Guardian editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, was in Sydney recently, talking about “The splintering of the fourth estate”. He compared the emergence of the internet to the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg. The online revolution is comparably epochal in human culture, he argued, as transformative for the media of the late 20th and early 21st centuries as movable type was for the monks of medieval Europe who transcribed every book by hand.
I won’t go into why this is true. We all know by now what the internet is doing to professional journalism, to the traditional press and broadcast business model, to the role of the reader who is now increasingly also a producer of content. The issue, said Rusbridger, is survival. Will journalism survive in its present form, and how will it be resourced?
By coincidence I was discussing this very question, that very day, at a seminar organised by the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne. Could quality journalism survive, was the seminar theme, and public interest journalism too? Present and former staff of the big Australian news organisations were there, along with a smattering of scholars.
The background to the event was provided by circulation figures showing continuing declines in print sales - in Australia, in Scotland, in the UK; further redundancies in newsrooms; and News Corp’s attempts to put its British, and now Australian, content behind pay walls. The success or failure of Murdoch’s gamble will be key to the future of news media all over the world, seminar participants agreed.
We agreed too that no one - not the Murdoch family, not Alan Rusbridger, not the participants in the many seminars taking place on the future of journalism all over the world - has a solution to the current crisis of journalism. But here are some observations that I believe we can make with confidence, and which should give us hope.
Journalism is not dying out, and nor is the industry that supplies it. That’s because news is not an optional extra in our individual and collective lives, but a core necessity.
What is happening is not the death of news, but a progressive revolution in global journalistic culture.
Once, and not so long ago, the production of news was the monopoly of cultural elites and rich men (not necessarily the same thing) - the Hearsts, Murdochs, Maxwells and Blacks - who served it to the masses with lashings of scandal, sleaze and outrageous ideological bias. Or Oxbridge-educated BBC staffers, giving the masses what they thought was good for them in the paternalistic spirit of John Reith.
The internet revolution, whatever else it does, has changed all that, and for the better. There is more journalism, produced by more people, located in more parts of the world, accessible to more people, than at any time in human history. Much of it is inaccurate, badly written, opinionated rubbish, but that was true of old media too. Much of it is free to the user, which is of course the source of much corporate hand-wringing, but hard not to like if you’re a humble citizen.
All of it is, to an unprecedented degree, out with the control of centralised power structures, which really rips the knitting of both democratic and authoritarian regimes.
Wikileaks exemplifies this cultural chaos, while demonstrating with some clarity the continuing role of the trained journalist. Hundreds of thousands of leaked documents bypassed traditional military censorship and impacted on global debate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it took the professional sifters and sense makers of the Guardian to turn them into meaningful stories.
In its coverage of the UK MPs' expenses scandal the same title enlisted the help of some 30,000 online readers to assist in analysing hundreds of thousands of published expense claims. This crowd sourcing, combined with the “computational journalism” made possible by the internet, demonstrates the huge potential of the digital revolution to democratise and bolster liberal journalism.