The Federal Trade Commission held a two-day workshop last week called How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?, which featured the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Arriana Huffington and former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie nattering on about who is to blame for the economic problems of newspapers and whether the government should do something to underwrite the cost of producing “quality journalism.”
Of all the ideas being kicked around about how to save journalism in the Internet age, clearly, getting the government involved seems clearly the worst of them. No good can come of that, for anyone. Nor can any good journalism.
The bigger problem with the whole enterprise, however, was its premise. The Media Wonk is hardly the first observer to note newspaper executives’ propensity for conflating newspapering with journalism, and for insisting that if the former goes under, so will the latter (from the title of the workshop, it was clear the FTC is also at least half-way in that same bag, too). But I think the problem goes even deeper than that, to the whole notion of “quality journalism,” itself, and its unacknowledged relationship to technology.
So much of the process that defines what we generally refer to as “journalism” is really no more than a collection of technologically determined conventions that we have mistakenly and unnecessarily elevated to the status of “principles.”
I’m talking here about the whole package, from the institutional beat structure to the inverted pyramid, to rules about sourcing and the “reached in his bunker for comment Mr. Hitler denied…” approach to balance, to the scoop and the second-day lede.
Most of those conventions are traceable, directly or indirectly, to the high fixed costs long associated with publishing newspapers, and to the particular means of production the technology imposed on publishers.
As in any business, where you have high fixed costs you need a high volume and steady flow of product through the pipeline over which to amortize those costs. That meant hiring a lot of reporters and editors to churn out “news.” High costs and high volume, in turn, create pressure for standardization and routine to insure the quality and consistency of the product.
Most newspaper publishers, moreover, serve two masters: readers and advertisers. And advertisers require predictability (i.e. standardization and routine) in order to make informed buying decisions.
The situation was much the same for news broadcasters when that technology emerged. They didn’t need printing presses but they needed well-equipped studios and transmitters. And they needed affiliates to retransmit their broadcasts to outlying areas. For most of the history of broadcasting, networks paid affiliates to carry their programs, not the other way around as it is today.
Standardization also encouraged the professionalization of journalism. As in law or medicine, the professionals became the keepers of the standards that defined them as professionals. That boosted salaries, which increased costs further, while at the same time erecting a useful barrier to entry for potential competitors.
The cost, labor and effort involved in producing a newspaper (and later a network broadcast) also created pressure to organize the work in a very particular way. In a time before cellphones, email and webcasts, and when newspapers came out once, or at most twice, a day, stationing a reporter full time in the state house, or on Capitol Hill, or monitoring the police blotter, was an efficient way to organize the work.
As with any formalized system, however, over time the system itself become its own subject matter (much as it is in law, for instance). Thus, the instutions to which the reporters were attached–for reasons largely related to costs of publishing newspapers and reinforced by professionalized standards–themselves came to be regarded as the “news,” rather than the substance of what they did or its relationship to institutions that were not part of the system (i.e. most of what made up most readers’ day-to-day existence).
The deployment of reporters also dictated the line-up of stories that went into a newspaper or an evening broadcast: The “news” was what the institution-bound reporters reported.
Critically, for most of the past two centuries, most of costs associated with maintaining a professionalized news organization, whether fixed or variable, and which created the pressures toward standardization, routine and institutional bias, were and are related not to the expense of news gathering itself but to expense of owning a printing press or a broadcast network, of paper, ink and setting type, of the cost of postage and delivery trucks, of maintaining affiliates, and ultimately of maintaining “professional” standards in the first place.
In short, “professional” journalism is expensive because it’s designed to be. So when publishers complain, as Rupert Murdoch did again in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday that producing “quality journalism” is expensive, they are speaking the truth. But they are also speaking a tautology, which tells us nothing about the actual substance or value of journlism, but everything about how publishers’ capital is deployed.
Today, digital technology is removing (or has removed) most of the fixed costs long associated with reporting and publishing “news.” And the conventions of “professional” journalism that grew up as a result or in response to those costs, have lost their foundational purpose.
That leads us, inevitably, to ask at least two critical questions: What, then, is their purpose today? and, is that purpose sufficient to warrant extraordinary measures to preserve them?
Having spent the first 25 years of my professional career learning, honing and following those conventions, I certainly understand the impulse to preserve and protect them. But I have to wonder how much of that impulse is mere nostalgia.
Those conventions–the very definition of “professional journalism”–ultimately rested on a technological system that no longer obtains. So if those conventions are no longer necessary for economic and technological reasons, if the definition of “news” and the process of news-gathering is no longer constrained by the mechanical requirements of print and broadcasting, are those conventions still necessary for journalistic reasons? Could a new, equally valid set of conventions and definitions of “news”, in time, emerge to reflect the new technological system?
And should the government, or anyone else, stand in the way of that?