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Political Journalism in the Electronic Age

Photo: Oleg Kalina, Dreamstime.com.

"One of the most fundamental requirements for constitutional democracy is freedom of the press," writes Peter Smith. "Only unfettered media can provide citizens with alternative sources of information. This permits people to circumvent official propaganda and Orwellian double-speak, to form independent judgments, and to hold incumbents accountable for actions and policies." It is in this spirit that the media came to be known as the "fourth estate" in the United States—acting as a check on the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government, charged with exposing abuses of political and economic power.

Since the advent of the Internet, the role of the so-called fourth estate has undergone dramatic changes, forcing news organizations all over the world to rethink their business models and modi operandi. With news so easy to access for free on the Internet, newspapers have gone under, magazine subscriptions have plummeted, and profit margins and wages have been eroded on a broad scale. Even behemoths in the industry like The New York Times have had to make cuts, lay people off and make uneasy decisions about the publication's future. Newsweek, which has been in print since 1933, recently announced that it will print its final physical issue at the end of the year, thereafter switching to an entirely digital model. Publications are being forced to adapt to a changing marketplace where there is no clear model to follow, because the terrain is new for everyone, and the terrain continues to shift.

Follow the Money

Article Continues

Before getting into the effect of the Internet on political journalism, it is important to distinguish between differing types of news organizations. As organizations vary, so do the ways they are funded. Thomas Patterson writes, "News is a construct. It is not, as some journalists like to say, a mirror held up to reality." In the United States, a large portion of that construct is built around commercialism and profit. Patterson continues, "The vast majority of [U.S. news] organizations are privately owned. The business of news gathering and dissemination is almost entirely controlled by profit-seeking entities." Although the media in the United States are free in the sense that they are protected by the First Amendment to speak without censorship, they are still owned by someone or something, and are thereby beholden to that ownership. This is especially true of the larger news organizations—the mass media, if you will.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote about the dangers of what they call the propaganda model in 1988, warning of how the mass media serves the interests of state and corporate power. They say of the mass media, "It is their function to amuse, entertain, inform and inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda." Herman and Chomsky argue that the media are confined to "thinkable thought," as defined by the state and corporate interests that pull their strings. Their case could be made just as strongly today (or 50 years ago, for that matter), as media executives rely on politicians and shareholders to renew licenses, deliver government sources and keep the money coming in.

On the other side of the journalistic spectrum, smaller-scale organizations—many of them nonprofit—rely on contributions, grants and other sources of funding that get pieced together to keep the lights on and pay their staffs. In many cases this grants them a much greater degree of independence in their reporting and editorializing. The Tyee, an independent online Canadian magazine, says of its mission, "In November of 2003 The Tyee began its swim upstream against the media trends of our day. We're independent and not owned by any big corporation. We've published viewpoints banished from corporate media and shined a light on corners of the province Big Media ignores. … The Tyee has delivered on its original promises, and we are determined to continue to do so even more effectively." The television news and documentary network The Real News Network proudly boasts on its website, "We are viewer supported and do not accept advertising, government or corporate funding."

However, despite the autonomy that independent outlets may enjoy, the economics of these operations are not made any easier. The Tyee's budget is self-described as "bare bones," its resources ever thirsty for resuscitation. Fred Rosen, editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas, tells me, "We've always been in a perpetual state of crisis—if such a thing is possible." NACLA (the North American Congress on Latin America) is an independent, nonprofit organization that has been around since 1966. It subsists on contributions, foundation grants and magazine sales. Sales have taken a hit in recent years, and NACLA's office space and staff are noticeably smaller than they used to be. "One advantage that the Internet has is that it's immediate," Rosen says. These days, by the time a newspaper hits people's doorsteps in the morning, they've already read about the main stories from several different online sources. "The idea is to try to figure out ways to create a culture where people want to pay for online material." And that of course is the puzzle that the entire industry is trying to figure out.

While making a lot of money is not always the prime driver behind political journalists reporting what is happening in the world, the revenue factor is an unavoidably existential determiner of how well those journalists can do their jobs. Revenue affects resources. And resources affect the product. Without the revenue to pay writers and photographers, cover travel expenses, or get cameras on the ground, the level of journalism being produced suffers. Part of it relates to developing expertise. For example, when NBC's Andrea Mitchell recently broke the story about General David Petraeus resigning as director of the CIA, she had to vet that story. She had to ask a number of questions from a number of angles, questioning the veracity of each source, digging for any angles or motives initially concealed by those involved. That vetting requires the kind of journalistic instinct that can come only from years of experience working as a full-time professional. A blogger with a camera phone in Tunisia may be able to provide a valuable eye into the world, but it takes a seasoned veteran to be able to weigh and balance and present a story when all the information is in. When the profit model of an industry gets dismantled, this is the kind of thing that is at stake.

When it comes to resources and expertise, some of the state-funded media outlets stand head-and-shoulders above their competitors. Al Jazeera, for instance, seems to have cameras in absolutely every corner of the globe, and their round-the-clock coverage does not stray from substantive reporting at any point. BBC News is another heavyweight in the field with substantial state-funded resources. These organizations are not immune to funding difficulties—as evidenced by a major restructuring of the BBC in 2006—but they are nevertheless exemplary showcases of what is possible with the right budget. As Mort Rosenblum says about the powerful medium of television news, "As budgets shrink, focus shifts steadily further away from substance," resorting to sensationalism and scandal. In order for the fourth estate to speak truth to power, funding, technology and substance must align.

Follow the Traffic

A recent article in The Economist opens, "Ever since 2006, when The Economist asked on its cover who had 'killed the newspaper,' the industry’s pains have only intensified. Advertising has plunged. Readers have kept moving online. Revenues of newspapers continued to fall, dropping to $34 billion last year in America—only about half of what they were in 2000." The article goes on to deliver the reassuring news to the newspaper industry that circulation revenues may finally be starting to stabilize. At The New York Times, circulation revenues in 2012 offset the decline in advertising for the first time in five years, and the company's share price rose by 37 percent over the last six months. Other big publishers, such as Gannett, McClatchy and Hearst, saw their share prices rebound last year as well. Granted, these are bright spots in a picture that is still quite grim—all indicators still point to more cuts and layoffs in the industry as a whole—but they are signs of resilience just the same.

According to The Economist, it has become clear "that digital advertising dollars will never offset what newspapers are losing in print advertising—which is why papers want to be less dependent on ad revenue. Advertising, which is high-margin, has historically contributed around 80 percent of American newspapers’ revenues, far more than in most other countries." Some papers are trying to move to a model where they get half their revenue from advertising and half from circulation, raising the price of subscriptions and newsstand copies in some cases. Other publications have shifted focus to tablets and mobile devices, which can be bundled with print and digital subscriptions. Paywalls or pay meters—which allow online publications to charge readers for content—have also been gaining traction, with online pay models doubling in the United States in the last year.

The New York Times implemented a pay meter in March 2011, which allows readers to read a given number of articles per month before they are charged for the content. The advantage of a pay meter—versus a hard paywall—is that readers can still be driven to the site through search engines and social media. One of the pitfalls of online pay models, however, as explained by Economist Media Editor Alexandra Suich, is that, "If you don't have a name brand like The New York Times, or you don't have a small community brand where people will pay for local content, or you've cost-cut yourself into oblivion, then it's not clear that anyone would open their wallet for you." Even the Washington Post, which certainly has an established brand, has avoided imposing a pay meter, presumably because it is worried about the effect on web traffic. While The New York Times and its global sister International Herald Tribune now have almost 600,000 paid digital subscribers, which has significantly compensated for losses in advertising, publications of smaller stature cannot yet jump in step with this approach.

The future of Newsweek Global, Newsweek's all-digital publication, will be interesting to watch. It will be supported by a required paid subscription, and will be available for tablet and mobile devices. Jack Mirkinson points out in The Huffington Post, "Of the three major American newsweeklies—Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report—only Time has survived in any recognizable form. When 2013 hits, it will be the last title standing in print." Newsweek cost $42 million a year to manufacture, print, distribute and manage, and circulation had dropped by 51 percent over the past five years. Newsweek Editor Tina Brown adds that print advertising dollars "fell off a cliff" for the entire industry last year. "An electronic Newsweek could be delivered swiftly and economically to millions," Brown says, albeit in the subjunctive tense. "There are now 70 million tablet users in the U.S. alone, and … two out of every five Americans now read newspapers and magazines on mobile devices." Brown says that Newsweek Global anticipates "staff reductions and streamlining" in the days to come.

The challenge is a global one. Publications in Europe have been hard hit by the shrinking of the print industry, especially in the midst of the Eurozone's debt crisis. Leading Spanish newspaper El País has had to lay off a third of its workers. German newspaper Financial Times Deutschland was forced to close last month. And papers in the United Kingdom have shown reluctance to adapt to digital models. Profit margins of the most respectable newspapers in India are low as well. An article in The New Yorker by Ken Auletta, titled "Why India's Newspaper Industry Is Thriving," praises papers in India for increasing circulation and advertising revenue by "dismantling the wall between the newsroom and the sales department," as if this is a brilliant idea. Hari Seshasayee, an editor at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, explains to me that in cases like the Times of India—the paper lauded by The New Yorker for its innovation—"The advertisers call the shots." Seshasayee says that Internet penetration is still small in India, but that Indian publications with an online presence are running into the same kinds of problems that we see elsewhere, related to online advertising and the like. There are newspapers in Latin America that are still doing fairly well, but this is occurring mainly in poor countries where citizens can afford a newspaper but not a computer.

(No More) Follow the Leader

While doom and gloom seem to pervade the mood in this troubled industry, many people are actually rather excited about what lies ahead. That excitement stems in part from the challenge of reinventing the wheel, or at least re-imagining it. Jamie Kneen, communications and outreach coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, tells me, "There are a range of experiments underway in alternative funding models, from Stephen Leahy's adopt-a-journalist experiment to the Tyee to the Real News Network to the Media Co-op. … It's having an interesting effect on how stories are covered. It's also interesting to see how magazines like Briarpatch and Alternatives Journal are reinventing themselves online without making the print editions irrelevant." Kneen concedes that many of these organizations are forging ahead with little or no money behind them, but that isn't slowing them down. Money aside, 21st-century muckrakers feel empowered by the fact that the Internet has given them the ability to disseminate their ideas all over the world, instantly, and have those ideas presented and debated right alongside the most heftily bankrolled media houses. Consider this mission statement from Rabble.ca, a nonprofit organization that relies on donor support: "Rabble.ca will draw on the real energy and power of the Internet—passionate, engaged human beings. Blurring the line between readers and contributors, it will provide a needed space for issues, a place to explore political passions and an opportunity to expand ideas."

One venue that has stayed ahead of the curve in this arena is The Huffington Post—the first commercially run U.S. digital media enterprise to win a Pulitzer Prize. In February 2011, AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million, partnering with the company on its tablet subscription and injecting the online publication with a valuable chunk of capital. Then in August, The Huffington Post Media Group announced the launch of HuffPost Live, the site's live streaming network. The Huffington Post already has one of the most active communities on the web, with an average of 2 million comments a week. President and Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington says, "This shift from presentation to participation is what fuels HuffPost Live." Roy Sekoff, president and co-creator of HuffPost Live, says that the aim is to "create the most social video experience possible. And that means putting the HuffPost community front and center in everything we do, including having them join us live on the air. The idea is to provide a platform to people whose voices aren't normally heard in the traditional media."

What they are doing, intentionally, is putting everyone on equal footing—experts and laymen alike. While this approach will indeed empower average citizens, what will be the deeper effect on political discourse? Will the effect be to devalue and disincentivize hard-earned expertise? Ten years from now, even when we have more empirical data by which to judge, I expect that the determination will be a complicated one to make. The model of political journalism is being disassembled. Regardless of what it looks like when it is put back together again, one thing is certain: It will never again look the same.

Joshua Pringle is a master's student of international relations at New York University as well as the senior editor of Worldpress.org.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Joshua Pringle.

 
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