Monday, 5 May 2008

New Media Killing Journalism: Yes or No?

Up early and down to the Frontline Club in London Friday for a World Press Freedom Day event sponsored by UNESCO. It took the form of an “Oxford Union-style” debate. OU-style means a gimmicky sort of thing where participants must argue for or against the motion, in this case “New media is killing journalism.” Wow, killing journalism. That’s pretty severe. Whoever could they get to speak in favor of that?

How about the self-described "antichrist of Silicon Valley”? That’s what it says on Andrew Keen’s business card. I’d been wanting to meet the author of “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture." His book is an entertaining polemic, though in the margins of my copy I kept scribbling "So what?" Also arguing for the motion was Kim Fletcher, a former editor of the Telegraph and the Independent on Sunday. Against the motion were the BBC’s Robin Lustig, host of “The World Tonight” (with a blog of his own) and Nazenin Ansari, diplomatic editor of Kayhan (London), a weekly Persian language newspaper.

Keen spoke first. A bit of a slow starter, one of the points he wanted to make was that journalism is a collection of facts “for which one is paid.” Web 2.0 threatens that. People no longer put a premium on content from brand-name providers. They’d rather rely on the recommendations of their friends, as information is passed around endlessly online.
The future, he said, belongs to things like the Huffington Post, the unpaid blogorama which he says gets as many page views as the New York Times. (Can that be true?)

Lustig celebrated the ubiquity of journalism thanks to new media. Not only can you find him everywhere (courtesy of the web), you can find little snippets of information that would have taken days to unearth before. Fletcher admitted that it seemed crazy to think anyone could be against new media, and yet it was undermining the economics of journalism. He hates the term "user-generated content," since it calls to mind a "bucket of stuff" that can be slapped online. Ansari said that online newspapers such as hers, and the work of courageous bloggers living under repressive governments, show the power and necessity of new media.

I was among the “named speakers.” These were people salted in the audience who prepared remarks in advance to deliver when called upon by the moderator, in this case William Horsley, former BBC broadcaster and chair of the Association of European Journalists. I'd been instructed to start my comments in Oxford Union style, thus: "Mr. Chairman, I oppose this motion... because I hate to see my fellow journalists fall prey to the same sort of victim mentality that we quite rightly criticize when it's adopted by other industries that have failed to keep pace with changing times." Then I blathered for a couple more minutes.

LES's Charlie Beckett (below right) got to take a few swings at the motion too, noting that it isn't journalists that need to be saved, but journalism. And that means sharing the power to create something more valuable. Ashley Norris (below left), a former Guardian writer who founded a stable of blogs, said it's no wonder new media rose up to threaten journalism: People became fed up with a journalism that acted superior and non-responsive. Magazines are especially bad, he said. Before long it looked like the motion might have been "New media should kill journalism."

One audience member said journalism could be saved if corporate directors weren't so intent on lining their pockets and those of their shareholders, rather than reinvesting in the product. Someone else noted that new media helps facilitate a race to the bottom, as mainstream news organizations ape the tabloid styles of blogs and celebrity-obsessed web sites.

Keen tried to turn the discussion away from notions of free speech and the exploits of brave bloggers. He is essentially focused on the West and, like Fletcher, sees the issue as an economic one. There are also questions of authority. New media means that the "expert" is no longer valued and Keen urged journalists to "liberate yourselves from humility." He added: "I guarantee we will lose this debate. You will see new media as a good thing."

He was right. When the votes were counted, 13 people had voted for the motion, 43 against it and five had abstained. The motion was a bit of artifice--baby, meet bathwater--and I don't know if anyone there had his or her mind changed.
Changed, probably not. Broadened, perhaps. I have some sympathy for Keen's position (he warmed up eventually). And when he talked about how everyone is an expert these days, picking and choosing their "news" and their "facts" from their Facebook widgets and their world wide avalanche, I had a thought: Will that put even more of a premium on knowledge and "the truth," creating an ever-more Darwinian process by which those who can access, process and understand the news will prosper, while those who can't don't. I can sort of see it going either way: The web democratizes and educates so much that you needn't subscribe to the New York Review of Books or sip cherry coke with Warren Buffet to prosper. Or the web throws so much garbage into the atmosphere that only those inclined to hunt and peck--by dint of their education or elite status--are rewarded.

There's a much better write-up of the debate at Nico Macdonald's blog and the video will eventually be up on the Frontline Club's website.


mark from alexandria said...

Do you ever get the feeling that there is too much navel gazing going on this topic, John? There are things that traditional print and electronic news media do very well and I think that they should be able to continue to do them well. Where I see trouble for socieity is when they move into advocacy journalism (e.g., the Bill O'Reilly and more recently Keith Olbermann direct support for particular candidates or elected officials). Howard Kurtz sort of gets to this in the Washington Post today.

One thing that traditional media can do well is what PBS did in the States with its recent "Carrier" series and which the British media always do well, most recently with the Ross Kemp series on soldiers in Afghanistan. Perhaps this is story telling more than news, but I believe it is an important part of journalism. It is sad, however, that we no longer have journalists doing these stories, but an unseen presence in the former and a former soap star in the latter.

John Kelly said...

Yes, Mark, I do feel that. All the time. Which is why I can only occasionally bring myself to blog about it. But it is a constant backdrop for many of us in the news media, as we struggle with falling profits and dropping circulations and the general sense that our "product" isn't as appealing as it once was. This stuff can all get a bit insidery--and if half the time spent talking about it was spent actually DOING something about it we might be better off. But it's the trying to decide what to do that causes so much talking.

Daniel Bennett said...

Just been watching the video of the recent Frontline Club debate. I thought your two minutes of 'blathering' contained a lot of useful insights. I am very interested in your research - are you publishing something? I'm doing a PhD at KCL looking at the impact of blogging on the BBC's coverage of war and terrorism.

I agree with you that new media is/are(!) here to stay and that news organisations need to, and in many cases, have already adapted. In 2005, several BBC journalists began pushing forward the adoption of blogging at the organisation. One of these journalists noted that there was more going on 'outside of the BBC's window' than inside, and that if this was the case it was a situation that needed to be addressed.

Joyce said...

As someone who just wrote her first piece for The NYT Sunday Book Review, thereby qualifying herself as a proper print media person, I feel I now have the authority to tell you to please stop killing journalism. Stop now. It's absolutely unacceptable what you've done. Please use your special Voxford time machine to turn us back to a time when people read books and newspapers, and the world was good and wholesome.

John Kelly said...

Hey Daniel. YEs, I'm publishing something, or writing something anyway. But it's more of an overview of the landscape with some editorial opinions thrown in at the end. It's the sort of thing a journalist does when he realizes he isn't an academic--qualitative rather than quantitative, and not necessarily all that qualitative.

Your research sounds interesting. We should keep in touch. My e-mail is john[at]