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Acton Commentary: The State of the Fourth Estate

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Edmund Burke: the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.
Edmund Burke: " the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all."
In today’s Acton Commentary, “The State of the Fourth Estate,” I argue that the profession of journalism must be separable from traditional print media.

My alma mater’s flagship student publication, The State News, where I broke into the ranks of op-ed columnists, celebrated its centennial anniversary earlier this month. The economics of news media increasingly make it seem as if the few kinds of print publications that will survive in the next 100 years will be those that are institutionally subsidized, whether more traditionally as student newspapers or more innovative “nonprofit” models.

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson writes in the Financial Times that one hopeful prospect for the continuation of traditional print media is “that charitable endowments may replace commercial business models.” I have to say that this I’m much more optimistic about this possibility rather than the idea that government should somehow bailout mainstream media. (While deregulation might be a good step, direct subsidy would most certainly undermine the “free” press.) But as Alan Mutter notes in Edgecliffe-Johnson’s extensive and worthy analysis, “The idea of charitable endowments is a bit of a red herring.”

“Two prominent US newspapers are supposedly sheltered by not-for-profit parents, he says, but The Christian Science Monitor has abandoned its print edition and the Poynter Institute is selling the Congressional Quarterly to support its St Petersburg Times flagship: ‘There’s nothing about that form of ownership that insulates you,'” says Mutter, “a veteran newspaper editor who writes the influential Reflections of a Newsosaur blog.”

What bodes even more poorly for traditional print or “old” media is the alarming decline in public trust. The General Social Survey, which has conducted “basic scientific research on the structure and development of American society” since 1972, announced this week that in 2008 only 9 percent of those surveyed express a “great deal” of confidence in the press, a decline from 28 percent in 1976. (HT: Between Two Worlds) This decline in trust in the press is no doubt a major reason why less than half (43%) of people surveyed in a recent Pew poll said that the loss of their local newspaper would “would hurt civic life in their community ‘a lot.'”

Edgecliffe-Johnson quotes a publishing consultant Anthea Stratigos, who says, “The core journalistic values have to be there for the product to perform.” This is essentially my argument in brief in this week’s ANC: these “core journalistic values” are essential irrespective of the medium used. As another study from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism (also noted by Edgecliff-Johnson) concludes rightly, “The old norms of traditional journalism continue to have value.”

Let me give one quick example of how this recognition has been lost. Last year I attended a RightOnline conference, which was aimed at harnessing new media among conservatives. In a presentation from representatives of the Media Research Center, I raised the issue of the importance of the ability of sources to speak “off the record.” When I asked this question, it was dismissed out-of-hand: the gist of the response was, “There’s no such thing as ‘off the record’ in today’s digital age.” In a world where personal video recorders can fit into your pocket, nothing anyone ever says is off limits.

This has the real potential to undermine and destroy public discourse. Politicians are already so guarded that it is rare to find one who is willing to tell the straight, unadulterated truth. This kind of caustic and corrosive “paparazzi” mentality among new media practitioners is a real threat to the common good. And the extent to which “old” media have been influenced by this has undoubtedly played a part in the decline of the public’s trust over the last 30 years.

The International Blogging and New Media Association is starting to consider issues surrounding the need for professionalism. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is an excellent place to start. The Ninth Commandment is another.

More reading on the state of the newspaper:

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • The transition to an online revenue/content delivery model may be closer than your article seems to contemplate.

    I have a Masters in Public Administration and have taught economics and other subjects online for 5 years with the University of Phoenix. Their text books are 100% digital – PDF files to be downloaded. With over 200,000 students, many are being prepared for the “digital world”.

    I have several books that I sell via, and you can see this process at I’ve serialized my first novel on a Facebook Group, and am working to migrate my publications to Amazon’s Kindle. Even now, companies are emerging that will train authors in how to take advantage of social networking to create an online market.

    This is not an academic exercise. Early adapters have already mastered the technology. Mass application will be here in 2 – 5 years.

    Among the classes I teach is E-commerce. Now, I’m not super good at putting together websites, but I am a student of the trends. I think we’re close to a new revenue model emerging that will allow “old media” writers to get paid via electronic subscriptions. And like the movie stars of silent film nearly a century ago, Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” will also catch many old media stars unprepared.

    In fact, I’m working with some emerging companies that are bridging the gap between content creation, customer acquisition, and sustainable residual income streams.

    One thought for you all. In all of this technobable, the human touch is still required. I teach people how to lead asynchronous discussion forums using Socratic instruction techniques blended with some other “high touch” methods in an online environment. I’d love to work with people, like yourselves, who wish to promote conservative economic philosophy.

    If that might be of interest to you, let me know. Given the reaction of my online economics students to the current economic crisis, I’m looking for conservatives like yourselves who already know economics, but would like to learn how to lead interactive discussions with 15-20 student learns over a 5 week period to understand basic economics and applied conservative political philosophy. In other words, you know economics – I simply train you how to lead online discussion classes.

    I do this now in the arena of online bible studies. To learn more, go to

    Have a great day.


  • J. Ankrom

    “Congress shall make NO LAW… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

    One would have to seriously question the concept of, “professional journalism”
    being the subject matter of the First Amendment. While the protections afforded to a, “free press” would certainly include all forms of journalism, the press itself is rightly understood to mean, “the printing press.”

    Furthermore, the rights as acknowledged by the Constitution are afforded to the individual. While they may include ‘business and corporate interests’ these entities are not exclusively protected and are still made up of individuals; ie., alter egos, aliases and fictions. These protections, while abused by government in all forms of control through the granting of licenses, permits and other infringements still do not guarantee an audience. Although one would have to wonder whether licenses to broadcast on television or radio would be a violation of that spirit. Likewise, to lead journalism down the path of non-profit incorporation would be just the excuse authoritarians would seize as a means to stifle political speech. Just ask the churches who have fallen for this fatal gambit. Depite the fact that the same constitutional amendment guarantees, “the free exercise” clause those charged with protecting these rights now use them as a bludgeon to impede and destroy.

    Contrary to the freedoms which are the responsibility of government to protect and defend, we instead have government, which is nothing more than mere men, attempting to thwart at every step, through their fantastic inventions of regulation, permits, taxation and yes, even censorship of every form of media. Time will tell if the personal computer, the modern day equivalent of the ‘printing press’ will be recognized as a free instrument out of the reach of tyrannical government. Already we see encroachments by men of power attempting to grab hold of the press, in all of its forms, as a means to enrich themselves and extend their control of freedom and liberty everywhere.

    We shall see.