I can clearly recall sitting in a lecture center at the University at Albany. It was the fall of 1989, my 11th and final year as an undergraduate (for those of you who are interested in that story, I’m available for a drink at any time). We had a guest lecturer in our Political Science class and while most students wanted to talk about the revolutionary events that were unfolding in Europe, Lee Mirngoff was trying to tell the 200 students in the room that there was something else happening that deserved their attention.
What Professor Miringoff was trying to tell us was that the ongoing and acceleration of media mergers and takeovers especially of newspapers and television networks would have far reaching implications about how we got our information. More importantly he cautioned that the incentives of non-media companies owning news outlets would create not only a focus on profit over quality of reporting but that these large corporations just might have incentives for suppressing or ignoring certain stories.
This was the era when Westinghouse was buying CBS, General Electric was buying NBC, and Disney was buying ABC. It was almost 10 years before Internet access was common. Heck, cable cost about $15 per month! The rational behind these mergers and the consolidation of the print news industry was that there were limited ways to distribute information and the means of production were expensive. No one saw any anti-trust issues as it appeared that options for citizens to receive news were increasing rather than decreasing.
Of course some 25 years later, here we are. We live in a nation that lurches from crisis to crisis and many Americans seem to wonder why we have more information on Lindsay Lohan than on Lindsay Graham. While many argue that Web 2.0 and the new methods of publishing have destroyed the business model for news, I argue that the traditional news media sewed the seeds of their own destruction well in advance.
Certainly new technology went a long way to destroying existing business models. But lets not forget that the reaction to the Internet of many news companies was a combination of disbelief and/or lets just charge for our service on the web. Of course, most corporate entities did what they typically do best. Lets try to do more with more. The Wall Street Journal, owned by the great journalist, Rupert Murdoch, in a ten year period doubled the amount of stories published while reducing staff.
What suffered? The very thing that made news special in the first place, investigative reporting. In a free society, the Fourth Estate (the press to those of you under 40) has an essential duty to keep government and other institutions honest. Doing this well takes time and effort. As reporters were required to write more and more stories, the time they had to investigate diminished. Whether they were reporting on a drug bust, a cat in a tree, or the 2008 financial crisis, reporters became more dependent on official sources and less dependent on sources that may have shed light on why the official sources were not exactly forthcoming. If you don’t believe me, open up any news paper not named the New York Times and tell me what percentage of stories are filed by that newspapers own reporters and how much says “from wire services”. As for television news, try to watch 30 minutes and then tell me how much time is not devoted to commercials and human interest stories.
While I am sure that this is somewhat reflective of filling audience wants, I can not help but wonder how much real investigative reporting goes undone because of resource issues or because the story would not fit the owners corporatist agenda.
So while it is clear that new media has disrupted the old models of journalism, it is also clear that the seeds of destruction were sewn well in advance.
What is the Future of News? First, do Americans care about the crusading reporter? I know that I do and I believe that many of my friends do as well.
Perhaps those of us who care need to take a multi pronged approach, much like Jay Rosen discusses in the Columbia Journalism Review article, Confidence Game. Anyone and everyone can be a reporter. All you need to do is the work. Publishing is free. So if you get the story, it will be heard. Also, we need to find a way to secure the sites that do produce quality reporting. So whether it’s the New York Times, the Guardian, or the local guy who reports on your town’s mayor, pay for the service. Heck, pay someone that you don’t agree with for his or her service too.
Lastly, read and listen to as much news as you can and remember, always be aware of the dreaded Filter Bubble!!!