The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

The Press in the Digital Age

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)

N

ews and journalism are in the midst of a major transformation. The rapid decline of the business model for general interest newspapers is well documented. Some numbers, drawn from George Brock’s new book Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism, and the Business of News in the Digital Age (2013), convey some of the stark details of the collapse. In the United States, for example, newspaper advertising revenue, a crucial source of income for papers throughout the twentieth century, peaked in 2000 at $63.5 billion. In 2012, it was down to $19 billion and falling. In roughly the same time period (2001–2011), total employment in the newspaper business dropped by 44 percent, mirroring the steady decline in weekday print circulation at the major US dailies. The situation in Europe is similar, both with respect to declining newspaper revenue—shrinking at more than 10 percent per year between 1995 and 2007 across the EU—and falling numbers of print subscribers.

As Brock rightly observes, the decline of the business that supports journalism is not the same as the ruin of journalism itself. Indeed, the rapid spread of digital communications has increased the sources of news, and while it changes the way people access and use information, it appears from the few studies available, to quote Brock again, that “what people will look for from news organizations has not changed at a basic level.” Many of those who read the news are simply shifting from print and broadcast (also in steep decline) to online sources.

When it comes to public affairs, however, the size of the audience is not the crucial issue. In societies that have some media choice, serious news has never attracted a mass audience. Then and now, only a fraction of the electorate actually follow politics. Then and now, if the media has served the role of the “fourth estate,” weeding out misinformation and identifying abuses of power, it has worked by alerting and mobilizing a small segment of the population.

The key issue is surely on the supply side. What effect is the decline of the old news organizations having on what “news” is actually produced? Brock has little to say on this, though he does note in passing that online news is often different, briefer and more informal and personal—online sources are often named after people, such as Drudge and Huffington—than print, and that the incentive that large organizations had to present themselves as objective and impartial is disappearing as they decline. As the mainstream media too targets niche audiences, they grow more partisan and opinionated.

The decline of the old media sources is also having an impact on the amount of original reporting. A 2009 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, for instance, found that the vast majority of original investigation was still done by the “traditional media,” especially newspapers, and that because those outlets were fewer in number and smaller in size, there was far less enterprise reporting. The study found a lot of new media outlets, to be sure, but they were mostly in the business of repeating and repackaging, not investigating.

If these problems were not enough, the press is also having a harder time carrying out its crucial fourth estate role of holding government accountable. A report, published in October 2013 by the Committee to Protect Journalists, presents a chilling picture of intimidation and evasion tactics by the Obama administration. Written by Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post, the report examines the draconian legal tactics used by the administration to prosecute leakers of information: its surveillance programs, such as the Orwellian “Insider Threat Program” that requires federal employees to monitor each other to prevent leaks, or the broad use of phone and email records of both government employees and journalists to discover and track contacts; its unresponsive and restrictive practices for disclosing information; and its “manipulative use of administration-controlled media to circumvent scrutiny by the press.”

This last tactic, an innovation of the current administration, may be the most pernicious. It is sold as a form of transparency—“open government”—and does provide government data useful for businesses and the public. But the administration’s deployment of media turns out to be “part of a strategy,” Downie writes, “honed during Obama’s presidential campaign, to use the Internet to dispense to the public large amounts of favorable information and images generated by the administration, while limiting its exposure to probing by the press.” The White House even produces a 5-minute newscast, “West Wing Week,” which packages their message from events the press is often unaware are even happening. Most of the government-created content, the Downie report argues, evades accountability rather than promotes it.

Whatever else one concludes from the Downie report, it surely highlights the two-edged nature of the digital revolution. The frequently lionized new media don’t necessarily tip the balance with government in favor of the people. And the report drives home the ever-present need for a vigorous press, able to push back against overreach and provide impartial, independently verified information. Yet, with the decline of the model that once sustained the old news organizations, it is far from clear how this vital mission will be supported. In reflecting on the question of adapting journalism to new conditions, Brock avers that “the future will not resemble the past” and that “there is no law that says it will be better.” For the concerned, “we must try to make it so.”

—Joseph E. Davis

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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