Goodbye to the News?

Nikki Usher‘s 2010 article in New Media & Society “Goodbye to the news: how out-of-work journalists assess enduring news values and the new media landscape” examines the goodbye letters, emails, speeches, columns and blog postings — “final musings” — of journalists who have been laid off, taken a ‘voluntary buyout’ or who have left the industry. Usher’s piece is somewhat polemical in tone at times, not that this is necessarily a problem, it just needs to be taken into account when digesting her arguments:

[A]ll these goodbyes reveal a silver lining – those that are being let go may be let go for business reasons, but they may also be the people failing to see the opportunities for new media and those who are unable to help newspapers be entrepreneurial in their attempts to come through the crisis they face. (924)

Usher analysed 31 ‘final musings’ as presented on the Poynter.org blog by Jim Romenesko. The terrific irony of this for anyone following the current state of journalism in the US is that Romenesko resigned from the Poynter Institute late last year after being accused of improper attribution by allegedly not using “quote marks” appropriately. The Romenesko blog was rebranded Romenesko+ and is now simply Media Wire. It is a brilliant example to use in my first lecture for my Online News unit this semester, in concert with Usher’s piece as a set reading, as we introduce and explore with students the role of ‘online news’ in the tensions of the current journalism industry.

Usher’s piece is a useful way to frame traditional understandings of journalism in the context of structural change. The analysis is useful for locating the prevailing culture of legacy print journalism in terms of the relation between individual experiences and the structural shifts that in part form their context. From a Foucaultian perspective Usher is isolating a ‘discourse event’ in the point of inflection between two discursive regimes and correlative compositions of power relations (dispositifs). Usher draws on Fredric Jameson’s conceptualisation of ‘nostalgia’ and Barbie Zelizer’s notion that rather than ‘profession’, US journalists should be understood as belonging to an ‘interpretive community’.

Usher’s use of Jameson’s ‘nostalgia’ begins with her arguing that journalists now work in a ‘post-modern news era’ (914). (What would be absolutely fascinating for me would be to revisit the so-called ‘Media Wars’ of the late-1990s in light of such a description. On the face of it, Keith Windschuttle and his ‘traditionalist’ supporters have lost.) She is mostly describing the shift Fordist modes of news production, which includes changes to reliable occupational routines of ‘newsroom’ work practices and changes to the status and function of the audience. The inherent double movement of Jameson’s nostalgia is that it is backwards oriented and forward directed. Nostalgia produces collective memories of the past while at the same produces a potential of a better future. The nostalgia of journalists, Usher suggests, also masks reality in that bias, corporate control and so on are not constitutive elements:

They are nostalgic for a time when journalism meant stability and economic security, and deeply believe that traditional print journalism contributed to democratic discourse and public service – masking the reality, perhaps, that their work may have helped sustain and perpetuate power structures. The old way of doing newspapers is threatened, and journalists are uncertain about the future. But significantly, they also fail to be forward-looking even as they are backward-looking: their nostalgia is self-limiting because it fails to produce a vision of the future that catapults traditional journalists into the new media world and new media economics. (923)

The current transformations to the legacy news industry serve as an example of what Zelizer calls the ‘interpretive community’. Usher writes:

Discourse about the changes in the news industry creates a discursive community of journalists. This, then, shapes shared meanings about the trials and tribulations journalists face and takes on the collective memory of ‘professional journalism’ in a pre-web, pre-blog, pre-newspaper slump era. (915)

Usher’s analysis is structured around four main areas of journalists’s discourse functioning as an ‘interpretive community’: 1) ‘Journalism as an ideal’ (916-9), 2) ‘New Media Economics’ (919-21), 3) confusion around what is being challenged or changed, mostly in terms of technology (921-2), and 4) a failure to be ‘forward thinking’ (923-5).

The basic tenets of journalism as an ideal are that journalism works in the public interest, it remains impartial, serves the voiceless and provides a crucial link in democracy (916). The ideal of journalism is to serve as ‘public service journalism’. Mark Deuze defines public service journalism as:

Journalists share a sense of ‘doing it for the public’, of working as some kind of representative watchdog of the status quo in the name of people, who ‘vote with their wallets’ for their services (by buying a newspaper, watching or listening to a newscast, visiting and returning to a news site). (447)

Deuze (2005: 448) notes that journalists can learn to have more responsive attitude to their ‘publics’ and therefore use this “age-old ideological value” as a wau to maintain the power relations of the status quo while learbing how to adapt to changing conditions. As Usher describes it, in the context of ‘prestige papers’ (such as the LA Times or New York Times), “these individuals want to reassert their claims to defining the public interest and determining what public service journalism is, rather than creating a more open conversation with a newly engaged audience of news producers and consumers” (917).

In the context of smaller, local newspapers this public service ideal is described in terms of a newspaper being a (more paternalistic than patronizing) ‘caretaker’ helping a public “interpret difficult ideas” and also sustaining local community by reproducing existing routines of newspaper communication and correlative power relations. Usher’s point is that this does not take into account those on- and off-line practices that reproduce ‘community’ that do not have the newspaper at the centre (918). Newspaper in general are seen to be arbiters of democracy in the idealized practice of highlighting the power relations that underpin existing governmental and market-based power relations. There was a general lament, Usher notes, that transformations to journalism are understood in terms of catering to the ‘market’ rather than ‘democracy’. ‘New media economics’ (and ‘new media technologies’) therefore become a threat to the democratic role of public service journalism. Political writer Michele Jacklin’s final column captures a sense of this when she writes, “As a substitute for hard news and insightful analysis, readers are served up a steady diet of splashy graphics, celebrity gossip and stories with the heft of cotton candy.”

In the Australian context, this tension between hard news and insightful analysis versus forms of content designed to increase website visitors and ‘hits’ is represented from the other side of the conflict by NineMSN.com’s online news editor Hal Crawford in his commentary about the Australian Federal Government’s Independent Media Inquiry posted to mUmbrella.com.

Real time data tell you exactly how popular a story is, and to maximise your audience size you need to weed out stories that no one wants to read. This kind of brutal treatment can be hard for an old school journalist to take.
Initially you may get upset that no one is reading the ‘important’ stories, but that arrogance fades quickly. Truly important stories rate. If some piece of news is going to change lives or become socially necessary or is just plain interesting, it gets traffic.

The NineMSN submission to the inquiry similarly seeks to problematise ‘quality journalism’:

The traditional view is that a key role for the news media is to be an independent monitor of government power and therefore quality journalism requires truth, accuracy and independence. We think it’s also important to acknowledge that that news media serves diverse roles. [...]
For ninemsn the most important indicator of quality content is that it is trusted. Trust is the key concern for our news team because trust equates to brand reputation which drives of audience. [...]
The traditional media are no longer small elite who serve as the gatekeepers of the news. Value in the digital news media is increasingly generated by interactions with users including the use of social media to provide commentary, share stories and drive traffic. News produced for digital platforms has to be a quality product if we want people to engage with our stories, to contribute their own insights and to participate in their dissemination.

The discourse surrounding ‘new media economics’ in Usher’s analysis is less important to my Online News unit this semester, but will be central to the second semester unit organised around ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurial journalism’. The second semester unit is designed to prepare students for a more market-oriented, audience-driven form of journalism at the level of producing individual stories through to the level of creating standalone ‘online media enterprises’. Usher’s analysis notes that individual journalists generally take structural shifts personally, and see their respective departures as a failure of ‘owners’ or ‘Wall St’ to recognise talent. This is important in an educational context because ‘talent’ is still recognised, of course; it is more a question of the character of the ‘talent’ and of the mechanisms of ‘recognition’.

Jacklin’s comments are also interesting in the context of the socio-technical practices and technologies that Usher suggests will assist journalism. She lists a number of “recommendations as the possible salvation for traditional journalism’s problems: increased social networking, conections with the audience, more multimedia platforms, crowd-sourcing, better forums, flash-graphics, newspaper-hosted community blogs and hyperlocal reporting, to name a few” (922).

Lastly, Usher notes that the article odes not mean to say that other journalists are not reconsidering with the public and “are deeply engaged in trying to understand what such things as user-generated content, blogging, comment boards, data-mining, crowd sourcing and the like might mean for their newsrooms” (924-5). She ends with a provocative question: “to what extent are non-traditional journalists concerned with the discourse about traditional news values and the idea of what it means to be a journalist?” My response, shared with other educators, is to work on developing units that hope to empower students when they hit the job market.

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