Welsh civic engagement 6: Stuck with the media giants

Martin Shipton says the blogosphere is no substitute for professional journalism

You won’t be surprised to learn that I am an unrepentant advocate for professional journalism, and I don’t give a damn if that sounds élitist. As the crisis affecting the media industries has deepened in recent years, it has become politically correct to blur the distinction between journalists and the general populace and assert that everyone can be a news gatherer. This was a mantra given currency at last September’s 40th anniversary conference of one of my alma maters, the Cardiff Journalism School.

There is a lot of glib euphoria around about how blogging and participation in internet chat rooms and social networking sites are implicitly a substitute for professional journalism, that they somehow enrich democracy and break down barriers to communication that previously existed. I don’t see it that way, and nor do most journalists I know, even if they bite their tongues and stay silent when faced with a strident lack of respect from people who should know better.

This is the sixth of a series of essays on ClickonWales this week exploring initiatives within the Welsh economy, environment, media, and politics. They are taken from Growing Wales’ Civil Society, published by the IWA earlier this year.

Tomorrow: David Melding on why we need more risk taking in our politics.

It’s a sad consequence of the collective loss of self-confidence within the newspaper industry that its demise is increasingly seen as inevitable. The fact is, of course, that much of the blame for the catastrophic circulation declines of recent years can be attributed to media companies themselves. The greedy pursuit of unsustainably high profits has been achieved by cutting back on the number of journalists employed, leading to a cut in the service to readers and making papers less attractive. Couple this with the insane decision to put all editorial content free on line – creating the expectation that news is something you don’t need to pay for – and oblivion seems a real possibility.

Companies saw the internet as a means to make advertising revenue without the expense of producing and distributing newspapers. When the revenues failed to materialise at anywhere near the hoped-for rate, they resorted to the only tactic they could think of: slashing labour costs and harming their papers in the process. Thus will the downward spiral continue until there is nothing left to cut. That is, unless an as yet ill-defined deus ex machina brings salvation.

To suggest that blogging and other atomised activity on the internet will plug the gap is profoundly wrong. Most blogging is opinionated commentary on current events. Without professional journalists to supply the raw material to comment on, bloggers will be forced quite literally to navel gaze.

But of course they could rely on the BBC, which will hopefully always be with us. At the Journalism School’s anniversary conference, I couldn’t help but break out in a wry smile as successive speakers from the BBC spoke with enthusiasm about the technological advances that were helping them do journalism in ever new ways. The one factor missing from all their presentations was any awareness of the commercial imperatives that underpin journalism in the private sector. The question is, can the private sector sustain journalism for much longer?

Certainly there is considerable evidence to suggest that the longstanding business model is failing. You only have to look at the number of titles that have closed in recent years, as well as the large number of jobs that have been shed, to understand that we are in the midst of an authentic existential crisis. Perhaps it is the case that the levels of profit available to private capital will no longer make newspapers an attractive investment option.

So will well-intentioned social philanthropists will step up to the plate and either take over responsibility for existing newspapers or launch new platforms of their own? It is certainly a nice thought to imagine civil society representatives, untainted by the profit motive, coming together and chipping in money to ensure that local communities get a high quality news service. Yet whether such an approach will succeed on a large scale is by no means certain. Undoubtedly, the motivation for some groups to get involved would be to get themselves more news coverage than has been the case hitherto. I am wary of this – it could be the recipe for worthy but dull publications that few people would want to buy or read.

Equally, and despite all the talk about civil society groups taking up the mantle, apart from a few isolated examples there is precious little evidence that they are actually prepared to do so. Nor, in the economic climate in which we find ourselves, are such organisations likely to have the cash available to indulge themselves in such a way. So we certainly can’t rely on civil society to plug the gap left behind by redundant newspapers.

Is public funding the answer? Again, at a time of severe public spending cuts the money probably won’t be available, even if the will is there. And I’m not convinced that Welsh or British politicians are sufficiently public spirited to plough money into beasts that may bite them. Maybe if the beasts write in Welsh and Plaid Cymru holds the purse strings!

It seems inevitable that in future there will be fewer people earning a living from journalism. That will be a great shame, not least for the large number of media studies graduates being churned out who are undaunted by the prospect of working in a declining industry. It’s difficult for the most successful stand-alone web sites to generate enough advertising revenue to sustain more than a tiny number of paid employees.

For the time being, then, and until that elusive deus ex machina arrives, we are stuck with the private sector media giants we love to loath.

Martin Shipton is Chief Reporter at the Western Mail.

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