The future of news

Editorials Opinions

Pooh-poohing the prospects of journalism is fashionable these days. Newspapers are collapsing by the dozens. Those that don’t simply disappear are snapped up by self-described philanthropists such as the Washington Post’s purchase by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. In Canada, our top papers face troubling times, unable to gain significant traction, or profit, from online presence. Doom and gloom, it seems, is de rigueur.

Examination, however, reveals reasons to be positive about the future of journalism. In fact, the disruption of newsprint exposes many journalistic myths about news media.

First, journalism isn’t limited to newspapers—as of the 2006 census, more than a third of journalists worked in broadcast news. While broadcast news faces its own challenges, it doesn’t face the same existential threat as print news publications. Viewership is high, advertising remains lucrative, and infrastructure is owned and paid for by government. In Canada and the U.K., at least, state-sponsored broadcast networks endure. Consequently, proper context is important when discussing dimming prospects for aspiring journalists. Newspapers have traditionally wielded superior credibility among journalists. However, this doesn’t seem to greatly influence how or where most people get their news, which, in the Global North at least, is mostly from television. In 2010, the Pew Institute reported 78 per cent of Americans received their news from local TV; only 17 per cent read a print version of a national paper.

Second, the right question isn’t “How can newspapers survive?”—most can’t, given their current structure. Monumental efforts by some of the most moneyed institutions and respected experts in media have, at best, forestalled the demise of dead-tree news media—Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ has had its way. The Washington Post’s decline and ultimate sale is illustrative. Some critics, such as Robert McChesney or Michael Wolf, might argue good riddance, given the state of mainstream journalism.

The question is, “How does good journalism thrive without a dominant print media?”

“Good journalism” usually means something approaching the Lippman ideal of objectively reporting on events. This ideal—if it ever existed as a norm in newsprint—has been on the wane since Rupert Murdoch got his steely hands on a printing press. Audiences, in response, turned to a vested, politicized activist media and became uninterested in a truth-focused, although status-quo biased, traditional system.

For “Big Important News,” the sort of stuff on the front of the New York Times, the future looks diminished although still active. Demand for non-newsprint services (the Associated Press and Reuters, wire-service backbones of contemporary news) persists.

The future of investigative journalism, however, seems interesting. The single-sponsor, dynastic media sponsorship of the American ’50s and ’60s is making a comeback; whether this model is sustainable or beneficial is uncertain. Pierre Omidyar (founder of eBay) recently endowed Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald (both highly decorated investigative journalists) to form The Intercept. These non-profit experiments are seeding ground for a renaissance in patronage media.

Most troubling is the clash of cultures between the Web and institutional media. Print media, it’s assumed, is by fastidious professionals for a paying and attentive audience; web is by biased amateurs for free-riding distracted children—or so the stereotype goes. This belief is changing, as anyone with a smartphone can attest: the app market amply demonstrates the success of microtransactions (the online exchange of a very small sum of money for a product or service). Moreover, the capacity for long-term attention spans from online audiences is far and above the wildest dreams of most journalists. The rules of the Web game, however, are totally different.

That, ultimately, is the rub. The future of journalism is bright, if one accepts and expects that it will be utterly different from how journalism is currently exercised.