Will Newspapers Be First Against The Wall?

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I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to come to grips with the future.

My first sniff at the winds of change came at an academic conference called Politics:Web 2.0, held at Royal Holloway in the UK last month, which looked at the impact of new media technologies on politics, governance and the public sphere. Then, at the beginning of May, I listened in to Australian journalists talking to each other about their own prospects at MEAA’s The Future of Journalism talkfest, held in Sydney at the ABC.

After all that talking you’d think I’d be confident to say where we are headed, but I’ve come out of these events with a range of important questions unanswered.

Prominent speakers at both conferences agreed on some central claims. One was that technology-led changes to politics and communications are not some remote prospect, but are upon us – the future, in effect, is now.

Another was that politics and media "as usual" will not survive the revolutionary impact of these technologies, and that existing institutions must either adapt or decline.

If there were differences across the two conferences, it was in their attitudes towards these changes. At P:W2, many spoke of participatory media platforms – blogs, social media and other platforms for user-generated content – as democratising, as promoting political participation, as stimulating and multiplying practices of citizenship, and as usefully busting the mainstream media’s regressive monopoly on political speech. Some speakers at FoJ were less sanguine.

At P:W2, Steven Coleman from the University of Leeds insisted that the appetite for citizen participation in policymaking had been decisively awakened in the Web 2.0 era, and that the system of government he calls "representative compromise" was in crisis. He argued that it would soon be eroded by more immediate, more responsive, web-powered forms of governance. Sternly, he warned that government tokenism or cynicism about participation would only exacerbate problems, increasing disengagement and disillusionment.

Also speaking on governance at the conference, Rachel Gibson from the University of Manchester argued that politics was increasingly becoming a "trickle-up" rather than a top-down affair, again due to the enormous impact of the web on "cultures of participation", particularly among young people. She argued that the Web as an "environment" hosts an ever-greater proportion of our social and cultural life. Politics is, in a sense, being "amateurised".

In these and other plenaries, we were told that major changes in the conduct of politics had already taken place. There was broad agreement that present participatory trends had a political significance at least equal to the introduction of television (or even the printing press), that political and media institutions needed urgently to change, and that all this meant that citizens were freer, more engaged and more empowered. As is so often the case in discussions of the future, the habits of the young were a particular focal point. Many papers I heard in the parallel sessions bought into this logic and tried to fill it out with examples of political bloggers or blogging politicians, campaigns spilling over onto social networking services and online political activism.

All of these are significant up to a point, but are they actually changing election results or enlarging political participation, let alone influencing policy outcomes? And what is its relevance across political systems?

There’s no doubt that candidates like Barack Obama have galvanised the web-savvy elements of their base and enlarged their flow of small donations by boosting their online presence. But it’s really the supply-chain of money and volunteer labour that’s changed – any funds raised are inevitably spent on big-budget advertising campaigns in traditional media outlets.

Mainstream "old" media is still the big focus of political parties’ communication strategies. Kevin Rudd, for example, used online campaigning to accentuate rather than carry his message of change in the 2007 Australian Federal Election, focussing on old media advertising and face-to-face campaigning. Fair enough – international research (such as the Project for Excellence in Journalism surveys) shows that old media (television, newspapers and radio) are still far more important as "primary sources" for election news than online news outlets.

There’s no doubt that the audience for online news and political discussion is growing, but how many of them are simply omnivorous consumers of all forms of political information? Are online political forums really enhancing political participation, or just providing more options for those who are already information-rich?

I’m inclined to return to the recommendations of my colleague Terry Flew in the face of the first wave of internet utopianism: that we focus on specific, situated and empirically grounded analysis rather than general claims about epochal change. P:W2 featured some really excellent papers involving social network mapping, the close analysis of campaign blogging, and reports on experiments in citizen journalism. But I felt that at some points there was too much of a focus on potential as opposed to analysis of what is.

Back in Australia at FoJ, Roy Greenslade – Guardian blogger, City University Professor and widely experienced newspaper journo – was a big drawcard. Although he constantly protested that he was "not a guru" and didn’t have any special insights into the future, Greenslade predicted fairly confidently that in the not-too-distant future, most Western countries would be deprived of all their hard-copy newspapers except for a national journal of record, largely bought by those who were already "information-rich".

In the future, journalism will be online and multimedia, knocked out by convergent newsrooms. Jay Rosen, Phil Meyer and Margaret Simons all agreed with these basic assertions. Greenslade was bold enough to tell a forum organised by Australia’s journalists’ union that journos would simply have to "work harder" to survive in the new environment.

It’s no surprise that some journalists are alarmed by these claims and the underlying developments that make them credible. Some in the audience pointed out that they were already under considerable pressure, and that standards were being compromised by under-resourcing and time pressures, while others questioned the quality of citizen-led journalism.

They might well have been further depressed by the enthusiasm of those at the upper echelons of media organisations for digitisation, further multiskilling, and harnessing user-generated content. Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC, was particularly enthused by the possibilities for harnessing the creativity of the ABC’s audience. Journalists at the gathering would have been aware of their own union’s campaign against job cuts at the broadcaster. It might be hard for some to separate Scott’s enthusiasms for cost-cutting and the participatory revolution.

Time and again, conversation returned to money and jobs: who will pay for journalism in the future, and in particular, who will pay for "quality" journalism? As advertising revenues decline, and without the traditional patronage of the press barons, it’s difficult to see how expensive, protracted forms of investigative journalism can survive.

Eric Beecher reassured the audience the Crikey‘s model is profitable, and John Cokley from UQ urged more entrepreneurial behaviours on journalists, but it’s hard to see how low-overhead internet newspapers or a galaxy of vulnerable sole traders could sustain regular, in-depth investigations – the kind that break stories on deeply concealed government corruption or corporate malfeasance. Despite several attempts, I never felt that anyone got to grips with this question. That’s no surprise – it’s frighteningly difficult.

There was some cheer. Newspapers in Australia are still by and large very profitable, free newspapers appear to be delaying the demise of the medium, and senior spokespeople for media organisations at the event voiced their ongoing commitment to quality content.

For this observer, it seemed that some of the gloom came from the "metrocentric", broadsheet/public service broadcasting emphases of the event. The "quality" media are themselves niche products in important ways, and last year’s blogosphere/broadsheet bust-ups showed that some journalists are as concerned about their own authority as pundits being diminished as their bosses are about the bottom line. In a sense, it’s the quality media that has the most to lose from the rise of an online commentariat.

I wanted to hear much more about the impacts of user-generated content, digitisation and convergence in country newsrooms, trade publications and suburban freebies (I didn’t even hear much mention of The Courier-Mail or West Australian). Together, such outlets are huge employers of journalists, and I imagine that there are success stories outside the golden triangle of Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra, where editors and journalists have grasped new media opportunities with pluck and imagination. At times I felt I was eavesdropping on the venting of metropolitan neuroses.

Together the conferences underscored a range of questions rather than answering them. If we really do need quality journalism, how is it going to be financed? How can we ensure that participatory new media platforms fulfill the promises made of them? In the face of widespread change, how can we retain the social goods that arise both from journalism and democratic institutions? How can we ensure that the benefits of participatory culture are distributed widely and fairly? What does media change mean for the relationship between media and politics? What are the best ways for finding all of this out?

On the last question, at least, we are making a start.

New Matilda

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