Changes in the way we stay in touch with our world over the last 25 years have been awesome. But to go with the awe, there must also be shock that so little heed is paid to the massive social repercussions of the digital revolution.
In the early 1990s,when the internet and mobile phones had yet to achieve lift-off, online news, opinion and knowledge was a theoretical development seen by its advocates as pure gain for everybody. But, now the digital society is a ubiquitous reality, bumping into a pedestrian blind to all but his iPhone is not its only hazard.
Journalism’s positive contribution to a healthy and self-critical society – always underestimated – can now be remarked by its growing absence.
The decline of the fourth estate is tangible, as more and more readers take to the on-line option. Newspapers get thinner and more expensive even as they become ever more dependent on PR handouts and recycled stories.
The traditional business model of local newspapers is under irresistible pressure – their readership is defecting, advertising is plummeting, and income disappearing. Digital growth has not produced revenue to compensate for the ad cash lost with the fading of print. Newspapers have reacted by ruthless cost-cutting to restrict their losses, resulting in the steady disappearance of trained journalists.
A grim Scottish landscape
The greatest impact has been on local and regional newspapers throughout the UK. Pending independence, that category still must include The Scotsman, The Herald and the Aberdeen Press and Journal, broadsheets once considered immutable fixtures in Scotland’s media landscape, but living with the same reduced circulations as the English country cousins. Commercial broadcasters north of the border face fewer challenges to their revenue stream but they’re still feeling the pinch meeting their statutory public service commitments.
The BBC, with its budget to an extent guaranteed like that of all public service broadcasters, is more threatened by political than by financial pressures. BBC Scotland has been particularly challenged in the past quarter century, required to meet not only a digital revolution but a political one in the shape of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
Neal Ascherson once described journalism in Scotland as a tantalizing business where generous perspectives and ambitions collide with slender means – and with small-minded managements committed to making sure those means stay slender. Even as the country’s perspectives grow more ambitious, so those means become ever more slender.
2016 has seen accelerating losses in the human and financial resources of the professional media. The National Union of Journalists this year described job cuts in Scotland as “carnage” while those still in a job wonder if they’ve a worthwhile future. Earlier this month at the Newsquest group of Scottish weeklies, 90% of staff balloted voted for industrial action against harsh new contracts. Other staff at the newspaper group, which includes the Herald, Sunday Herald, and Evening Times in Glasgow, were told earlier in the year that dozens of editorial jobs would be going as part of a million pounds worth of cuts, the fourth time in 14 months that Newsquest has axed jobs across their portfolio of titles.
Firing, no hiring
Each batch of firings is followed by reduced employment conditions for the remaining workforce and health at work surveys have found excessive levels of stress in newsrooms even before the latest cuts. NUJ members at Johnston Press – owners of The Scotsman and dozens of regional Scottish titles – are protesting that staffing numbers have fallen below levels agreed only last year.
With so many new dimensions to Scottish public life, a dwindling press corps is cause for concern. It’s not just the politics of Holyrood and the longstanding SNP ascendancy there which is not getting the scrutiny required. The old dependable suppliers of a paragraph or two – the police, local councils, and the courts – aren’t getting the attention they used to, and need it more than ever.
With new Scottish local government proposals, and the apparently uncontrolled development of Police Scotland, causes for concern, solid press attention is critical.
And less routinely, any conspiracy and corruption requiring more than a phone call to expose,won’t be outed, when there are no longer reporters with the experience and time to research the story (apart from our friends at The Ferret). Investigative journalism is under threat, as Flat Earth News author Nick Davies points out. He claims that 60% of the content of UK newspapers is now based mainly on agency copy, or press releases. Churnalism, Davies calls it. Only 12% of the content of most copy is original.
The proliferation of Press and PR officers ensure a plenitude of press releases far too numerous to check properly and to rewrite. And if you’ve a press that’s overwhelmed by the routine detail of life, then how much more likely is a media failure to chronicle bigger aspects of a country’s changing lifestyle – like the disappearance of its industries, its 21st century relationship with its neighbours and its economic well-being?
Perhaps journalism is disappearing in the form we have always known. So could social media help a democratic society to survive without the input of professionals? Information on the Internet is a valuable new source of enlightenment, particularly in the speedy breaking of material not by journalists, but by experts able to offer instant background and context, citizens too. But the degree of diffusion or sharing is self-selected – if you’re not following a specific blog or twitter feed, then you won’t necessarily access the best new revelations. The passing of the age of just a few broadcast channels seen or heard by most of the population allows the ‘ostrich option’ of news avoidance more than ever before.
And in many cases, narrowcast or social media stories are still not considered truly authentic until picked up by established print or broadcast organisations – a kind of genuflection to the judgement of professionals, a scintilla of doubt about technology-driven iconoclasm and citizens’ journalism.
No golden age
There’s never been a unanimous view of professional journalism as indispensible. Because there never was a Golden Age of British journalism – political and commercial distortion has always been endemic. The tabloid mindset was in place a century before the IT age and grabbing readers’ attention always has taken priority over perspective and objective analysis. Red top habits have survived the digital revolution. Sensationalism, political bias and celebrity private lives remain the bait of choice to boost reader/viewer figures – look no further than the hugely successful Daily Mail website!
Digital technology should have made the lives of reporters, commentators and users easier. It permits organized events – major or minor – to be web-streamed, while the social media revolution has made Twitter a virtual newswire to the private home. Long gone are the days when, to cover a news story, you actually had to be there. Fresh methods could have made newsgathering and editing quicker and, crucially, cheaper than in the past. But the decimation of newsrooms means the opportunity for relevant and accessible information in greater quantity and quality has been missed.
The Net has instead produced a proliferation of subjective comment which has also taken its toll on a decent balance between news and comment. Volunteer journalists in the community often overlook some degree of objectivity, and the distinction between fact and opinion – once sacrosanct – has become worryingly blurred among citizen commentators.
The Internet may put more raw information at our fingertips than ever before, but the need for skilled journalists to make sense of it all has never been greater. Yet experienced and judicious reporting for mass audiences is disappearing – a concern not just to media commentators, but also to politicians. In January, James Harding, the director of BBC News, argued that especially as parts of Britain were gaining more devolved powers, the decline of local news was creating a democratic deficit. Chancellor George Osborne has even suggested business rate relief for local papers.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the US Declaration of Independence, and the third President in the White House, once remarked that, were it left to him to decide whether there should be a Government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.
Whether Jefferson was right in suggesting that journalists are more important than politicians to society, it’s clear that the relationship between journalists and politicians has a significant impact on the functioning of a fair and just society. Politicians make decisions and act on behalf of the electors. Without diligent and readily accessible journalism to scrutinise their decisions, politicians will grow heedless of the consequences of their actions.
Image courtesy of David McAllister