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April 24, 2009

Journalism is dying: Long live journalism!

Filed under: Blogroll, News, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 6:14 pm


As alarmists begin to predict the end of newspapers, two German researchers, Leif Kramp and Stephan Weichert, discuss future models for those hoping to maintain media standards

Newspapers are vanishing. The Golden Age of printed news is over with the digital revolution shaking the very foundations of traditional publishing. Even prestige papers around the world, including The New York Times, the Financial Times, Le Monde (France), and El PaĆ­s (Spain), are facing serious declines of readership, circulation and advertising. How can journalists and citizens deal with the ongoing change from one-paper-cities to no-paper-cities? What implications does the collapse of newspaper businesses have for our democracy? With the growth of bloggers and Twitterers, what do we need professional journalists in the future for anyway? Is there not a desperate need to find alternative models of financing quality journalism in the near future?


Though a few newspapers have been woken up from their 100-year sleep by effectively transferring their brand to the Internet or establishing new websites such as the Washington Post’s catchy webzine slate.com, newspaper veterans such as Tim Rutten are beginning to lose hope. Rutten, a Los Angeles Times columnist, looks on Downtown Los Angeles through the panorama window of his roomy loft. In the distance, eastwards over the San Gabriel Mountains, he sees black thunderclouds drawing up: ‘If private equity can perform like traditional family proprietors - accepting smaller profits for the sake of investing in future growth - then the trend could be finally positive.’


This, however, isn’t exactly the way business decisions work in times of panic: Although still profitable and with growing circulation numbers even Germany’s leading quality voice with a circulation of more than 450,000, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, has made cuts in its editorial staff. The pessimistic mood of publishers has disastrous implications for journalistic quality and integrity. Without the appropriate financial backing journalists cannot fulfil their mission: to be independent.


Financial investors march forward

Alarmists are already talking of a ‘newspaper endgame’ and hold serious fears for the ideals of quality journalism. And yes, notably in the US one can watch primordial American institutions such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, practically fading away, leaving the question: What is there to fill the sudden gap in the information supply? Former Chicago Tribune editor Charles M. Madigan points out in his latest book, The collapse of the great American newspaper, that, along with the staff cuts comes a severe weakening of the press’s watchdog role. The collapse of the Tribune Company after being purchased by the estate magnate Sam Zell is - in that sense - is one of the best examples of this process.


The uncertainties surrounding high quality newspapers are beginning to scare German columnists too. In early summer 2007 journalists all over the country were alarmed by the news that the dynasty that owns the Sueddeutsche Zeitung wanted to sell its stake. A gloomy picture of the serious newspaper was painted by the philosopher Juergen Habermas who called for financial injections from the government or other governmental bodies according to the model of German (ARD, ZDF) or British (BBC) public broadcasting. This should be taken seriously, he wrote, since ‘quality journalism as a public good’ was at risk.


One year after Habermas expressed his concerns, Culture Minister Bernd Neumann, together with the press organisations, started a ‘national print media initiative’ not only to preserve the culture of reading in schools and universities but to rescue the German newspaper business. In the US, senator Benjamin Louis Cardin proposed tax relief through his Newspaper Revitalisation Act of April 2009. Yet the industry is still waiting for the politicians to act.


Asia and Europe have a lot of catching up to do

Although panic has been spreading, there is still good news: According to the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), in 2007 global newspaper circulation was up 3.65 per cent, sales were up 2.57 per cent and in the same period newspaper advertising revenues were up 0.86 per cent. The printed newspaper, with a 40 per cent share, remains, WAN notes, the printed newspaper remains the world’s largest advertising medium. But there is more bad news: While press markets in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia are booming, print journalists in traditional newspaper countries such as Germany, the UK and the US are facing an unprecedented crisis.


In 2007 revenues in the US were down 9.4 percent. Recession is here, and the prospects are not hopeful: The print as well as the online business of news aggregation and distribution cannot be built on the shaky ground of advertisement support. Although in Germany the most recent advertising numbers are encouraging (a 6.4 per cent rise in the first quarter of 2009, says Nielsen Media Research), the long lasting relationship between advertising and the newspaper industry is falling apart.

 

Search engines, not newspapers, and the so-called social networks are leading the list of the websites with the highest click-through rates: Yahoo and Google, followed by MySpace, Wikipedia and Blogger.com. Apart from The New York Times, the only paper in the top forty, other quality newspapers’ sites are low in the rankings. The biggest thorn in the side of publishers is the expansion of Googleplex, the search engine’s super-brain, whose Google News - as Financial Times writer John Lloyd says - seems to be ‘more of an enemy than a friend’, since it does not produce news but only collects data from other newspapers, which do all the expensive research.


Five ways to save the traditional media?

The billion-Euro-question is: What groundbreaking business model could be the saviour of journalism, whether on paper or digitally distributed. Five distinct ways could lead into a more secure future. But with them comes fundamental challenges to the ownership structure of newspaper publishing and the philosophy of journalistic production:


1. Largely unhampered by economic imperatives, foundations like the Scott Trust, owner of the Guardian, the Poynter Institute, publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, or the German Fazit-Stiftung, the main proprietor of the major daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, are dedicated to guard journalistic integrity and independence - and are, therefore, not dominated by shareholder interests. However, creating foundations isn’t easy, particularly given the complex legal regulations in many European countries.


2. An alternative approach could be a publicly financed newspaper on the model of the BBC or the ARD and ZDF in Germany. If 40 million German viewers would also pay a small monthly amount for newspapers, say: two Euros, the press could build upon a base of nearly a billion Euros each year. Questionable, of course, would be the ways of putting together a canon of quality newspapers or journalism projects that would be allowed to drop their anchor in the safe harbour of public support.


3. A broader solution may be seen in a ‘culture flat rate’ paid by internet providers or cable carriers to support professional news organisations. Such a lump sum would not need a legislative initiative but could be managed between the news media and the giants of telecommunication like Verizon, Telekom or Orange. So the future of internet as an information source would become deeply connected with the fate of quality journalism.


4. Then there is the ‘rent-a-journalist’ model that was successfully adopted by the highly acclaimed online project Spot.Us. Readers are paying small amounts of hard dollars to let journalists research important topics of local interest. If enough money is collected the work can begin. Stories already published include investigative reports about police officers that mishandled their duties and about road potholes in Oakland, California. The model has removed the traditional distance between journalists and their readers, making the reporters’ work directly linked to the interests of their paying audience.


5. Public educational bodies could also invest more in journalistic education and training at all levels.


Involving the readers

Jay Rosen, Journalism Professor at New York University and founder of Pressthink, one of America’s most popular media blogs, does not think Habermas’s suggestion, which implies the use of public funds to relieve quality journalism from its financial problems, is a good idea. ‘Our experience with PBS (the public broadcasting system) is that the Republican Party will politicise the funding and accuse the press of liberal bias. That would take about a week.’ Media journalist Tim Rutten, of the Los Angeles Times, thinks that staff and the readers should be helped to hold shares in their newspaper. Certainly, without a public-supported infrastructure to help crumbling national and local newspapers, their future - and that of democracy itself - looks to be under threat.


Dr. Stephan Weichert is Professor of Journalism and Vice-Chair at the Macromedia University of Applied Sciences for Media and Communication in Hamburg, Leif Kramp is a PhD candidate at the University of Hamburg. They both work as print journalists and senior researchers at the Institute for Media and Communication Policy in Berlin.

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