Thursday, 26 March 2009

The ‘Death’ of Newspapers: a Three Way Debate

On Wednesday of last week, The Seattle Post – Intelligencer, a 145 year-old daily newspaper quit printing. The paper is now a daily on-line news source focusing on local news, issues and events with a much reduced staff.

The Seattle daily is not alone. Newspapers throughout the nation are stopping or changing formats. Declines in advertising, classified and readership have created a national death knoll for print media.

Some newspapers will certainly survive, but many cities and towns across the nation have lost their print media outlets. The surviving outlets have severely reduced staff and coverage. Many papers are becoming “rip and read” outlets, meaning they are filling their pages with Associated Press (AP), Reuters, NY Times and other outlet wire stories.

The Los Angeles Times’ media correspondent, Jim Rainey, wrote a great column last week (March 20, 2009) titled, “Newspaper cuts open door to more political trickery.” You can read it here.

Jim Rainey’s article is interesting and it shows how the loss of print media coverage in political campaigns can provide some political consultants opportunities to manipulate coverage to their advantage with the loss of trained reporters, or just because there is minimal possible coverage. The political consultants interviewed also point out it is a double-edged sword and can also hurt a campaign, as much as it can help it.

As a political practitioner, I can see some advantage to being able to push stories or create other avenues of messaging – if you have the financial resources to do it.

On the other hand, I also see now what the loss of professional coverage can do for a candidate lacking resources to get positions or initiatives out. Emaciated newsrooms allow many issues and accusations to go unchallenged. It also prevents new initiatives and positions to get coverage - all of which could be a significant factor for the outcome of an election.

The article by Jim Rainey cites a study by Princeton University economists on the loss of a local news outlet and the decline of voter turnout in local elections in Cincinnati, Ohio. The study was posted here.

I do not think the loss of coverage is a good thing in any way, shape or form. The growth of blogging and Internet news sources is a great source of some equity for people to recoup some of the power of traditional media outlets and their influence in political campaigns and elections.

The lack of professional standards, commitment to journalistic ethics, and ability to get stories right makes this shift away from traditional media frightening and a tragic loss not just in politics.

It is hard to see how this will change in the future and the ridiculous popular phrase seems appropriate when thinking about the death of professional journalism – “It is what it is….”

Chuck Dalldorf

…and not only in the States! The threatened demise of local newspapers through the BBC’s intended local network was enough to send tails spinning at Westminster and the good ‘ol Beeb had to row back faster than a varsity boat crew!

The recognition of the importance of local print media to local communities around the country is partly a reflection of their political role: at elections they provide sustained coverage of candidate’s, their messages and their mess-ups. In between the cyclical political bun-fights local papers play a key role in supporting community cohesiveness with political campaigns on topics as wide as saving the local football club to recognising the symbolic importance of local landmarks threatened with removal or demolition.

Use of the emerging technologies is fine – isn’t it appropriate for politicians to be able to “twitter”?! – but there is something reassuring about the weekly search for the local gossip in the court column!

The third critical aspect of the local newspaper is to regularly hold local politicians to account as well as illuminate the populace on the antics of those politicians that are elected to far off places - such as Edinburgh, London or Brussels. Without this scrutiny, seen through the perspective of the local press (and often, therefore the public) our politicians would feel less connected to their local communities!

Of course, recent trends in Scotland have seen a merging of the once cherished distinction between local newspapers and the big national titles, particularly with the Johnston Group’s take-over of the Scotsman. It is too early to tell whether this particular entry in the marriage section will present opportunities for technological cross-platform innovation or whether the next we read about it will be as an obituary!

Ross Martin

The death of traditional media is unwelcome news for many reasons. Chief among them is the loss of jobs in these turbulent economic times – it’s the last thing local economies need at the moment.

Yet, does it sound the death knell for democracy by removing an effective check and balance as Ross pointed out? Open the door to the manipulation of political coverage as Chuck testifies? Or even result in a ‘tragic loss’?

I’m not sure.

Both Ross and Chuck, while not oblivious to the effectiveness of new media, present a somewhat rose-tinted view of traditional media. Aren’t newspapers already subject to manipulation by political consultants? Yes. Is the death of professional journalism a bad thing? Yes, but it died a long time ago (they are some exceptions). Do newspapers provide an objective analysis/coverage of elections that is reliable? No – check out Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky. Do they support community cohesiveness? If they do they’re a whisper in a wind. Do they hold politicians to account? Hardly – the bottom line is sales; not ethics.

The growth of new media has its dangers. They exclude scores of people who as yet remain technophobic and most blogs and forums lack rigor. But isn’t this part of their charm? Remember they don’t exactly bill themselves as the bastions of objectivity.

Isn’t it time, rather than clutch longingly for a lost friend, to look to the future, seize the opportunities and frame the discussion? Isn’t it time, in other words and with tongue firmly in cheek, to call for a Universal Declaration of Blogging Ethics?

In tandem with a grass-roots campaign, Barack Obama has from day one recognized that the future is in new media. His integrated e-campaign left few western (and others) homes untouched. In the guise of Organizing for America the campaign continues and has proved remarkably successful in getting its message across and more importantly in bringing communities together.

Instead of the death of traditional media we should be focusing on the birth of a new kind of politics.

Barry McCulloch

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