RAW: What is the current state of the journalism industry?

By Rupert Hogan Turner

The past financial year has been fairly damaging for the journalism industry. In Australia the media are labelled as ruthless dogs, hounding politicians and citizens for stories. In the UK they are liars and cheats, using fraudulently gained information in order to make headlines. In America the story is very similar with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism giving a “bleak” outlook. So what is the future and current state of the Journalism industry?

An industry’s success is usually determined by its ability to maintain itself and grow in an economic environment. Recent years have seen the toppling of several of the world’s largest and most venerable newspapers, radio stations and other media outlets and the monopolisation of the few remaining. The harsh economic climate of the last five years has seen The Tribune, which owned 23 television stations and broadsheets such as the Los Angeles Times, file for bankruptcy. It was a “worrying signal about the future of newspapers in the United States.”While leading publications such as the Chicago Tribune managed to live through the fiasco, there were 4200 lay-offs in the process. “The company is now frozen in what seems to be an endless effort to emerge from bankruptcy.” Writes David Carr who goes on to explain that the change in ownership of the Tribune Company has resulted in the depreciation of the media outlets bearing it’s name. “They threw out what Tribune had stood for, quality journalism and a real brand integrity”. Without the monopolisation of the industry, one business transaction would not affect such a great deal of media outlets.

In this way we see the clear and saddening effect of the monopolisation of the journalism industry. The Tribune Company seems to be a fairly accurate representation of the American journalism industry. Several news companies are failing and “turning to executives from outside” these new thinkers bring new ideas but like Sam Zell, now majority shareholder of the Tribune Company, their minds are often on overall profit by improving and liquefying assets rather than building a cornerstone. Not surprisingly this has left the new CEOs with a highly unprofessional attitude which can sometimes lead to parties “on the 24th floor of the Tribune Tower. Smoke detectors were covered up and poker tables were brought in.” It is difficult to maintain the integrity of an industry which can be so quickly purchased. Newspapers which, over several years, gained readerships and the respect of their audiences are being bought by bored millionaires or by corporations looking for a quick, cheap investment. New owners place pressure on editors which trickles down to the opinions of the publication. This affects readerships which places further fiscal pressure on the media organisation.

The monopolisation is largely American-centric with NBC being taken over by Comcast, now the nation’s largest cable TV company, AOL purchasing the Huffington Post and becoming a far more powerful online empire, finally Rupert Murdoch’s international media empire has not left the US untainted, with some of its largest stakes being based in America. Australia is another country guilty of media monopolisation with calls for “the country’s federal and state governments to redress the imbalance in media ownership”. This becomes particularly apparent during election years where the media quickly polarises. News Corp is notoriously right leaning, meaning that 60+ of the newspapers, 20+ magazines and Fox News express largely right wing opinions. Much of Australia’s media is right wing “if anyone on radio anywhere in Australia, EVER, was this nice to Julia Gillard, there would probably be some kind of rally demanding a full inquiry”. This unbalance has been ongoing for some time leading to articles like “the myth of a left wing media”. This has left Australia with lower trust in the media than almost anywhere else in the world. According to an Edelman Public Relations survey only 32% of Australians believe what they hear and see in the media. Many Australians believe conservative, right wing monopolies hold too much sway in the news and therefore distrust the media as a whole. Since the British phone hacking scandal trust in the media has fallen even further.

This monopolisation comes with fears that those who control the media, control the world. In some respects these fears are grounded. If we look back to The Tribune Company in 2008 there is evidence that owner Mr Zell approached a leading female editor and insisted that she be harder on then Govenor Rod Blagojevich. After reminding him that the newspaper had already investigated the governor and called for his resignation Mr Zell responded with “You can always be harder on him”. In an interview later the editor expressed her belief “that he was trying to use the newspaper to put pressure on Blagojevich”.

“In recent years nearly all of our media corporations have been reducing their commitment to journalism,” the focus has largely shifted to celebritisation. Celebrity journalism is relatively cheap to produce but still has a large profit margin. The media industry is turning away from quality journalism as its major source of profit and towards celebrity journalism. This ‘cheapening’ effect is another factor in the lowering of trust in the media, tabloid papers, the worst culprits of celebrity journalism, received the lowest trust of all media sources. This tied to a growing belief that “objectivity is, in fact, a myth–that everyone has a bias, everyone has an agenda, and that corporations, like major news corporations, have a corporate bias.” It’s no surprise trust in journalism is at its lowest point since the forties.

Furthermore an industry’s performance can be measured by the number of positions it requires and creates. In the last several years the number of vacant positions in the journalism industry has dwindled, particularly newspapers which have lost 48% of revenue in the past five years, leading to substantial job cuts. “American newsrooms are substantially smaller than what they were a year ago” journalists are being removed from the newsroom and their work is much more dispersed and far more competitive. In their attempts at cost cutting many American news papers have turned to staff buy outs or layoffs to save money. This has resulted in the most experienced, and therefore most expensive, staff leaving first, leaving “papers [that] are staffed by the least experienced journalists.” This strategy has led to a decline in quality which has effectively reduced the readership, reducing profit further, leading to larger budget slashing.

The rise of social media has created an entirely new landscape for journalism. No longer must we wait for the 7pm news, blogs and news websites give us a finger on the pulse of the world. In Canada for example, smart phones have “established a new level of speed and interaction in the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery”. Twitter, blogs and news websites have hugely expanded the capacity for reporting and they have done so in a relatively inexpensive way. However, it has also opened the floodgates for thousands of inexperienced and unqualified writers to have their opinions heard.

Finally there is the growing threat of citizen journalism and the internet. Many newspapers are toying with the internet and attempting to go online. However in a world where public based news sources such as the ABC and BBC are forced to offer quality journalistic content for free, how will a profit driven media industry react? Several companies have attempted to charge for online content or have placed heavy advertising on their sites with only 1% of users opting to pay. The web has also multiplied the number of sources available to readers and has resulted in higher competition for stories among corporations. Stories are needed immediately and larger corporations now have a greater reliance on independent opinion articles. The internet has created a low cost alternative for independent news organisations. This has extended the debate of who exactly constitutes “the media”. Mainstream and corporate media feel threatened by their new competition “For all that it may not be a regulated profession, neither is it just a coming together of people with cellphones, video cameras and blogs as receptacle for an apparently endless stream of unfiltered, unedited consciousness.” However bloggers and independent media have hit back, claiming that they are the only truly objective source of journalism. The increase in the number of citizen journalists may have resulted in an increase of unsubstantiated content but it has also allowed the populace one more avenue of information. Journalism’s role as the fourth estate relies on having as many independent sources of news as possible and through citizen journalism it has become that much stronger.

The journalism industry may have gotten back on its feet after the heavy 2009 decline but it’s new focus on instant, celebrity based news and its inability to convert itself to an increasingly internet based world will be its downfall. A monopolised industry run by connections and big business, the integrity of journalism is fading, “When our reality is framed as one simple binary question – “Are you an Angelina sympathizer or are you a Jennifer sympathizer?” – there is no room for the news.”

[References available on request to editor@kryztoff.com ]

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