Edmund Burke: "...in 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:
- “Preparing the Obituary,” by James V. DeLong, The American (March 3, 2009).
- “The Online Experiments That Could Help Newspapers,” by Olga Kharif, BusinessWeek (March 8, 2009).
- “No News will be bad news,” by Stanley Bing, The Bing Blog (March 9, 2009).
- “The Ten Major Newspapers That Will Fold Or Go Digital Next,” by Douglas McIntyre, 24/7 Wall St. (March 9, 2009).
- “With Print Dying, Online Newspapers Herald the Future,” by Brennon Slattery, PCWorld (March 10, 2009).
- “Times Techie Envisions the Future of News,” by Ryan Singel, Wired (March 10, 2009).
- “Journalism evolving, not dying: science author,” AFP (March 14, 2009).