Question 4: How is the diminution of traditional, and often hierarchical, “authoritative” intermediaries changing the role of publishing in social life? This question is specifically focused on the changing roles of journalism.
Alan Rusbridger stated in his article ‘The Splintering of the Fourth Estate’, “the mass ability to communicate with each other, without having to go through an intermediary was truly transformative”. Communication has evolved from simple transmission to engaged discussion and further progressed to involve inherently different platforms as tools to share information on. The place of the traditional, often hierarchical and authoritative intermediary has been challenged as publics become empowered to contribute to the journalistic news cycle.
This essay will endeavor to highlight the diminishing power of media conglomerates focused on failing business models, particularly in the context of the Global Financial Crisis. The essay will then continue to explore the readers, publics or audiences enhanced ability to interact with journalism in the Web 2.0 world, focusing on the role of journalism as the fourth estate and why it is a necessity for modern democratic societies.
The Fourth Estate describes the medias role as watchdog in democratic society, acting as a regulatory branch for the Judiciary, Legislators and the church. Its role is not profit creation but the provision of accurate and objective content to the public, facilitating a multi-vocal functioning democracy. “The press of old – ‘the bastard estate’ – has become the vast contemporary news media, yet continues to claim a place at the table of public life,” (Schultz 1998: 16). This was true in 1998, the technological progression of media formed the core of traditional “authoritative” intermediaries like News Corporation and Fairfax Media, supplying paying publics with broadcast and print media as the mediator between the world and the individual, equipped with the resources to do so. Journalism became synonymous with ‘newspaper’ as part of big media.
“The muscle of a very large, very powerful and sometimes very aggressive media group, especially one that is keenly interested in exerting political influence and expressing powerful views on how media regulation should operate.” (Rusbridger 2010a). This media power has very clear influences over the functioning of other facets of society- including the branches the Fourth Estate. This goes against the grain of liberal democracy.
Pluralist theory on media power suggests, “democratic process is threatened by the erosion of the public sphere and by the failure of media to fulfill their role as the fourth estate” (Street 2011: 290). Traditional media owners argue for increased media deregulation, increasing the concentration of media ownership in the public sphere and decreasing media diversity. “In a democracy this concentration creates a risk that points of views are monopolised into a single direction” (Johnson 2010: 67). The diversity of reported views directly correlates to public discussion, a cornerstone of democracy is that the many voices contribute, this is a threat to impartiality (ibid: 71).
It is Rusbridger’s belief that the Fourth Estate’s splintering stems from the introduction of the “third wing to the fourth estate”, the worldwide Web- and more topically Web 2.0. This evolution, adding to the wings of print and broadcast media, changed the way information is distributed, directly challenging the business model for news and the foundations of its provision established by firms.
“The ‘point to point’ technology of the Internet, Twitter and so on, and the ‘many to many’ of the traditional mainstream media, are colliding and converging,” (Johnson 2010: 67). The Global Financial Crisis has exacerbated this situation; it is hard in the media world for businesses to deal with the economic challenges of “declining advertising revenues” and the “woes of an industry already witnessing declining newspaper sales” (Ibid: 67).
Media academic, Clay Shirky believes that the business model for news has failed because it can no longer supply a substantially unique product to readers who can access and contribute news/information to a wide social network instantaneously. “The internet commodifies the business of newspapers. Any given newspaper competes with a few other newspapers, but any newspaper Website compete with all other Websites,” (Shirky 2010).
The rise of online branches of successful newspapers such as The Guardian now compete against each other, against smaller specialist news sources such as The Global Mail, against social media platforms like Twitter and other user aggregated content platforms like Reddit. Every platform on the Internet is competing to be consumers most read and most trusted sources of information: news or otherwise.
The introduction of paywalls guarding access to some online news websites like The Australian, illustrates traditional authoritative intermediaries constant grapple to remain an elevated authoritative power continuing the role of disseminating quality information to the public.
The idea that online users should pay for the content they use is an “assumed continuity with the analog business model, which is to say they assumed that readers could eventually be persuaded or forced pay for digital editions” (Shirky 2010). An example of this was News Corps introduction of paywalls to their online content, “News Corp has produced no innovation in content, delivery, or payment, and the idea of 90%+ loss of audience was already a rule of thumb over a decade ago.” (Shirky 2010).
With the advent of Web 2.0 and the rise of open media, the power of authoritative intermediaries is diminishing. The third sphere has changed the way readers want to interact with journalism. It is now a “fluid, constantly-iterative world of linked reporting and response,” (Rusbridger 2010b). Breaking news could constitute a link, video, tweet or a status and it can be instantaneously reported in the same way to an interactive platform. Focus on the failed business model that when readers stop paying for content, the production of quality news declines, must aadopt the pace of the current news cycle. “If ever there was a route to building audience, trust and relevance, it is by embracing all the capabilities of this new world, not walling yourself away from them.” (ibid 2010b).
Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian, believes paywalls are currently ineffective because they contain information. It goes against the grain of open media. Newspapers “want to grow a large audience for our content and for advertisers, and can’t presently see the benefits of choking off growth in return for the relatively modest sums” (Rusbridger 2010b).
“The media are not the holders of power, but they constitute by and large the space where power is decided” (Castells 2007: 242). This neatly sums the new role of online publishing in the social lives of the public. The Fourth Estate has definitely splintered, allowing any person the ability to comment – however seriously- on almost all online content. The benefits of this involvement is that it creates online the most accurate representation of our societies views in the media that has ever been published. Online self-publishing allows the formation of online communities sharing views, interests and debates. It aggregates data, facilitates sharing and creates new pools of information for new stories and angles.
A negative of open source content however, is that credibility of written material can be challenged and diminished. Before this third wing of publishing was established, print and broadcast media were veritably trusted. The rise of public opinions creates a source that is not held accountable for the truth of what it says.
The acceleration of the public’s ability to publish has grown exponentially since Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1455. Leaping from the ability to transmit information to discussing it, the formative role communication plays in creating public opinions has not changed. “Communication, and particularly socialized communication, the one that exists in the public realm, provides the support for the social production of meaning, the battle of the human mind is largely played out in the processes of communication” (Castells 2007: 239).
Castells view, “what does not exist in the media does not exist in the public mind, even if it could have a fragmented presence in individual minds” (ibid: 241) paints a clear picture of the public sphere echoed by social theorist, Habermas, before the mass ability to communicate transformed the access to alternate points of view. It was, and still is the role of journalism not to tell the public what to think, but what to think about, ideally providing a balanced argument. A hallmark of traditional intermediaries diminishing power is that now their audiences can do this themselves. The traditional role of the journalist has also been diminished.
“The diffusion of Internet, mobile communication, digital media, and a variety of tools of social software have prompted the development of horizontal networks of interactive communication that connect local and global in chosen time” (ibid: 246) broken apart from one-way communication, the ability to disperse personal opinions, from one to many has led to the aggregation of participation in online groups forming public opinion.
Never before has there been such a wide range of opinions on a wider range of issues. It is not news that activist communities group together to gain publicity for their cause, what is new is the freedom from intermediaries as the only way to obtain information; breaking down barriers as to what constitutes ‘news’ the “picture of an authoritarian society with only an unregulated free market as our saviour” (Johnson 2010: 73) has been vanquished. The emergence of niche community networks feeds directly into the trend dominating Web 2.0, social media and user generated content.
Derided as a fad not a credible source of information, social media platforms like Twitter have a crucial function in the dissemination of information. Unlike traditional press media, the life of a news story can be extended and followed by an alert public with more content aggregated than physically possible to publish in a newspaper, updated instantly, anyone can follow the trend. “Twitter can be customised into a personalised news feed to give you extraordinarily rich and deep content on specialised subjects faster (and in many cases deeper) than any newspaper could hope to match”. (Rusbridger 2010a)
Because so much of this content is user generated, suddenly any member of the public with access to the Internet, has access to expert opinions, a slew of educated points of view, links to people directly implicated in news stories and a direct way to contact them. It is this integration that Twitter has become an essential tool in journalism bringing, “rich diversity, specialist expertise and on the ground reporting that we couldn’t possibly hope to achieve without including them in what we do.” (Rusbridger 2010a)
The inadequacy of paywalls becomes particularly apparent as the minute news breaks the online community will dissect it on accessible platforms. The information available in minutes is, “twittered into global ubiquity. It is one of the clichés of the new world that most scoops have a life expectancy of about three minutes” (Rusbridger 2010a).
“The relationship between technology, communication, and power reflects opposing values and interests, and engages a plurality of social actors in conflict”(Castells 2007: 237). The balance of power has shifted; traditional intermediaries no longer the actors that hold the technology and resources possible to distribute news. The role of journalism is not tied to large conglomerates, it is a societal role to be a watchdog, to filter and present factual information for public discussion. “Journalists are principally responsible for keeping the ideal of the news media as the Fourth Estate alive, despite significant and sustainable challenges to the industry’s independent institutional legitimacy” (Schultz 1998: 16). This role coupled with Rusbridger’s belief that “the mass ability to communicate with each other, without having to go through an intermediary was truly transformative” is truly correct of the way communication networks have formed, becoming ingrained in the expanding social life of public online.
Anderson, B 1991, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso London, pp 1- 36
Castells, M 2007, Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society, International Journal of Communications vol 1, University of Southern California, pp. 238-266
Johnson, J 2010, The New Politics of Media Ownership, Renewal, vol. 17 no. 4, pp. 67-74
Rusbridger, A 2010a, The Splintering of the Fourth Estate, The Guardian, 19 November, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/19/open-collaborative-future-journalism
Rusbridger, A 2010b, The Hugh Cudlipp Lecture: Does Journalism Exist, The Guardian, 26 January, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jan/25/cudlipp-lecture-alan-rusbridger
Schultz, J 1998, Reviving the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Accountability and the Media, Cambridge University Press Melbourne, pp. 15-22
Shirky, C 2010, The Times’ Paywall and Newsletter Economics, 8 November http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/11/the-times-paywall-and-newsletter-economics/
Street, J 2011, Mass Media, Politics and Democracy, 2nd edn, Palgrave Macmillan London/ New York, pp. 283- 302