Berkeley journalism professor Neil Henry has an article in The San Francisco Chronicle entitled The Decline in News. It is very much a defense of the traditional media and an attack on the new media – particularly giants like Yahoo and Google.
I see a world in which the pursuit of truth in service of the public interest is declining as a cultural value in our society amid this technological tumult; a world where professional journalism, practiced according to widely accepted ethical values, is a rapidly diminishing feature in our expanding news and information systems, as we escape to the Web to experience the latest “new” thing.
What professor Henry puts forward is the image journalists would like the public to have – disinterested professionals reporting the truth. The actual situation is more complex. To maintain credibility journalists must maintain the appearance of pursuing truth independently for the same reason accountants dress conservatively – it gains trust and because it is good for business. And, to be fair, they do sometimes pursue truth in the public interest and have achieved a hard won degree of independence from the narrower commercial interest of the owners, but not from the broader commercial requirements of holding and keeping an audience. In that they are joined at the hip by self interest to the owners. Without being able to sell audiences to advertisers, neither can make money. To get the public’s attention journalists must seek out striking content and then hold it by framing that content in a way that is quickly grasped. News as we know it from the mass media is not simply the truth, but a highly processed product.
So I do not agree that the value we place on truth in the service of the public is necessarily declining. I would argue instead that we are seeing the fallout from the difference in structure between mass media and networked media. In the former, a few people – journalists and editors – choose and control how the raw material of events will be presented to many people. It is the structure of mass media that confers that power. A networked environment completely changes this relationship because it breaks the monopoly that mass media have on selecting and framing the news. This structure driven shift in power is the reason bloggers have exposed directly and by simple example how much mass media shape the news and how much they pretend that they do not. The critical point is that the Internet gives individual citizens the power to pursue truth in the public interest just as the printing press once conferred on journalists the power to challenge kings and despots.
That said, I don’t think we have yet reached a new balance between mass and networked media serving the public interest. Genuine network based journalists, supported directly by their readers, are unsurprisingly, few in number and so far have not been able to make big money. Yet the best of them produce work that different enough to draw significant audiences. These differences are already creating new institutions such as Pajamas Media or Bill Roggios’s PMI (Public Multimedia, Inc.). So far it looks to me that newspapers are losing money and staff because they are severely limited in their ability to adapt to the new networked environment. Nationally distributed papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal or The Australian seem to have a brighter future.
Professor Henry thinks the big winners on the Internet – like Google and Yahoo – should put money into shoring up conventional journalism and even journalism schools because they derive a lot of their income from aggregating the content produced by the established media. While I see his point that these companies are to some extent parasitic on the older businesses, I don’t think that is going to happen. What I do think will happen is that the content production business will change so that it operates more smoothly and efficiently in the networked environment. Related newspaper groups on the Net like the Knight Ridder group maintain a common look and some common content on their local web sites while customizing with content and advertisements unique to their local markets. However, the more interesting area is the already centralized production of content by organizations such as the AP and Reuters. It remains to be seen if independent journalists and net based agencies like Pajamas and PMI will evolve into major new sources of content. I believe they have made remarkable progress so far because they understand the networked environment better than their established rivals.