The production and circulation of independent, quality news is a
hallmark of democratic societies with a complex history of commercial
practices, regulatory controls and technological innovation. The demise
of the existing business model of the local and regional press and of
broadcast news in the regions together with the struggle for survival
of many national newspapers demands a critical consideration of what we
want news for and how it can be delivered.

A recent study
by Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media ResearchCentre provides empirical
evidence that challenges utopian visions of the internet as a brave new
world with everyone connected to everyone else, a non-hierarchical
network of voices with equal, open and global access. This latest ‘new’
world of ‘new’ media has not greatly expanded the news that we read or
hear or changed mainstream news values and traditional news formats;
neither has it connected a legion of bloggers to a mass audience.
Rather, as the economic model for traditional news production stumbles
and falls in the digital age, professional journalism has become the
first casualty, the second, if we’re not careful, and pretty close
behind will be the health of our democracy.

The research draws
on over 170 interviews with a range of professionals from a cross
section of mainstream news media, as well as news sources and new
producers online including bloggers and people operating in the realm
of alternative news; we added to this, 3 newsroom ethnographies and a
content analysis of online news across mainstream news media, online
alternative media, social networking sites and YouTube.

We
looked at the role of structural factors such as commerce, finance and
regulation along with the cultural complexities of journalism,
journalistic subjectivities and working practices.

And we found an industry and a practice in trouble.

2007_Eurostat_AnnualProduct

Newspaper
circulation and readership levels are at an all time low; there has
been a tremendous growth in the number of news outlets available
including the advent of, and rapid increase in, free papers, the
emergence of 24 hour news and the popularization of online and mobile
platforms; a decline in advertising revenue alongside cuts in
personnel. With regard to local and international news production, the
lack of economies of scale means that it is increasingly commercially
unviable.

The Newspaper Society notes that 101 local papers
closed down between January and August 2009. In those that are
surviving fewer people are doing more and more work. Now I know we may
all say that about our jobs, but in journalism what we see is the
perfect storm – a history of marketisation, deregulation and
globalisation, throw new technologies in to the mix (bringing about yet
more speed and space and more need to invest in technical
infrastructure). These factors combined have had a negative impact on
journalism for the public good and in the public interest.

The
working context of news media has increased pressures in the newsroom
to fill more space (through the expansion of online platforms), work at
greater speed (to fill the requirements of 24 hour news and the
immediacy of online communication) with fewer journalists in permanent
positions and more job insecurity.

“In the old days
you had to get up in the morning and read all the newspapers, listen to
the Today Programme [.…] Now, in addition to all of that we also have
to keep an eye on websites, blogs of others, just in case stories crop
up [.…] As on the Internet what we have to contend with is hugely
increased sources of information.” (Political Newspaper Editor,
National Mid-Market)

“… when you’re
under those time constraints, the Internet is fabulous but it’s
dangerous as well. And I think that, a lot of the time people get
things wrong, particularly on 24-hour news channels, it’s because
they’re relying on the Internet.” (Political Editor, Commercial
Broadcasting)

In this environment there is evidence
of journalists being thrust into news production more akin to creative
cannibalization than the craft of journalism – as they need to fill
more space and to work at greater speed while also having improved
access to stories and sources online – they talk less to their sources,
are captured in desk-bound, cut and paste, administrative journalism.
Ready-made fodder from tried and tested sources takes precedence over
the sheer difficulty of dealing with the enormity of user generated
content or the overload of online information leading to an
homogenization of content as ever increasing commercial pressures add
to the temptation to rely not just on news agencies but on all cheaper
forms of news gathering.

Given the speed of work, and the sheer
amount of traffic and noise that journalists are exposed to every day,
it is less easy for ordinary citizens and non-elite sources to make
direct contact with reporters in mainstream media. In order for
journalists to pick out the important information from the ‘blizzard’
online they are forced to create systems of ‘filtration’ based on known
hierarchies and established news values. With so little time at their
disposal journalists tend to prioritise known, ‘safe’ sources. So
mainstream news on-line has not expanded to include a broader diversity
of voices or shifted focus according to information filtered through
social media.

And
even though there is now a plethora of media outlets, and citizens and
civil society can publish media content more easily than ever, there
still is a dominance of a limited number of players that control news,
information content and public debate. In other words mainstream news
matters, maybe more than it ever has done – and most people, most of
the time get most of their news from it. Furthermore the organisation
of web search tends to send more users to the most popular sites in a
winners take all pattern. It seems ever likely that the voices on the
web will be dominated by the larger, more established news providers in
a manner that, yet again, limits possibilities for increased pluralism.

In
some newspapers, the combination of staff reductions and speeded up
production schedules mean that only the most established senior,
journalists, with the highest level of personal autonomy, have the
luxury of leaving the office to talk to people, phoning a number of
different people to verify information, or probing for alternative
views or contradictions. But its not just the young journalists whose
working practices have been transformed:

“They
[journalists] don’t even try to talk to you, they just watch breaking
news upstairs. I pass them every day when I come in, I pass one of the
rooms and I see them watching telly and they’re banging away on the
typewriters, all of them [.…] When I first came here [.…] it would be
rare for that Lobby not to include some journalists, and sometimes it
could be as many as ten or a dozen or twenty. Now, the only people you
see in the Lobby are the fellas in the fancy breeches looking after the
place [.…] I think it’s the advent of 24 hours news.” (Labour MP)

What
we’re left with is a contradiction between the transforming potential
of new technologies and the stifling constraints of the free market.

The
material conditions of contemporary journalism (particularly
unprotected commercial practice) do not offer optimum space and
resources to practice independent journalism in the public interest. On
the contrary, job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing
limitations on journalists’ ability to do the journalism most of them
want to do – to question, analyse and scrutinize.

What is the
relationship between news media and democracy? A news media that can be
relied upon to monitor, hold to account, interrogate power and
facilitate and maintain deliberation is critical to a functioning
democracy. In a world of one click communication and information
overload protecting and enhancing a news media that can aim for this
ethical horizon has actually become more important rather than less
important. Without it we are left scrambling through the blogosphere,
drowning in opinion, with no known serious fact-checking, no
requirement to put stories in context, no real way of holding the
writer gatherers to account. Where the well resourced and the already
powerful are able to shout the loudest, twitter their way to the top of
the pile while everyone else whispers in the wind.

How do we
preserve it and should government have a role in media structures and
behaviour? Any government that truly believes in the basic principles
of democracy should be prepared to provide the means by which it can
function. This means regulating news media to provide the freedom to
operate in the public interest rather than purely for commercial gain.
To ignore this is to accept that the market can be relied upon to
deliver the conditions for deliberative democracy to flourish. Markets
do not have democratic intent at their core. When markets fail or come
under threat, ethical practice is swept aside in pursuit of financial
stability.

How do we do it? My view is that we need to move
towards a system of post-corporate, low profit or not-for-profit news
supported by government funding that comes not from the Licence fee but
from practices that are popular elsewhere in Europe such as industry
levies and the charging of news aggregators that exploit news content.

Natalie Fenton is Reader and Co-Director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research
Centre and Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy at the University of London. This article has been republished from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.