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Journalism: journey to an uncertain destination?


By Ian Hargreaves

Returning to any book script created a decade ago involves lexical shock. When the subject is journalism and the decade the one just gone, the effect is more that of lexical implosion.

My Very Short Introduction to Journalism (2005) was an abridged version of Journalism Truth or Dare (2003), written in transition from work as a full-time journalist to a new base at Cardiff University.

The decade that followed my move has seen the evisceration by the Internet of the advertising-based industrial model which made newspapers such profitable and influential businesses in the 20th century, resulting in newspaper closures, diminished publishing schedules and the loss of many thousands of journalists’ jobs, especially in the old, advanced economies of Europe and North America.

When it comes to the detritus of anachronisms tossed aside in this digital deluge, my own 2003/2005 text provides a plentiful source. Who, these days, speaks of a “personal digital assistant”, a millennial fashion accessory, even though the enhanced versions of such machines today are more personal and no less digital.

A decade ago, I entitled the chapter devoted to understanding the technological outlook for journalism, Matt’s Modem: tomorrow’s journalism: (who today knows or cares what a modem is?) a reference to the work of Matt Drudge, who made himself famous in 1998 by publishing on the Internet the first clear, public charges concerning President Clinton’s relationship with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

What most caught my eye about Matt Drudge was his public encounter with the journalistic establishment of the National Press Club in Washington, where he told a rather stiff audience that we had now entered “an era vibrating with the din of small voices” when “every citizen can be a reporter and can take on the powers that be.” When the President of the National Press Club challenged Drudge to explain his views on “the professional ethic of journalism,” Drudge replied: “Professional. You see, the thing is you are throwing these words at me that I can’t defend, because I am not a professional journalist. I am not paid by anyone.”

Today, as things have turned out, Drudge is paid. His blog offers a lively outpouring of facts, gossip, conjecture, and opinion and he is associated with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News television channel. Drudge, in short, has a business model which works in the digital age, unlike the scores of small town American newspapers which have put up their shutters for the last time, having lost their advertising revenue to search engines and list services.

So, here is journalism’s most profound lexical conundrum of the digital age. Could it be that the Internet, by undermining established business models of journalism, and simultaneously facilitating self-publication on an unprecedented scale, is radically re-defining our understanding of what ‘journalist’ is or even portending, in some sense, the death of journalism?

Is someone who publishes a news blog from their living room, such as my friend and colleague Dave Harte, a journalist or not? Dave and I are part of a research group trying to think some of this through with regard to areas of civic life beyond journalism. How do journalism’s traditional definitions apply to the activist tweeting pictures from Tahrir Square or to the community group campaigning for a better high street? To be a ‘real’ journalist, do you have to be paid for your work? And if you are paid, should you, or even must you, embrace a code of professional ethics?

My trusted, if decidedly analogue Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1987) tells me that journalism is: “the occupation or profession of a journalist.” But journalists, especially British ones, have luxuriated over the years in debating whether they are willing to be considered members of a profession, given that professional status in other occupations, such as medicine or law, involves codes of practice and consequent penalties for their breach which extend to loss of the right to practice. This sanction, in the view of many journalists, myself included, implies an unacceptable threat to freedom of expression and so the freedom of the news media in a democratic society. It invokes the notion of a ‘licensed’ press, of the sort which exists in non-democratic societies.

In truth, we are on a journey of uncertain destination, to discover whether what Yochai Benkler has called “the networked public sphere” will incorporate and extend what, for the last 200 years or so, we have thought of as “journalism”. Or will this new information system, sometimes called the ‘fifth estate’, simply overwhelm the ‘fourth estate’ of the press and kill off professional journalists, including those who don’t like the concept of a profession?

A survey of UK journalists in which I was recently involved sought to establish, among other things, whether the number of people who think of themselves as journalists has gone up or down in the last ten years. It concluded that the number hasn’t changed that much (at roughly 60,000) but that an increasing number of journalists today enjoy other forms of paid employment, such as working in universities (“hackademics”), marketing, speech-writing and activities in many other branches of growing communications industries.

My own hunch is that the differentiation between amateur journalists, who have always been part of journalism, and those who get paid for their work will find new ways of expressing itself. Here is Daniel Defoe’s description of a coffee house in 1728, where we get an early glimpse of the professional reporter at work:

“Persons are employed …. To haunt coffee houses and thrust themselves into companies where they are not known; or plant themselves at convenient distances to overhear what is said …. The same persons hang and loiter about the publick offices like housebreakers, waiting for an interview with some little clerk, or a conference with a door keeper in order to come at a little news, or an account of transactions; for which the fee is a shilling, or a pint of wine.”

In that sense, the culture, practices and ethics of the press, or indeed the culture, practices and ethics of online sleuths like Matt Drudge, really haven’t changed in three hundred years, as Lord Leveson is discovering, no doubt to his considerable disappointment. At the same time, the “networked public sphere” is entirely allowing new forms of on-line distribution and collaboration which uncover hidden facts (a form of reporting sometimes called ‘data journalism’), along with an uncountable array of opinion-givers and debaters, some of them cranks, some of them globally renowned experts.

Will I be writing an updated Very Short Introduction to Journalism? Or a Very Short Introduction to the Networked Public Sphere?

Ian Hargreaves is Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University. Previously he was Editor, the Independent; Editor the New Statesman; Deputy Editor of the Financial Times and Director of BBC News. He is current revising and updating Very Short Introduction to Journalism.

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Image credit: Toowat satellite modem by Axlsite (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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