Does Hello New Media Mean Goodbye Old Journalism?

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I’m feeling very excited about the future of journalism.

The lack of a workable business model for newspapers does worry me. I’ve never particularly been taken with the idea that newspapers provide a trustable voice, but at least News Corp could once be relied on to provide a relatively consistent editorial line — even if it bore no resemblance to the truth. Public broadcasting can’t be, and shouldn’t be, expected to pick up all the slack.

In a recent article for newmatilda.com, Jason Wilson emphasised the "rivers of gold" that media giants have squandered in their digital mis-steps; his point is an important one in thinking about the future of the journalism industry.

The well funded, independent press is an accident of history that allowed media owners to control the main advertising channel for many businesses and use that to fund journalistic output. It’s hard to make a case for micro-payments for news when historically, no-one has ever paid for journalism per se.

That said, it’s worthwhile looking at the astronomical figures necessary to keep funding some of the larger media organisations. CNN recently paid $8 million to get rid of Lou Dobbs — I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of journalism you could get for $8 million! That’s eight Crikeys, for starters.

Similarly, many of the larger new media organisations are stuck servicing massive amounts of debt — which means audiences are stuck with the flame-baiting trollumnists and bikini photo-galleries they use to bring in the advertising eyeballs. As Politico shows, a small organisation that doesn’t have to service the boggling levels of debt of a mainstream newspaper can deliver right-wing dreck with far less investment just as quickly and regularly as News Corp does.

While I share Marni Cordell’s concerns about the future of investigative journalism, not all investigative journalism issues from well-funded broadcasters. Some comes from community radio. Some comes from opinionated blogs. Some is coming from public interest non-profit organisations

Increasingly, investigative journalists themselves are emerging not out of the media industry, but from areas such as forensic accountancy, statistics, intelligence and private investigation.  As the complexity and volume of data we are fed increases, it is becoming evident that the traditional training of journalists is inadequate. The influx of new people from different backgrounds, with different skillsets and different approaches to journalism should be celebrated.

I take issue with the often-repeated argument that social media, new media and citizen journalism represent a profound change to journalism. So ubiquitous is this line of thought that you could be forgiven for thinking that the rise of blogging, tweeting, data journalism and the like represent a fundamental change in the way journalism is practised.

That’s not the case: new platforms have simply allowed minority forms of journalism to come to the fore.

Community media prefigured blogging as did New Journalism for that matter. The journalism of attachment has been around since Thomas Paine and publications run by opinionated, self-directed media outsiders who read through public documents and made blisteringly critical analysis didn’t start with bloggers — they started with I.F. Stone

Similarly, the model of the opinionated but transparent blogger whose work combines critical commentary and heavy usage of press release output — seen to great effect at Mumbrella — draws from a tradition of trade publication.

The adoption of the notion of "transparency and fairness", long associated with the tradition of advocacy journalism, is now gaining respect in mainstream journalistic practice.

And finally, the dominant model of objective journalism, it must be remembered, grew as much out of the commercial imperative to sell wire services and advertising as any professional values.

The reliance on the myth of the hard-bitten investigative journalist as an exemplar of the craft is the source of much of the confusion around this issue. The notion that news is something that someone somewhere doesn’t want published is a mantra journalists repeat to themselves to stave off suicide when they rewrite press releases all day. It’s a myth that also serves to maintain the role of the press as the controller of public debate. It’s a difficult thing to acknowledge that the people who determine much of public debate are PR people

These myths about journalism and its history are damaging as they exclude a vast body of output — like sports journalism, music journalism and fashion journalism, for starters.

If instead we think of journalism as "a good-faith attempt to make sense of the world", we can include all of the above forms of journalism — because they are journalism — and we can see that the gap between the vast bulk of journalistic output and much of the content available online is not as wide as we once thought.

With this frame, the explosion of new publications online points to a resurgence of alternative models of journalism. There’s no denying it’s a worrying time for the journalism business. But it’s a very exciting time for journalism.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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