Understanding, Not Framing, the Journalism Revolution
Nov 28, 2011
Don't overlook the revolution in journalism brought by technology, as large media corporations cling to outdated models and call for subsidies instead of adapting to the new digital communication environment.
Increasing drops in circulation and revenue, an exponential increase in competition (especially from micro-publications), and exponential indebtedness due to costly old media operations have recently awakened the concern of large communication and news companies about their own business. The technological revolution, they argue, has created a myriad of new news sources which - according to their reasoning - are not reliable enough to play the role of society's “watchdog”. The “concern” of media giants about society has led prominent media figures to start suggesting government subsidies to safeguard quality journalism. The confusing state of management in big media companies is understandable, but no less myopic or opportunistic.
The idea of subsidizing the journalistic process is as obscene as any other subsidy request. It's more or less like a politician suggesting that his administration should be audited by the auditing company he owns. With very rare exceptions such as the BBC (Great Britain), PBS (USA), and CBC (Canada), public communication companies offer a low-quality product, with structures that are big hangers for jobs (this, a problem even in excellent companies like the BBC), politically manipulated and with very little transparency about their own functioning. Therefore, the sudden concern about quality journalism from media titans is nothing more than opportunism from those who only agree with the rules while they are favorable.
[caption id=“” align=“alignright” width=“300” caption=“Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP”][/caption]
Mainstream media still insists on trying to avoid what has already happened - the shift in the power chain of information due to technology. What actually happened with the tsunami provided by technological changes is that 1) news is no longer a finished product but an endless process, 2) the costs to become a global media player have plummeted, making it possible to compete with mega-corporations with relatively little money, and 3) the ability of agencies and mega-corporations to always be the first to report events has ended (Twitter and other instant services have virtually turned anyone into a news source). These changes have already happened and are irreversible. Denying them is like standing in front of a train to try to stop it.
The feeling of imminent chaos that shakes the foundations of large media corporations is due to the (accurate) perception that they are doomed to decline in the new digital communication environment. Just like what happened with the dinosaurs, the environment underwent a structural change and the large organisms lost competitiveness because they do not have the agility and mutation capacity of the small ones. Large corporations have in their cost sheet a series of expenses that they could afford to have, such was their dominance, but now, they have become a burden that, in the survival race, may cost their existence (and will, in most cases). Imposing offices in the noble areas of cities, editorial boards that add nothing to editorial productivity, and the very culture of companies (which in 9 out of 10 cases tries to subject their digital divisions to the interests of the old media publications instead of promoting a necessary reform) are some of the reasons that prevent the reinvention of these companies. And they will pay for it.
Journalism doesn't need and can't have subsidies of any kind because it goes against its essence. You can't receive favors from those you're investigating - stating this is blatantly obvious, but the discussion asks for it. There is no risk of journalism perishing if companies like WPP, News Corporation, Rede Globo, or any other of the kind were to cease to exist. What should indeed happen is that instead of the generation and distribution of information coming from a handful of mega-powerful groups, there will be thousands of “suppliers” of information. It is curious to note here that what arguments like those of Martin Sorrell defend, asking for subsidies for companies “capable” of producing quality journalism is diametrically opposed to the free market competition that 100% of these mega-companies have always defended.
There is, undoubtedly, a movement in which journalism is being subjugated by advertising (more than it always has been). This is indeed a serious and growing problem, but it is just another symptom of the industry's current inadequacy. With their exorbitant costs, journalistic operations are increasingly dependent on their advertisers and are increasingly in the hands of their commercial departments. To change this, it is necessary to rethink the model for an alternative that costs less, is more flexible, and has several points of support instead of only advertising revenue.
Mega-corporations need to decide if they accept to give up the rings or if they want to lose their fingers. Only companies that begin to cut into their own flesh immediately, remaking their structures from end to end, eliminating privileges of old gatekeepers, coordinating efforts to benefit the information process and not certain sectors of the company (like for example, a large Brazilian TV broadcaster that strangles the development of its new media department to maintain the omnipotence of the television department, its flagship), accepting the effective participation of user-generated content (as well as their opinion in the process) and a series of other measures.. Asking for subsidies is the easiest, most unfair, and least logical way out, but when regimes fall into decline, they rarely avoid these types of mistakes. Those who dare to step out of their comfort zone and understand the changes will profit greatly from them. Those who don't, will have serious problems.