Much commentary about the news media foresees the disintegration and dissolution of the mainstream monoliths – both TV networks and mass-circulation newspapers – which dominated the public sphere in the late 20th century.
And is there not plentiful evidence that old certainties and institutions are being broken up by the forces of change? Is the advertising-dependent business model of daily printed papers not broken? Is journalism not being split into atomic particles and “unbundled” by the possibilities opened by digital technology?
This was the year Andrew Sullivan decoupled from the bigger publishing entities which had previously sheltered him and took his blog The Dish solo, charging subscriptions to read it. Is The Conversation itself not a sign that if academic experts don’t find enough openings in mainstream media that suit them, a new and more user-friendly platform can help? Do the success of new players such as Buzzfeed, Vox and the Verge mean “legacy” news media are just too tightly shackled to the costs and habits of the past to be able to keep up?
Bigger can still be better
That picture is one-dimensional. Take the story which has taken a hefty share of headlines in serious liberal media in the second half of 2013: the revelations of mass electronic surveillance made by whistleblower Edward Snowden. This wasn’t quite investigative journalism in the classic sense: a columnist for The Guardian gave the paper access to tens of thousands of highly sensitive documents Snowden wanted to see disclosed.
But the accumulated skills of a long-established paper mattered all the same. Much of the agenda-setting impact of the Snowden stories is down to the institutional skills deployed by The Guardian. The newspaper had the online reach, the clout to negotiate with the enraged authorities, the data skills and a reputation for seeking to publish in the public interest. Institutional legacy may in some circumstances be a hindrance; in others it is a shield.
Likewise, who but a serious and determined paper like the New York Times could enter a cyber-duel with the Chinese authorities and their proxies over the online warfare China conducts against its enemies in the west?
Economies of scale
Nor is old, big media just lying down and dying. As the year closed, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp bought Mark Little’s startup Storyful, a social news agency for the digital age. And 2013 was the year that new billionaires entered the market to be big media owners, albeit of a new type.
Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, committed $250m to set up a new online news platform with Glenn Greenwald. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post for the same sum, which would have been thought a ludicrously paltry price for the paper only five years ago.
The truth is that the news media isn’t fragmenting into a million pieces nor is it reverting to the publisher-dominated oligarchy that ran printed papers and terrestrial TV networks. The ability to publish has been radically dispersed by technology which allows anyone to circulate an opinion which someone else will read. That development multiplies the number of voices, but it does not abolish the advantages of scale.
Scale in news publishing will come to mean new things. Snowden and the journalists he trusted distributed their cache of documents in several places and published different fragments in different outlets. Alliances between publishers on different continents unaccustomed to working together became players in a distributed network.
Most of the British press and mainstream broadcasters (including the BBC) were reluctant to touch the story, paying unwitting tribute to the subtle persuasive and intimidatory powers of the British covert agencies. Stella Rimington, retired head of the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence agency (MI5), pointed out that if the parliamentary supervision arrangements for communications surveillance and interception weren’t convincing to the public, then that was a problem the government needed to address. The British news media made very little of this plain hint from an authoritative source that The Guardian had uncovered an issue of genuine public interest.
Hacks and hacking
British newspapers and websites had spent the first half of 2013 tying themselves in knots over the recommendations of Lord Leveson, whose 2,000-page report on the phone-hacking scandal had appeared just before the end of 2012. Tortuous negotiations on a new regulation system, conducted by a pair of underqualified government ministers with no record of ever solving any problem so difficult, dragged on and ended in a stand-off.
A majority of MPs want the badly-behaved and powerful parts of the British national press brought under some kind of control; the largest press groups are determined to resist any such thing. The questions of principle is genuinely hard: how does anyone guarantee the quality of a regulation system while keeping it out of any contact with the state?
Do not expect agreement on any new regulation system or agreement between the rival “Royal Charters” in 2014. An election is fixed for spring 2015 and none of three major political parties shows any sign of wanting a fight in front of the voters about rules for reporters. The public appears more interested in the details of how popular press newsrooms actually worked as has been alleged in the current trial of several journalists from the defunct News of the World, including two of the paper’s past editors, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. The case is expected to conclude in the first half of 2015.
Agony at auntie
The BBC, which had spent 2012 rather enjoying the scandals surrounding newspapers which regularly bait the Corporation, suffered a bad 2013. In truth, trust in the BBC’s news output remains extraordinarily high. But its management mishandled the belated discovery that Jimmy Savile, once a disc-jockey and latterly a charity cheerleader, exploited his fame and position to enjoy years of sexually abusing minors and vulnerable people.
The BBC’s new and experienced director-general, Tony Hall, has used his considerable political skills to calm the infighting and panic in the BBC’s upper reaches. As veteran BBC-watcher Steve Hewlett wrote recently: “There would not appear to be any serious existential threat … to the BBC … But there are clearly political agendas running which threaten the BBC’s freedom of action and independence.”
Pressure and turbulence are part of what shapes the news media. Journalists in the late 20th century got comfortable in what was a historically a very unusual era: they didn’t have to worry much about where the money came from. Advertising supplied a steady and stable living. Journalists forgot that existing at the junction where the market meets the social and democratic purposes of providing information for informed citizens is an inherently unstable place to be. Most of the history of journalism – the late 20th century apart – has been unstable, provisional, experimental and change has been the constant.
So it is now. The year 2013 was the one in which the last illusions evaporated in mainstream media, illusions that one day, by some technological or philanthropic miracle, the golden age of print journalism would return. This does not mean that mainstream media can’t succeed in new conditions; demand for news is the same as ever and most consumers of news enjoy the new power that choice, comparison and interaction give them over media.
But success or failure will depend on the agility with which established media businesses can balance between reliance on old technologies and experimenting with the new. If you are peering into the future trying to pick winners, look for the companies that organise and invest for the highest calibre of experiment.
George Brock is the author of Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age