Is New Media a threat to press freedom?

The UK National Commission for UNESCO has organised several events today to mark World Press Freedom Day. One of them is: Is New Media killing journalism?

What the hell does this have to do with press freedom? Really? Questions like this publicly expose the bias some journalists still hold against the internet and their online colleagues. I’m mad as hell about this kind of intellectually lazy nonsense, and I’m not going to take it anymore.

And while I know and have worked with some of the people on the panel at the Frontline Club, it’s difficult to see that panel making a strong case to support new media, especially the professional troll Andrew Keen. The only reason that he is still given place at a podium is because he reinforces the professional biases of journalists looking for easy answers to job losses and finding a convenient straw man in ‘new media’ – the ‘murderer’ – and the ‘mob’ replacing the ‘old professional caste’. His ill-informed views may be comforting to some journalists, but they are palliative care for a professional ‘caste’, arrogant and bewildered in its decline. Furthermore, I’m a journalist, not some brahmin. And I don’t perceive a challenge to the arrogance of some journalists as a threat to journalism as a democratic institution.

And Keen pitting ‘expert journalists’ versus the uninformed masses is a dishonest representation of what the vast majority of journalists are: Generalists. As a journalist, I know a little bit about a lot of things, but my knowledge of most subjects is superficial given the constraints of time. We do our best to make sense of a fast-paced, fast changing world, but we must rely on the expert knowledge of others and have the skill to interpret that. More journalists should specialise because the complexity of the subjects that we follow is increasing. For example, how many business journalists, let alone general reporting journalists, have the chops to explain the unwinding of collateralised debt obligations to our readers and explain how they are in part responsible for the credit crunch?

But instead of calling journalists to a higher standard, Keen bemoans the lack of intellectual standards amongst the masses who “think we know better than expert journalists. Rather than enlightenment, we want the self-expression and the democratised interactivity of blogs and wikis.” Blaming the consumer for why your product isn’t selling is a common tactic of hapless executives leading their businesses into bankruptcy.

But let’s get back to the question: Is New Media killing journalism? The threat to the traditional business model of journalism could be interpreted as a threat challenge to press freedom. It takes money to mount journalistic investigations. But the threat to the business model of traditional journalism is not solely the fault of so-called new media, which isn’t that new unless you’ve had your head up your arse for more than a decade now. In the US, newspaper readership has been declining since the 1970s. It started long before the wide spread commercial availability of the internet. Classified ad sales for newspapers in the US have been declining, with only the occasional break, since the 1940s.

Let’s phrase this question as it should, more honestly, be phrased. Is new media a threat to press freedom? Tell Iranian journalists whose papers have been shut down and have turned to the internet to continue their work that new media is a threat to press freedom. Tell Berkeley journalism student, James Karl Buck, that ‘new media’ is killing journalism and human rights when he used Twitter to tell Egyptian activists and the world that he had been arrested. Tell people in Burma the technology is a threat to press freedom when the media would not have had the pictures of the recent crack down had it not been for mobile phone technology and the internet. As Geoff Long writes on a blog (sorry Andrew, those damned amateurs again):

Whether it’s via cell phone, blog, picture sharing sites or old-fashioned email, the consensus is that more news got out, and got out a lot quicker, than during the last big uprising and crackdown in 1988.

If you are a supporter of press freedom, then it’s clear from example after example, that technology and new media have expanded, not erroded press freedom, often in the world’s most repressive countries.

This debate is not about press freedom, it’s about business models and technology. To cloak it as a threat to the democratic institution of journalism is dishonest and a distraction. The real question is how do we develop new business models to support the time consuming and therefore, costly, job of quality news gathering.

Instead, journalists fearful for their jobs and more importantly, their perceived positions of authority, have set up the ‘new media’ as the scapegoat. It’s an intellectually bankrupt argument that won’t stop their businesses from going bankrupt as well. I’m quite bullish about the future not only of press freedom, but also of journalism. However, it’s long past time to move on from this bloggers versus journalists, ‘new media’ versus journalism debate. It’s now a matter of urgency.

UPDATE: The amateurs on Mr Keen’s post actually have raised some valid and well researched points. Worth a look through the comments.

UPDATE: From Nico Macdonald’s notes, it looks like most of the journalists at the Frontline Club didn’t rise to the occasion to attack the straw man of ‘new media’ presented by Andrew Keen. That’s a good note on which to start the bank holiday weekend.

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