The evolution of newspapers

A decade from now, perhaps even sooner, newsprint may be as marginal to our daily lives as video cassettes and vinyl records. This is one of several scenarios intimated by ‘The Evolution of News and the Internet’ – a June 2010 report published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Given the widespread setbacks which newspapers in Britain and the US have recently suffered this is not exactly startling news, but the report shows that although we are moving rapidly into a new phase of the information age – one that may be defined by corporate struggles to monetize content that “wants to be free” – much  of our debate over the implementation of the new technology – data discrimination, net neutrality, paywalls – may be ignoring larger concerns that would result from the disappearance of traditional media.

The report considers the current clash of “information providers with very different trajectories (TV, newspapers and Internet companies) [who] are now competing head-on in a global online news environment.” This contest has given rise to several consequential paradoxes. For although the Internet has given many newspapers (including this one) huge new readerships, the difficulties of translating these new audiences into reliable revenue streams has often induced panic. Instead of playing to their traditional strengths as newsgatherers, many Americas and British newspapers have streamlined themselves to better merge into the infotainment industry. In recent years they have disposed of nearly everything that gave them their distinctive character. Local news coverage has been scaled back, foreign bureaus closed, feature writing has been tilted towards the interests of modern celebrity culture, and many papers have simply stopped running book reviews. As a result, during crises in which a strong identity might have saved them, the traditional press has been too willing to surrender itself to the “global online news environment.”

Viewed through an economic lens this may not seem like cause for alarm. After all, newspapers are businesses like any other and they too deserve to face the rigours of ‘creative destruction’ –the Marxian term which Joseph Schumpeter placed at the centre of capitalism’s genius for reinvention and innovation. If fierce competition forces newspapers to adapt to a new environment then something better is likely to emerge.

But this view of the fourth estate overlooks its growing importance as a check on deflated ideals of governance which have come to dominate our times. A Utopian strain of globalization and technological futurism has become a virtual epidemic in the information age. Our politicians routinely behave like systems managers, treating political realities as though they were cast in stone, talking about governance as though it were merely an exercise in corporate planning. The press is one of our few safeguards against this stealthy lowering of expectations. Writing in the London Review of Books the novelist John Lanchester points out that “Governments are constantly accumulating more power: one of the most glaring trends in the last 30 years of political history is that all governments arrogate more power to themselves, even when (it’s tempting to say ‘especially when’) their ideology is overtly right-wing and explicitly anti-government. The press is just about the only force which resists that, and for that reason alone it is now a necessary component of modern democracy.”

So what would democracy look like after the disappearance of this necessity? We may soon find out. The OECD reports that “20 out of 31 OECD countries face declining readership, with significant decreases in some of them,” It also notes that “large fixed costs make newspaper organisations more vulnerable to the downturns and less agile in reacting to the online news environment.” The absence of feasible “business and/or revenue sharing models” to finance in-depth independent news “raises questions as to the supply of high-quality journalism in the longer term.” Soon this scarcity may not matter since “a significant proportion of young people are not reading conventional news at all, or irregularly.” Recent research in the UK has shown that “although young people demonstrate an apparent ease and familiarity with computers, they rely heavily on search engines, view rather than read and sometimes do not possess the critical skills to assess the information they find on the web.”

In You Are Not a Gadget, a profound analysis of the blinkers which digital technology has placed on consumers all over the world, the virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier writes that “The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. You then start to care more about the abstraction of a network than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.” Something similar is happening to the news. Bundled into news aggregators, search engines and the mechanisms of social media, too much of our news has become decontextualized and virtually indistinguishable from other forms of entertainment. Instead of the promised riches of a boundless public sphere, the information age threatens to swamp us with shallow information that is quickly digested and easily forgotten. Traditional newspapers, with their idiosyncratic appetites for local embarrassments, for unkept political promises, exposés of petty corruption, for troublesome probes into parliamentarians’ expenses and for niggling questions about the intelligence used to sell a war, are quite literally “out of place” in the global online environment, but that is often a measure of their value, not their irrelevance. It has been well said that all politics is local politics. It should then follow that our citizens are best served by entities which remain firmly grounded in a specific time and place. This detail is worth remembering in our headlong rush to the digital future.