Reviving journalism: the digital tools usher in a New Era of media functions

Feb 5, 2012
The digital tools revive media's role, challenging traditional corporations and redefining the public interest.
"Is journalism dead?" This question was posed to the community of the Quora website, and in reality, in thousands of other places, not only documented on the Internet, but in groups of journalists, congresses, debates, newsrooms, and the like. It is not an impertinent doubt. A quick glance at the covers of magazines on any newsstand, where weekly news magazines surrender without any embarrassment to the most frivolous matters, assures that journalism is certainly not what the overwhelming majority of them do. Even in the titles of more traditional newspapers, heirs of a long journalistic tradition, the allure of delivering what "readers want to read" is stronger than a supposed obligation to do journalism. The question of whether the Internet has killed (or is killing) journalism is rarely answered by news company owners and traditionalist journalists with a "no". However, the truth is that the Internet (and the digital revolution) has nothing to do with the disappearance of journalism as it should be - this has been disappearing for decades. The digital, on the contrary, is a tool that has the power and the means to recover the obligations that have been left dormant by traditional media.
In the questioning about the death or not of journalism is embedded a supposed threat to society, a risk that it would be running if it did not have a strong press looking after the "public interest". Unfortunately, for society and for traditional media companies, the care for the "public interest" on the part of the latter has been lost for quite some time. As Denis McQuail observes in his Mass Communications Theory (among so many others), the definition of "public interest" is extremely complex and, besides, even when possible to define, the public interest never supersedes the interests of the company itself in terms of priorities, whether they are political or - almost always - financial. It is not difficult to remember situations in which the press clearly advocated for its own cause to the detriment of what would be better for society. Traditional media formats - print, radio, and TV - have created a comfort zone for the media because of the concentration of power in the hands of a few groups and these have always been able to act in accordance with their own interests.
The advancement of the digital format is accused of killing journalism and driving the press away from its functions. Will it? A commonly accepted definition of the functions of the press was coined as early as 1948, by Harold Lasswell, in his essay "The Structure and Function of Communication in Society". Among them are the indication of power relations, the facilitation of innovation and progress, the explanation and interpretation of the meaning of events and information, and the reduction of social tension. Again, it is simple to think of news programs that have manipulated election information, police programs that instill unnecessary fear in the population, and companies that defend government million-dollar contracts that have them as beneficiaries - none of this seems to be in defense of the "public interest". None of this appeared with the emergence of digital media, but rather with a search for an audience exclusively determined by the news industry's agenda. The press distanced itself from its obligation due to the awareness of the power it had to be able to have its own profit as an end. Society and its "public interest" became hostages of this press, even though it was the grantee of certain resources (like TV network concessions) that created the "fourth power".
The digital revolution has taken from large corporations the monopoly over the ability to practice journalism. Entities like ProPublica or even the digital versions of newsrooms like The Guardian or New York Times have made it clear that journalism in the digital age can be much more affordable. Initiatives like the Huffington Post (which, yes, raises many questions about the quality and direction of its journalism, but has merits one way or another), TechCrunch, Mashable, Politico and, to cite a Brazilian example, the Brazilian Blog do Noblat, are redesigning the geography of news in places much closer to the functions of the press cited by Lasswell than in the old titles that literally sell their covers to any subject that guarantees a slightly larger sale. This, when they do not have a political agenda visibly linked to their own interests and completely divorced from the "public interest", even if they try to make such a defense with admirable impudence.
Journalism, which is not dead, can easily come out of its torpor with the tools that the digital revolution proposes every day more, but it is not at all certain that the large corporations, Jurassic in their essence and averse to innovations, can be saved with the participation of smaller, more focused, more agile and profitable entities. Traditional news corporations are neither the cradle where journalism was created nor the guerrilla bastions that fight for it against society's enemies - far from it. Seeing the mainstream media making a discourse blaming the digital for the "death" of journalism is a mixture of egocentric strabismus with bad faith. In strong democracy societies, this nonsense doesn't stick. Or at least, it shouldn't stick.

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024