Monday, 21 September 2009

Funding the news

Some US lawmakers are talking about giving tax breaks to struggling newspapers. The idea is that they would be redefined as not-for-profit organisations - charities, basically - working for the public good. In an interview with two medium-sized regional papers President Obama was "noncommittal" about the idea, but he did have some rather commonplace things to say about the nobility of the journalistic profession, and how proper journalistic standards were "absolutely critical to the health of our democracy". He also managed to find a few disparaging words for blogs:

I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.

Unfortunate shades there of Hazel Blears. Well, there's a lot of shouting across the void on the internet, but there's at least as much in more traditional news outlets. Newspapers have for years now been cutting down on reporting and filling their pages with columnists instead. The flight from factual content began well before the blogosphere began providing real competition. And as for independent blogs, there is, as you will be aware, a huge diversity. Many are ranty and waste little time on "serious fact-checking", others offer a depth of factual detail that almost no serious newspaper can rival. And, more often than not, links to the raw data that anyone can check for themselves.

As Tim Montgomerie notes, "the internet has democratised fact-checking". Mistakes, accidental and intentional, abound, but the self-correcting resources of the Internet are almost limitless: somewhere out there will be someone trawling through the slew of data and pointing out the truth. Read the online comments posted under almost any newspaper opinion piece and you'll see the clanging mistakes of well-paid and celebrated columnists mercilessly called out. Not all of them like it. And a blogger who tosses off a too-broad generalisation may never hear the end of it.

The only drawback is that no-one has the time to do the background research necessary to check all their own facts, let alone other people's facts. With the mainstream press, the reader can at least generally imagine that some sort of vetting procedure has been gone through before the story appears. Having said that, if you tot up the half-truth, exaggeration, inaccurate facts and cut-and-pasted press releases that make up a large part of the "factual" content of a newspaper it's not obvious that the Internet is a less reliable source. It's always dangerous to be a passive consumer of information, whatever its source. That danger increases with the internet - but, frankly, who isn't aware of it?

There's also a temptation on the part of the older media to exaggerate the unreliability of the internet as a source of news, to overstate the extent to which it is dominated by conspiracy theories, ranting racists and downright lies. It comes, I think, from the mistaken belief that most internet users are analagous to newspaper readers - or, more to the point, TV viewers - passively and uncritically absorbing what the Voice of Authority tells them. Not that even TV viewers have ever really behaved in that way. But with the Internet, the constructive engagement of the reader with what they are reading is part of the medium: it assumes, as the TV does not assume, dialogue. Add in that relational dimension, and objections to the blogosphere as a source of information evaporate.

As a self-confessed "newspaper junkie" - and someone who, for all his ultra-modern persona, grew up before the Internet - President Obama can perhaps be forgiven for worrying about the decline in traditional top-down journalism. The newspaper industry, for years in long-term decline, is now in freefall. Nick Cohen even claimed yesterday that it is "dying". On both sides of the Atlantic, regional and local newspapers are in deep trouble; some have already closed or gone online. Nationals, too, are laying off staff. In the UK, the receding tide threatens to leave an unhealthily dominant BBC in possession of a virtual monopoly of the dissemination of news and information. The migration of advertising online has now been added to by a collapse in advertising since the start of the current recession. Now the Murdochs are leading the retreat from free unline content, raising the prospect of an informational divide, with only those willing (or able) to pay having access to the full panoply of professionally produced content.

Is all this a threat to democracy? A common complaint about the state of the local press in Britain is that even those papers that do manage to survive are a pale shadow of their former shelves. The detailed reporting of local events that used to fill the pages - council meetings, planning applications, local sports fixtures, trials in the magistrates' courts - has largely gone, to be replaced by puff-pieces written in support of local businesses. The resources are no longer there - and the result, say some, is a serious blow to democracy. And that a paternalistic state should step in. Giving the Richard Dunn Memorial Lecture in Edinburgh last month, the BBC's Robert Peston claimed that there "already appears to be a consensus that in the provision of regional news there has been a massive market failure that will require state intervention and subsidy to rectify".

On the national level, we find that reporting of Parliament has dwindled. I'm old enough (just) to remember what Parliamentary reports in broadsheet newspapers used to look like. Major debates were covered in such detail one would have scarcely needed Hansard. Court reporting, too, was far more detailed. Page 3 of the Telegraph used to be the go-to place for juicy murder trials and sexual titillation. In fact, it was usually far more obscene than the corresponding page of The Sun. Nowadays there are just the facetious remarks of some sketch-writer to inform the reader of what happened "yesterday in Parliament", and accounts of criminal proceedings often read as though they've been written by the police. They probably have.

I wonder, though, if any of this really matters. Did anyone ever actually read the minutely detailed accounts of council meetings in their local newspapers? Sure, someone did: the councillors themselves, perhaps, or local politics obsessives. But if there was a big story lurking in the Gradgrindian details, and no local journalist rescued it from oblivion, it remained as buried as it would today - and possibly more so.

There's no need for local newspapers to fill their pages with tedious municipal business, any more than there is the need for national newspapers to devote expansive column-inches to the proceedings of the Agriculture select committee, and for a simple reason: it's all out there on the Web. It's what the Internet is there for. And unlike local newspapers, anyone with an Internet connection (which is most people, and will soon be everybody) can get it for free. The local politics junkies can still get their fix - and they no longer need a lowly-paid hack to second guess what they might be interested in. As for the scandals hidden away in the small print - well as often as not they will percolate their way up through the blogs. People who can be bothered can still find the information they want. And those who aren't bothered, aren't bothered. They never were.

This is perhaps the heart of the argument. The issue, for Peston, is "all about securing the greatest access for the greatest number of people to a diversity of competing high quality news sources". Indeed it is. If we allow that the Internet is the primary source of information in terms of volume (and it is) and that before long it will be the preferred choice of news for most people, then the notion that we need high-quality, diverse journalism properly to service democracy falls. There will still be a place for newspapers, and for broadcast journalism: but if it is allowed to find its natural level - the level that the market can sustain - then there will be much less of it, and it will be even less "reliable" than it is today. Premium-quality content will be there only for those prepared to pay for it. Everyone else will have to make do with, basically, trash - and the Internet, where both raw data and raw comment will continue to be available in abudance for people to wade through. Being informed, and even being entertained, will require more effort from the "consumer"; and those not prepared to make the effort will end up being uninformed. Personally, I'm prepared to say that that is their loss.

Peston defines public service journalism as "informing and educating the public so that there is democratic participation in big decisions about the future of capitalism". In the United States, public service journalism has always been furnished by private enterprise. In Britain, this is true only of public service print journalism: when the news is broadcast, the paternalistic concept of state provision (albeit arms-length state provision in the form of the BBC) has gone almost without question. Indeed, it is seen usually as something on which to congratulate ourselves. Unlike those unfortunate Americans, our democracy is served by the independent (Ha!), politically neutral (Ha! Ha!) and unselfinterested (Ha! Ha! Ha!) Aunty Beeb. Yet who would be prepared to argue that British democracy is more robust or accountable than the American version? Watergate brought down a president. Tony Blair chose his own time of departure.

Peston spoke in his lecture of "the fairness of the distribution of information and knowledge to all who need it, irrespective of their material circumstances." The implication of his remarks is that public service journalism is a public good - like roads, or schools, or healthcare (not in America, obviously), or the police - that can only be left to the market in so far as the market is able to provide it. And where the market fails, the state must step in. I think this is a dubious argument (like the similar argument that since political parties are essential for democracy they should be funded by the state). The media mediate: it is the information that is the public good, and as long as the information is available to all (as it now is, for the first time in history) the extent to which people are prepared to pay newspapers and other media outlets to deliver it to them in palatable form should should be up to them.

It could be that the mass media has had its day, and that propping up it with taxpayers' money is as futile as it would have been in the sixteenth century to state-fund monks to copy out manuscripts. The replacement of formal mediation in news provision by the free availability of primary information might turn out to be less the death of democracy than the beginning of it.