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Earlier this year the Social Trends Institute invited 20 journalists and sociologists to Barcelona to debate the topic, The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered: Cultural Power. In this interview, the academic leader of the experts meeting, Jeffrey Alexander of Yale University, offers a window onto the discussion.

What is the crisis of journalism, and why do you think it needs to be “reconsidered”?

Modern societies are always buzzing with crisis talk — it’s a trope that gets our attention, a kind of collective expostulation of anxiety that triggers various sorts of social therapies, both psychic and institutional.

For about a decade now, there’s been an intense anxiety throughout the Western world, but particularly in the U.S. and western Europe, about the situation of newspapers and journalism. While intense and concerning, however, this discourse remains relatively confined — to people who work in, or are paid to think about, mass media and the new technology. Most ‘big thinkers’ — social theorists, social commentators, and even most social scientists — think and talk about and study “sexier” problems, especially contemporary politics, immigration, gender and racial identity, and of course economic inequality. But if the crisis of journalism is below the surface of most public discussion, it’s very, very real nonetheless. It’s a truly significant social problem with possibly quite damaging social consequences. 

The crisis in its bare bones is about the vast contraction of an industry and the threat to a profession, the first created by the digital revolution, the second its indirect effect. With advertising moving online and opportunities for social communication and information provision being widely available and largely for free, major national newspapers been forced to reduce their staff by a third to a half. Many local and regional newspapers have gone bankrupt. In the U.S., the number of working journalists has been reduced by some 40%.

The crisis in journalism is first of all experienced as an economic crisis of newspapers, since they are the business model that has, at least until recently, allowed serious journalists to be paid. Will serious journalism survive if newspapers are no longer economically viable? That’s the anxiety. Can democracy and critical thinking survive without serious journalism? That’s the broader concern.

Why must the crisis be reconsidered?

The crisis has been considered too narrowly. Internet isn’t just a technology but also an ideology. Like every major practical scientific invention of modern times, it has been wrapped up inside a utopian discourse that promises salvation. Ideologists of the “Internet Age” – and there are many, from technology geeks and seers of all sorts to sophisticated theorists of the “network society” – have narrated the new technology as horizontal, democratizing, liberating, and harmonious, as a vehicle that would break down dominating hierarchies and divisive walls.

Because the web is all about information, some of the most intensely salvationary elements of this techno-discourse have been directed against professional journalism, portraying it as elitist, old-fashioned, unfree, anti-democratic. In the future world of netizens, the argument goes, journalists won’t be necessary because everybody will have access to, and be producers of, all the information they need, all the time. We will be living in an “ambient” world of instantaneous communication.

So the first reconsideration is simply this – to understand that we have not just received a technology but an ideology. The economic consequences for newspapers actually issued from this cultural fact. In the face of all these sacred promises, to make internet users of information pay online seemed profane. “Information must be free!” So when newspapers put their carefully produced news reporting up on their own websites, as they all have done, they had to make access free of charge. At the same time, giant aggregating companies from Google to the Huffington Post and your local bloggers could take this information, synthesize and analyze and rewrite it, and publish it – without paying any of the costs for producing it!

One must reconsider technological determinism in favor a broader, more cultural-sociological point of view.

The second cultural reconsideration looks not at the causes of the crisis in journalism but its effects. The idea that Internet is only a material technology connects up with economic determinism. Because it is faster and less costly as an information provider, Internet netizens, working for free, will make journalism passé – for pure market reasons of great efficiency. But what if journalism is a profession, not just an economic niche? What if journalism has its own “sacred values” that concern its craft and that have developed incrementally over historical time? Values like autonomy, accuracy, balance, independence, and fairness? And what if these professional values are tied deeply into the heart of the cultural codes that sustain democracy itself?

Because journalism is, indeed, a fervently sustained cultural system, it has not simply been pushed aside by technology and economics but has pushed back. Journalists have insisted on the very substantial differences between professional news reporting and partisan blogs and breathless tweets about the events of the day. The publics of civil society that surround and sustain the profession have also been aroused, often indignantly protesting threats to a free and independent press.

As the utopian discourse surrounding the net has waned, people have begun to realize that digital networks accommodate to narrowness and particularism, not only challenge them. The organized skepticism of professional journalism provides a significant counterweight to flippy tweets and networked narrowing. As journalism has pushed back, and the dust settles from this newest wave of technological invention, what is emerging is a new hybridity.

News reporting can be sustained in a professional manner as it goes online, and some paywalls have been erected and sustained. Journalists are employing the new tools of the web to modify the forms in which news is reported, even while the standards and techniques of news writing have not substantially changed. Not only have people become more willing to pay for online professional newspapers, but professional journalism has created independent, stand-alone digital websites that specialize in various kinds of reporting, from local, to cultural, to political, to scientific and criminological, all of which are operating with fees. Finally, in response to the wider public sense of crisis, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into these activities by philanthropists and non-profit foundations in the U.S.

What opportunities does STI provide?

Only serious, sustained, qualitative empirical research can break through the fog of ideology and misperceptions that have surrounded the crisis of journalism. Our STI conference brings together leading researchers in the U.S. and Europe who are doing ethnographies of journalists, digital journalism, and citizen reporting, historical studies of earlier crises in journalism, and both national and comparative studies. We also need to bring this empirical research into contact with theoretical thinking that thematizes culture and understands the role of critical journalism in sustaining civil societies.

Jeffrey C. Alexander is the Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology and co-Director of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. He was the academic leader of the STI Experts Meeting The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered: Cultural Power. The above interview was first published on the STI website and is reproduced here with permission.