Home > Commentary > The fourth estate in an age of new media and instant gratification

The fourth estate in an age of new media and instant gratification

If we accept that the press, from its earliest days, has always been influenced by factors other than the wish to report the news and to inform the public, then it seems to me that the most important challenge for the press today arises from the search for an economically viable yet credible way to adapt news output to the demand for an online presence, in the face of criticisms about ‘dumbing down’. Both present huge problems: the lowering of standards is difficult to overcome, and probably reflects changes in society – one could argue that the people get the press they deserve; the move to ‘online’ is also inevitable, and is likely to be very difficult to regulate.

Ever since Addison and Steele launched the Spectator as a daily in the early years of the eighteenth century, printers and proprietors have had an ‘agenda’. For Addison and Steele, the agenda was to sell subscriptions to the literally hundreds of coffee houses that had blossomed across London to serve the city’s professional and middle classes, thereby broadcasting their Whig values and interests as widely as possible. With the Spectator in mind, Jurgen Habermas, in The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere, wrote that ‘a press devoted to the debate of political issues [was] developed out of the pamphlet’. At the same time, the Spectator opened the aspiring minds of its readers to the gentlemanly culture of polite letters. Indeed there was hardly any ‘news’ in the Spectator; its content consisted largely of ideas, literature and manners.

Newspaper owners have always been moved by social, political and financial interests. Some would say that the driving force today is vanity, the ability to wield influence on a massive scale; but in recent years the crucial energy that drives the press has been its advertising revenue. When I worked on the Leicester Mercury, an evening newspaper, in the late 1960s, there was a clerk named Howkins whose sole responsibility at three o’clock each afternoon was to take the first copy off the press and ‘price the paper’; to calculate the proportion of advertising space to editorial – and its value – and run the figures upstairs to the editor. And run he did!

declining revenue
As a result of competition from other advertising media, today’s press proprietors face declining revenue. The current recession, never mind how temporary, brings with it a downturn in classified advertising, particularly property and recruitment, that can only make matters even more difficult. In a bid to reduce outgoings, many of them are cutting their newsroom staff to the bone. Those who survive the redundancy axe must spread their efforts so wide that the temptation to abandon news reporting for the much easier popular culture column is obvious. As Ian Hargreaves (in Journalism, Truth or Dare) writes, one result of this is ‘the privileging of sensation over significance, and celebrity over achievement.’ Celebrity stories, after all, are far easier to do than old-fashioned investigative journalism. Celebrity and sensation are today’s version of reality, and readers seems to clamour for more, so why not?

Set against this the words of former Independent reporter David Randall (in The Universal Journalist): ‘There is only good and bad journalism, and the two are universal. Good journalists wherever they are will be attempting the same thing: intelligent, fact-based journalism, honest in intent and effect, serving no cause but the discernible truth, and written clearly for its readers whoever they may be.’

Freelance investigative reporter Nick Davies is not convinced, though. On the contrary, in his book Flat Earth News he tackles the cult of ‘churnalism’, whereby hack journalists abandon their traditional news sources and instead recycle and regurgitate press releases and anonymous ‘briefs’ from agencies and PR consultants with little thought for integrity, accuracy or balance.

I’d like to say that my money is on Randall, but I fear Davies is closer to the truth; let’s hope that Hargreaves doesn’t have the last word.

going online
There is speculation that the press’s traditional audience is quite literally dying away; that young people no longer have the time, or the attention span, to sit and read a ‘proper’ newspaper. News comes to us now in a constant stream by way of 24-hour news bulletins on TV, and even more immediately through online news, the ‘blogosphere’ and Twitter. The new media is suited to a faster, disposable way of life, but surely this has a deleterious effect upon content – for how can you achieve depth in a 60-second bulletin or a two-line tweet?

As just one instance of this trend, Reuters is said to be combining with cellphone manufacturer Nokia to develop digital equipment that will enable its reporters to snatch and relay raw footage of live events, as they happen – though one has to be concerned that this will be at the expense of thoughtful analysis and presentation. At least there’ll not be time for spin, something that the Reuters charter expressly forbids.

If these become the only outlets for news, how can the press provide a balanced view? And, as is the case for most editors now, if your reporters have not only to fill their column inches but to prepare their increasing burden of online newscasts as well, how can they hope to attend to accuracy and clarity, or even to unbiased truth?

Add to this mix the prospect of growing multi-ethnicity and a widening spectrum of language and culture, and it becomes difficult to see how the press can continue to ‘inform the public’. Yet on this front, at least, the outlook is not all bad. Marie Gillespie, for example, in Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change, describes how Asian teenagers brought up in Southall would read the papers from cover to cover, translating the news for their parents, and from so doing deriving not only status but a degree of adult responsibility.

who would regulate the press?
These problems are a challenge to whoever would attempt to regulate the press, a challenge that far exceeds those of previous decades. Who would sit on today’s PCC, for instance? (Well, I would, if I was a retired admiral or a baroness.) Yet, with diligence, observation, fairness and an open mind, such problems can at least be recognised and held at bay. But it will be hard work.

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