’re capable of replicating in Australia, a country with a significantly smaller population than the USA, and a far less established philanthropic tradition.
This isn’t to say there aren’t already groups in Australia seeking to develop models to enable such projects. I mentioned Swinburne University’s new fund to support public interest journalism a while back, and there are certainly other such projects in development.
But I think there’s little question the difficulties associated with setting up and financing new media outfits in Australia are exponentially greater than in the US. While it’s partly a legacy of its history, it seems telling that the one really successful Australian non-traditional news organization, Crikey!, runs on a subscription model, rather than by allowing free access to all its content and financing that through advertising or other sources.
Some have suggested the solution is some form of state funding, whether via direct subsidy of the sort the French Government has offered the French newspapers, grant-based funding of the sort employed in the cultural sector, or some sort of public trust model. For myself, I’d be very surprised if any of these models were either politically palatable or even particularly workable, though I’d be lying if I said I knew what the alternatives were. But it does seem to me the question of how we finance new media news services in a small country such as Australia is a real issue, and one the American or even the British experience is unlikely to offer answers to.