We are living in a time full of threats – and unprecedented possibilities, especially when it comes to the state of the media. Let’s consider five paradoxes, in no particular order.
Is print dead or reviving?
Rumours of the death of print magazines and newspapers have been circulating for years – but many of us are still here. What’s more, we are seeing signs of a renaissance in independent, alternative print magazines and hyperlocal newspapers.
The internet, that great disrupting technology, has prompted print’s decline, cannibalizing the revenue of publishers. After all, why buy news in print when you get it all for free online? The proportion of readers actually prepared to pay for news online (nine per cent) cannot replace those who used to buy print.1
But the internet has also been amazing for media like ours. In the days before the worldwide web, we never imagined that two million people a year would be reading our content and getting our kind of journalism, rooted in social, economic, global and environmental justice.
Vast sums are generated by online media activity, but the lion’s share lands in the pockets of the tech companies (Facebook, Google, et al). Although they don’t say so, these digital titans are de facto advertising agencies and publishers, profiting from content produced by others who have seen their income streams dry up in the process.2
Is the media hated or loved?
In recent times, the media has been under attack on an unprecedented scale.
The ease with which Donald Trump and his special advisor Steve Bannon, master purveyor of ‘fake news’, have turned the same accusation against outlets reporting unpalatable truths, is quite stunning.
But now we are seeing a reaction against such assaults. Donald Trump’s animosity towards The New York Times and others has been cause for celebration in their subscription departments, as people buy papers (yes, buy them) as an act of support and defiance. Being hated by Trump, or banned from presidential news briefings, has become a badge of honour.
Is news fake or real?
But still, there is tremendous public mistrust of journalism.
Anxieties over ‘fake news’ have reinforced the notion that the media – and those who manipulate it – just tell lies.
It is incredibly easy to spread misinformation today – and for total fabrications to get around the world, unimpeded, in record time. In fact, the technology favours lies over truth.
It’s all in the algorithms. The internet has enabled crafty operators to push out false and eye-catching stories as clickbait for advertisers.
And lies, it turns out, are far more profitable than the truth. Lies, such as Breitbart’s report that a 1,000 strong mob of Muslims attacked and set fire to the cathedral in Dortmund, Germany, do better still. This piece of pure fiction, parading as news, went viral around the world on New Year’s Eve, raking in ad dollars as it went.3
Couple this with the hands-off (‘we are not the media, we are just the technology’) claims of Facebook, Google and Co, and the whole system appears to be spinning out of control.
Most of the extremist sites that have emerged in the US since 2010 are on the Right, politically. But here’s another twist: two ‘hyper-partisan’ sites, the leftwing Liberal Society and the rightwing Conservative 101, are both owned by the same company, American News LLC of Miami. This is the publisher of the viral made-up story that Denzel Washington endorsed Donald Trump. The company now appears to be expanding into religious clickbait, registering the domains DevoutAmerica.com and EthicalAmerican.com.4
A cover up or a clean up?
News outfits that tell lies, misinform, or in others ways abuse the press freedom they enjoy, are not new or solely digital.
The tabloid press – especially, but not exclusively, titles owned by Rupert Murdoch – has long had a slippery relationship with the truth and a readiness to invade personal privacy.
Britain’s phone-hacking scandal (centring on murdered teenager Milly Dowler) and the first part of the Leveson Inquiry that ensued, exposed some of the rot.
When certain big players repeatedly pollute the pool of press freedom, it affects the entire media environment. Polls show that trust in the media has plummeted, with confidence in journalists languishing at 25 per cent, on a par with estate agents. In some sectors of the tabloid press it’s down to 11 per cent.5,6
But this sorry state of affairs has produced another reaction – that of active public interest and engagement. Concerned citizens and journalists have been uniting within the Media Reform Coalition 7,8,9 Last December, its Media Democracy Festival at Birkbeck College, London was crammed to capacity.
Pressure is growing on the industry to clean up its act. One reason the British tabloid press has got away with so many abuses is that its system of self-regulation is ineffective. And the industry big beasts are still trying to dodge the bullet, crying that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations are tantamount to censorship and violation of press freedom.
The Daily Mail, Murdoch-owned papers The Sun and The Times, and The Express, have joined the Independent Press Standards Organization, a toothless body of their creation.
Their ‘misleading’ press campaign against Leveson’s low-cost arbitration system (adopted by the officially recognized monitor, IMPRESS, and ourselves) was slammed by the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee.10
Veteran campaigning editor Sir Harold Evans added his voice, recently calling for The Guardian, The Financial Times and others sitting on the fence to sign up to IMPRESS which, he said, offered ‘the best protection for serious news reporting and investigations into corruption and the abuse of power.’11
Owned by the many – or the few?
The final paradox relates to who owns the media. Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa have some of the most concentrated media ownership in the world. Britain follows not far behind, with three companies owning 70 per cent of national newspapers, and six companies owning 80 per cent of local titles.12 The trend is mirrored worldwide and exacerbated by the economic conditions of the internet, which favours large, highly capitalized companies.13
This reduced pluralism shrinks democracy. The internet and social media may give an impression of diversity, but it is an illusion. Much of the material circulated and recirculated, comes from the same small pool of dis-proportionately powerful content producers and influencers. The media-baron owners often have holdings across different media types – press, broadcasting, online – and cultivate close connections with government to expand their power and profits. Social media, for all its vitality, cannot replace the need for professional journalism that holds power to account.
But there are signs of change. Independent hyperlocals are popping up, set up by journalists who want to do a proper job. Crowdfunding is becoming a more common means of supporting independent investigations.
New media-ownership models are emerging, like the New Internationalist community share offer. The role of media is to inform to the best of its ability and to speak truth to power. It needs to be accountable. This new media model, based on collective ownership rather than by one tycoon, has journalistic ethics and accountability at its heart.
By investing, our readers, supporters, collaborators, can become the owners of New Internationalist. They will be the custodians of our mission, our ethics, our editorial charter (see factsandheart.org).
It’s an innovative model for a new and challenging era; the next stage on New Internationalist’s co-operative journey towards an expansion of media democracy.
These are times of danger and turmoil for independent media, as we battle through a stormy and unpredictable landscape.
But they are also the most exciting, raw and democratically vibrant of times. And you can be part of it.
- Reuters Digital News Report, 2015↩
- New Internationalist, March 2016 nin.tl/Digitaltitans↩
- The Guardian 7 Jan 2017 nin.tl/fakemobstory↩
- Nieman Lab nin.tl/partisanwebsites↩
- UK Parliament Culture, Media and Sport Committee, nin.tl/pressconsultation↩
- Statement from IMPRESS, 28 Feb 2017.↩
This article is from issue #501 of the New Internationalist magazine. Digital and digital+print bundle subscriptions are available here.