European Journalism in the Era of Digital Information

A few notes from ‘European Journalism in the Era of Digital Information’, an event last night organized by the European Institute at Columbia University. Dominic C. Boyer (Cornell) is the speaker, Jane Kramer (The New Yorker) and Nick Lemann (Dean, Columbia School of Journalism) were the discussants.

Boyer has done field research and interviews with journalists in Europe, predominantly with the AP in Frankfurt, Germany, and speaks about the distinctive challenges facing European journalism, and the kinds of transformations happening there. He is working on a book on this, which I am really looking forward to.

Boyer started by pointing out that he does not think the changes he will speak about are unique to Europe. In so far as there is any European exceptionalism when it comes to media, it has to do with the public media versus private media balance being very different (esp. relative to for instance U.S). In Germany, for instance, this generates debates over what the role of public media should be online, where private media are lobbying for caps on how large parts of their budgets they should be allowed to spend on online media, arguing that their direct subsidies distort competition and unnecessarily crowds out commercial organizations.

He went on from here to share with us some observations from his interviews and field work on eight major issues and trends

(unless thinks are in quotation marks, I am paraphrasing, so these are my best attempts to convey what they said, I have probably missed a thousand nuances):

/ / / ONE / / /

Journalism is a profession in transition. Not necessarily in crisis, mind you, some see wonderful new opportunities too. The journalists point largely to new media driving this. But also fragmentation of national audiences and the acceleration of the news cycle with 24/7 cable news etc.

/ / / TWO / / /

Newspaper circulation continues to decline, and this is very present to the journalists. (RKN: he arguably means paid newspaper circulation; the free metro dailies have added many, many thousand new readers to the overall newspaper audience). DB also points out that in a global perspective; newspaper circulation is up, because it is increasing in many poor countries.

/ / / THREE / / /

The traditional revenue models behind journalism are in crisis, especially for print journalism, which also suffers from the perception in the investor community that they are in a more or less irreversibly long-term decline, and that investors therefore has to squeeze as much money out of it now as they can (typical strategy with so-called ‘sunset industries’). DB argues, by the way, that this latter idea is at least partially incorrect, and points to the high profit margins of many newspapers and newspaper chains (more on this below).

/ / / FOUR / / /

Journalists experience these years as a time of downsizing and de-professionalization. Many organizations experience an influx of younger writers, of part-timers, of interns, of freelancers. This in turn generates new labor-management relations, changed role for unions, and a tiered system where some people have very good benefits job security, etc, whereas most do not.

/ / / FIVE / / /

A striking experience many German journalists told him about is that they experience a fragmentation of ‘the public’ in the singular as the addressee of their work (RKN: I was surprised to hear that the journalists he studied thought like this, as Germany, like many other European countries, also has a strong historical strand of opinion and partisan journalism, which is addressed not to the public but to a certain position, but this may reflect the deep impact of the deliberate attempt to export an American model of journalism to Germany after the war). The basic transformation the journalists report is one of going from speaking to ‘the public’ to speaking to particular desirable demographics, audience segments, consumer groups, etc (RKN: again, a historical note, they may always have been doing that, but now, they are instructed to do it). This in turn casts doubt on the public interest discourse often invoked to legitimize journalism, where the profession and its institutions are purported to represent the general public interest versus parochial politicians and pernicious special interests.

/ / / SIX / / /

The journalists reported increasing difficulties arising from having to manage information in real-time. He had lots of examples of frustration with time pressures, updates of stories etc, and said that many reporters had told him it was a strange feeling when news monitors with 24/7 news started appearing everywhere in newsrooms.

/ / / SEVEN / / /

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many spoke of difficulties maintaining journalistic standards under increasing production pressures. DB pointed out that this often led journalists under stress and pressure to turn to ‘authoritative’ high-status print publications like Spiegel to see “what the real story is”, and that this in turn further fed group thinking, pack mentality and all of that.

/ / / EIGHT / / /

Finally, DB pointed out that many journalists had pointed to what they perceived as an increasing self-referentiality in media coverage, whereas foreign affairs might still be event driven, something happens, it is covered, the domestic coverage was often seen as driven by media events and their reverberations throughout the national media environment.

/ / / Some synthesizing remarks and discussion / / /

DB concluded by saying that the portrait of the state of journalism that arise from his empirical work in Germany is a long way from traditional ideals, whether academic/theoretical or journalistic, of the profession as opinion-builders, truth-finders, watch dogs and whatnot.

In his response, Nick Lemann (NL) pointed out that companies rarely break the numbers down, but that “on the rumor mill”, all the big papers in the U.S. are said to be operating at a loss. So the old meme that ‘the problem is that owners demand unreasonable profit’ is losing its relevance.

He went on to point out, speaking about the US, that the vast majority of the reportorial workforce continues to work for newspapers, and that the historical coincidence that made local newspapers local information monopolies, funded by downtown department stores, is disappearing as (a) the funding side is disintegrating due to demographic and urban changes, (b) advertising in general is hitting a rough spot right now, and also shifting towards various web services, (c) the barriers to entry for information providers are lowered for all online, (d) which has led to increased competition for many kinds of content (international and national coverage, fashion, what not), and that this perfect storm has seriously undermined news organizations’ ability and will to underwrite original reporting.

He pointed out that this development in his view has been exacerbated by the “catastrophic decision” in the 1990s “to give content away for free”. He said that the thinking then was that this way, news organizations could grow their audiences to such sizes that increased ad revenue would cover the decreased income—unfortunately, these ad dollars have not materialized.

He called basic reportorial work, predominantly done by newspaper journalists, “a rock” upon which much, much else rests, not only a lot of the opinion and commentary material generated on blogs, but also much of TV and radio. All supported by the reportorial work done by a handful of people.

And few alternatives seems to be forthcoming. The belief in citizen media and citizen journalisms’ ability to step in and fill the growing gap has eroded, especially at the state and local level where bureaus are being cut dramatically, and where there will often be no one but the local newspaper covering issues.

So what do we do? That is the final question NL asked, and he said that anyone he had a concrete idea for a new business model was welcome to try it out, but that he wanted to see stuff that worked, and that there hadn’t been much in the offering yet. He said that the news industry and journalism in the US “need to go European”, and think about funding models beyond traditional business, potentially involving forms of public subsidy, even state subsidy of reporting, regulations, and the like (RKN: tools that have, as Paul Starr has pointed out in his excellent The Creation of the Media, been integral to the development of the media in the US historically, been seems to be out of vogue at the moment).

I asked DB at the end if he would agree that his synthetic view and 8 observations mainly applied to the corner of journalism that covers high-prestige organizations with highly professionalized staff, and that institutions with (a) less prestige and different audiences, and/or (b) a less traditionally professionalized workforce, like many tabloids, local papers, ethnic papers, and most new media enterprises, would see the situation of “European Journalism in the Era of Digital Information” quite differently, and he seemed to agree.

I also asked about why he thought it was the case that the new media and citizen media discussions and practices in Europe seems to be less developed than in the US. I didn’t really catch his answer, but it had partly to do with an idea that there are other, non-media institutions playing comparable roles in European societies, basically, public meetings standing in for blogs (I’m surely misrepresenting his full answer here). I have not thought this through, but I personally think it also has a lot to do with critical mass—coming from a small country myself, I always find myself thinking, faced with a specialized new media venture ‘would this be possible with a population of 5 million?’ Some would arguably, others probably not.

EVENT DETAILS

Thursday, December 4, 2008
Seminar on Modern Europe: European Journalism in the Era of Digital Information
Speaker: Dominic C. Boyer, Cornell University

Discussants: Jane Kramer, The New Yorker

Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Chair: Nancy W. Collins, Columbia University
December 4, 4:00 – 5:30 pm, Burden Room, Low Library
For more information, please contact Myrisha S. Lewis, msl2155@columbia.edu

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