Wrap Yourself in My Web
“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” Picasso
The digital revolution is the catch-phrase for one of the most, if not the most fundamental developments in the history of the media industry. In its simplest form, the digital revolution can be characterised as two new technologies working in tandem. The first is digitalisation, which is the ability to store large amounts of information such as video, text or audio in computerised form. The second is the internet, which is primarily a distribution system that allows such information to be communicated over vast distances and between people whom are incapable of trading physically.
The ontology of the digital revolution is already a fascinating one. Twenty years ago, when it was little more than an embryo, the word that most succinctly defined the world’s interrelations was ‘wall.’ Ten years ago, the revolution was beginning to take hold and the defining word was ‘net.’ Today the word is ‘web,’ a complex and intricate framework that gains its power from its ability to link one strand to another.
Nevertheless, digitalisation is still a very new revolution in the throes of one of a series of metamorphoses. As journalists begin to grapple with the concepts of convergence, multimedia and user-generated content as they attempt to harness its far-reaching potential, it is a near-certainty that the media industry of today will be almost unrecogniable in ten years time.
Perspective, however, is always helpful. Throughout the twentieth century the only other technological invention of comparable significance to the media was that of the camera. One of the first acts of the Lumiere Brothers, the founding-fathers of the camera, was to film a train drawing in to their local station. When the sequence was first screened to an auditorium, the audience fled for the exit screaming. They thought the encroaching train would perforate the cinema screen and trample them underfoot.
In comparison, The New York Times recently published an article indicating that nine-year-old children are now using You-Tube as their primary search engine rather than Google. The emerging generation are perceiving news and events primarily in images and sound, using words as an auxiliary reference-point.
In his lecture, Simon Lewis talked about Barack Obama’s harnessing of social media sites like You-Tube throughout the American Presidential elections in 2008. He cited the influential online-journalist Arianna Huffington, who said:
“Were it not for the internet, Obama would not even have been able to stand for the Democratic nomination.”
Obama’s adoption of the digital revolution, when it was barely considered as a campaigning tool by Kerry and Bush in 2004, illustrates the sheer pace at which the political and media worlds are changing.
We are going through a process of creative disruption, and within this period of relentless and impatient change there are inevitable casualties. It appears to be those journalists who have spent their careers working in print, and who have grown overly accustomed to a certain template, that are looking nervously over their shoulders.
The regional newspaper industry has seen a drop in circulation of 51% since 1989 (the birth year of the internet) and the number of national papers have reduced dramatically. As older generations die out and their children grow to be progressively more I.T and media-literate, it seems likely that the trend will continue. This has resulted in the well documented cutbacks and enforced redundancies as many titles struggle to make a turnover.
Is it fair, therefore, to draw a direct correlation between the birth of the internet and the death of printed news?
The short answer to this question is no, good journalism is not the first casualty of the digital revolution. As I have mentioned, we are going through a process of creative disruption, not destruction. Each time a new technological format is phased in, including photojournalism, radio and television, someone has confidently anticipated the end of journalism as we know it. So far, this has not happened.
Journalism, or at least good journalism, is at heart a process of disseminating and reforming facts to tell a story that others will find interesting and informative. Storytelling has been around for as long as human beings have possessed the ability to communicate verbally and, from that day onwards, technology advancements have provided us with different, broader and more varied ways of telling that story. The digital revolution should then in theory be wholly welcomed by the industry.
The unfortunate truth is that journalism, at the current time, has slid into a state of apathy, dogmatism, arrogance and complacency. It has cut too many corners, taken too many things for granted and accepted half too often. Because of the ability of the digital revolution to empower individuals through information-finding sites like Google, self-publishing sites like WordPress, and social-media sites like Twitter, many of the tricks that have become commonplace in the media industry have been exposed to the clear light of day. Journalism, deservedly so, is experiencing a profound sense of impotence, and its response appears to be to go on the defensive. This is the wrong reaction.
Journalists, as Charles Reiss reminded his audience during his recent lecture with the phrase “the trust remedy and the trust deficit,” are less trusted and less respected than any other profession in Britain, with the exception of politicians and estate agents.
This damning fact can only be blamed on one thing; journalists themselves. As always, the conduct of the few have impacted on the many. Numerous complacent, lazy journalists (whom, it has to be said, are generally connected to tabloid newspapers) have been guilty of taking advantage of the unregulated press system afforded them and have indulged in bias, inaccuracy, sensationalism, trivialisation, repeated invasion of privacy and cheque-book journalism. This unabashed form of yellow journalism, coined as ‘churnalism’ in Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, has severely corroded the public’s perception of press standards. As Andrew Marr writes in My Trade:
“Journalism includes people who think of themselves as part of a noble elite of truth-seekers and secular-priests. It also includes drunks, dyslexics and some of the least trustworthy and wickedest people in the land.”
There are, however, far more consequential and far-reaching cases of bad journalistic practice. Richard Tait, in his lecture British Journalism after Hutton, highlighted that it was Andrew Gilligan’s lack of comprehensive notes, a fundamental aspect of good journalistic practice, that was the route-cause to the way his source’s revelations were taken out of context.
Similarly, Justin Lewis in his lecture Research and Good Journalism, talked of “the fetishisation of the image,” highlighting how the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s statue by American soldiers after they had ‘liberated’ Baghdad was a contrived and staged image.
The final paragraph of Ian Hargreaves’ A Very Short Introduction to Journalism reads:
“There is a Chinese Proverb about the dangers of failed leadership: that the fish rots from the head. In complex modern democracies, this is not so. We are living in the age of the network and the age of the virus, which can strike anywhere and spread in any direction…Against such viruses, reliable, accurate, truthful journalism is the only known antidote.”
The identity of the journalist may be changing, and the traditional newspaper will have to become something more akin to a viewspaper- an aggregator of both professional and public opinion on a range of subjects and issues.
Journalism should remain as the fourth estate in a pluralist democracy but a new era of market regulation is needed, preferably with a stronger Press Complaints Commission. Forcing the industry to climb down from its high horse may be a positive step. The reality is we have lost our monopoly of comment, and a bigger part of our job is now to listen to and collate the collective conscience of the consumer. Those who understand and embrace this will be at the forefront of the next step in the revolution.
The lexicon of a modern journalist would sound like the dialogue from a bad sci-fi film to his counterpart in the pre-revolution 1980s. Terms such as ashtray, carbon paper, evening deadlines and spikes have been replaced by vodcasting, podcasting, surfing, downloading, tweeting, blogging, YouTubing and Googling.
But it is worth remembering that these words remain on the periphery of a journalist’s language. The essential language- the words that our vocation revolves around- are still very much the same as they were 20 years ago or, for that matter, 100 years ago. Truth, accuracy, honesty, integrity, objectivity, curiosity, creativity, audience and innovation are all very old words in journalism. More than any technological advancement, they have helped to make the globalised media industry, for all its imperfections, what it is today. The industry needs to reabsorb these first principles and place them again at the forefront of our trade. Only then can the digital revolution help journalism to rediscover its place in the modern web of society.