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News futures: digital dreams and harsh realities

The proliferation of voices on the internet does not constitute a perfect democratic model for our times, argues Natalie Fenton. To truly harness the transformational potential of new media, we must protect and expand reputable news sources - and liberate them from the stifling constraints of the free market

February 14, 2010
7 min read


Natalie Fenton is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London


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The internet has brought with it new ways of collecting and reporting information. It is often heralded as a ‘new journalism’ that is open to novices, lacks editorial control, can stem from anywhere (not just the newsroom), involves new writing techniques, functions in a network with fragmented audiences, is delivered at great speed, and is open and deliberative – a democratic model for our times.

But an extensive UK study undertaken at the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre 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.

Our analysis reveals that this latest ‘new’ world of ‘new’ media has not greatly expanded the news that we read or hear, nor changed mainstream news values and traditional news formats; nor has it connected a legion of bloggers to a mass audience. Rather, as the economic model for traditional news production stumbles in the digital age, professional journalism has become the first casualty; the second, if we’re not careful, will be the health of our democracy.

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 in the digital age.

Our research draws on more than 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 also undertook three 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.

We found an industry and a practice in trouble. Here are some of the main conclusions.

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 popularisation of online and mobile platforms. The long-term decline in advertising revenue has gone 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 newspapers closed between January and August 2009. In those that are surviving there are fewer people, doing more and more work. Journalism has found itself in the eye of the perfect storm – a background of marketisation, deregulation and globalisation, along with the need to keep up with technological innovation, has resulted in 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, and work at greater speed, to fill the requirements of 24-hour news and the immediacy of online communication. All that with fewer journalists in permanent positions and more job insecurity.

Creative cannibalisation

In this environment there is evidence of journalists being thrust into news production more akin to creative cannibalisation 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 and 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 overload of user-generated content and online information. This leads to an homogenisation of content, as ever-increasing commercial pressures add to the temptation to rely on these cheaper forms of newsgathering.

Given the speed of work, and the sheer amount of traffic and noise that journalists are exposed to every day, it gets harder 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. So mainstream news online has not expanded to include a 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 – most people, most of the time, get most of their news from it.

The organisation of web search tends to send more users to the most popular sites in a winners-take-all pattern. It seems ever more likely that the web will be dominated by the larger, more established news providers in a manner that, yet again, limits possibilities for increased pluralism.

At some newspapers, the combination of staff reductions and speeded-up production schedules means 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. And it is 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,’ says one Labour MP. ‘I pass them every day when I come in. I see them watching telly and banging away.

‘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 20. Now the only people you see in the lobby are the fellas in the fancy breeches looking after the place.’

Market constraints

What we’re left with is a contradiction between the 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 the space to practice independent journalism in the public interest. On the contrary, job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing limitations on journalists’ ability to do what most of them want – to question, analyse and scrutinise.

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 information overload, protecting and enhancing media that can aim for this ethical horizon has become more 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, and no real way of holding the writer-gatherers to account.

In a neoliberal, free-market economy, news has no right to exist if it cannot pay its way. But news is not an ‘ordinary’ commodity – it has a special status by dint of its relationship to democratic life. The UK government has acknowledged this, but its response, as outlined in its Digital Britain report, falls far short of offering an alternative to neoliberal approaches. Rather, the market remains at the core of policy.

The internet, enabled to fulfil its true potential, could be a real force for democratic pluralism. Protection of the internet and journalism from commercial suffocation could create a vastly expanded and critically engaged public space operating in the public interest. But the structures that would enable this ethical practice to survive and thrive need to be re-imagined and re-stated.

Natalie Fenton’s book, New Media, Old News: journalism and democracy in the digital age, is published by Sage

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Natalie Fenton is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London


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