Muzzling the Internet

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Is Leveson about democracy? Does it or will it address online media?

“The news media has a material impact on the direction of public policy, as well as the profile of companies and the confidence of markets. The gaze of the news media also has the effect of holding governments, individuals and organizations to account—or at least to scrutiny,” 

writes Andrew Currah in his ‘investigation into the likely impact of the digital revolution on the economics of news publishing in the UK’ titled ‘What’s Happening to Our News’. Basically, the news media have sat themselves on a pretty big throne – one that, however, seems to have a wobbly leg that can tip power off the side instantly. With traditional and social responsibility on the line, as it always is when truth is the promise of journalism, we seem almost dumbfounded at the changes of the digital revolution – a weapon for success or one to topple the throne forever? “The digital revolution would appear to empower citizens and strengthen democratic engagement,” says Currah, and it’s hard to deny when technology gives rise to so many possibilities for whomever chooses to use it, but what is making everyone sweat at the moment isn’t democratic choices made by the audience, but controlling choices made by the press and its negative repercussions. “In certain quarters, the news media is not only failing in its civic function, but is also exposing citizens to sensationalist coverage, loaded with misleading and harmful information,” Currah’s chapter on ‘A democratic deficit’ concludes, a failure which gravely complicates working with political establishments and public figures, something which brought us Leveson.

In Emily Bell‘s article on the Guardian ‘The Leveson inquiry is irrelevant to 21st-century journalism’, she brings up major limitations to the very reccommendations which are meant to set limits themselves: “The relevance of the Leveson report in protecting privacy and curtailing the excesses of press behaviour has to be questionable from the outset, as its remit is both narrow and historic … Leveson deals with the nefarious ways of publishing personal information; it deals with the fallout of incestuous relationships run from the heart of government; and it deals with the personal cost of people crushed by journalism-as-showbusiness. What it cannot deal with is the regulation of the press in the 21st century.” The article mentions an exchange between lawyer Graham Shear and Lord Justice Leveson wherein the web of social media (Twitter and Google in particular) are “described as ‘an extension’ of existing media,” to which Bell has to say: “this is not true now and cannot be true in the future.” A comment on the article mirrors the difficulty of properly monitoring the biggest, most problematic presence there has ever been in the media: “I’m pretty sure that the internet is still impossible to control without resorting to China-level restrictions on it.”

Privacy and reputation seem to carry a price higher than gold (high enough for Lord McAlpine to sue almost half of Twitter), so with the internet and its boundless reputation-trashing power, will the UK eventually follow China’s tight-grip example? Will Leveson’s reccommendations have any effect when there’s still the world wide web to tackle? In any case, it’s safe to say I won’t be retweeting much until I know for sure.

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The online crossroads

Is new media technology the way out of the journalism crisis?

“The general assumption was that journalism would be revolutionized by new technology.”
“Was”, writes Steen Steensen in his blog series on the promises of new technology, arguing that journalism’s saving grace, the so-called fundamental change brought about by the internet, never happened. He argues that the influence of the internet is much less radical in shaping the role of journalists than originally expected. Those on the side of ‘technological determinism’ however, namely the reductionist theory that technology is the driving force of social development, would surely disagree. Similarly, Axel Bruns blogs on the view that “technology is seen as the only way out of the current crisis in journalism” – is it?

If Bruns is right and Steensen is wrong, why is there evidence that publications are less than enthusiastic about investing in using technology to its fullest potential? Case studies carried out by The School of Journalism at Cardiff University in a report about the Trinity Mirror’s online strategy paints a picture of stress, dilution and the decline of quality under the heavy load of technological demand. “Why is use of multimedia, hypertext and interactivity still so rare?” asks Steensen in his post, following up with “Is it only because online newsrooms don’t have the resources they need to be innovative?” Staff at the Trinity Mirror’s newsrooms would probably say yes, with findings in the report outlining journalist concerns with being spread too thin across content platforms, while at the same time receiving no extra pay or investment for much-needed resources.

We’ve now got adverse circumstances that make it even more difficult to define the internet and new technology as either a problem or solution. Do journalists even control the webspace in question? Robert Picard at the Christian Science Monitor (yes, I know, but bear with me here) argues that staff like the Trinity Mirror’s may get low pay, but that journalists actually deserve it. The value that journalists create, writes Picard, “is being severely challenged by technology that is ‘de-skilling’ journalists,” putting their jobs, and the command of online content, in the hands of almost anyone.

Will the internet then open the door out of a crisis or open a door to more problems?

The future is upon us

Is new technology an advocator of democracy? How much power do we have?

“The current crisis of journalism is weakening public understanding, and poses a threat to democracy” writes James Curran in his article ‘The Future of Journalism’, in regards to a widespread view among journalists. Is that the case, or is journalism misrepresenting democratic choices by “defending businesses and the police” for example, and in local papers’ case – “local elites”? It’s no mystery that old and new media alike are influential on many levels, but what is uncertain is how we should look at the increasingly large presence of new media technologies.

Curran mentions the view of a journalism Renaissance; believers would say the rise of web-based journalism compensates for the decline of the traditional, providing more content, information, analysis, and precision – hardly hurtful to democracy. He also gives attention to the term ‘journalism’ transforming entirely to become ‘journalistic activity,’ a professional-amateur network that gives the public more power than ever before.

Public power is a red thread in another of Curran’s texts, ‘Technology Foretold’, wherein he discusses the history of television whilst disproving technological hype, and how journalists produced misinformation about new media. The arrival of interactive television was no less than a promise broken, suffering from “underinvestment, lost money and was a consumer flop”. In the 1980s, “cable TV did not inaugurate an economic and social revolution,” he writes, but do different mediums of new technology have the chance to now?

Future Publishing‘s Mike Goldsmith puts his efforts toward ensuring app success, maybe the social revolution TV did not bring, on iPads and tablets (arguably the very attribution of new media) and said in an interview that to “extend the life of a brand”, especially outside the UK, it was beneficial not to go with print media, rather allowing publications to grow digitally, incorporating even ‘second screen’ applications that involve interaction and tutorials.

In retrospect, as is the frequent conclusion when discussing technological development in journalism, new technology gives birth to much more content and public cooperation than the exaggerated promises of television’s beginnings, and the future may well hold endless possibilities for democratic action.

Optimism is dead

How viable are news operations, actually, in this brave new world of technology?

In Paul Bradshaw’s post ‘How the web changed the economics of news’, a list of “changes” to be taken advantage of by news organisations is set out, the author’s how-to in reality-check format. Though his mention of ‘Measurability of users’ and ‘Digitisation and convergence’ hit home in explaining the usefulness of the web, holes in his arguments could give journalists that sinking feeling of industry failure. If ‘technology has reduced the cost of newsgathering, production and distribution to almost nil,’ then why are media organisations declining? Quality costs, but fewer are willing to pay.

Then we have Francois Nel’s ‘Laid Off Report‘, a collection of dismal figures and ominous forecasts (“this much is clear: the layoffs aren’t over”). The key focus here, however, is “traditional” journalism, and mixed responses from those who’ve been forced to say farewell to it. Bradshaw lays out the challenges and realities of a new media environment, and Nel’s report shows the realities in cold, hard numbers – through it all my optimism as an aspiring journalism is declining, apparently just like my chosen industry. Or maybe, honestly, I’m just confused with the overwhelming analyses and strategies about the business itself.

With endless words like these from journalists about journalism, and everyone clawing at tips on how to make it, maybe the trick to the industry’s survival is it continuing to talk about itself?