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Bad news for the news

The good news is: the digital revolution has revitalized journalism. The bad news: nobody wants to pay for it. With the Internet undermining the economic basis of professional reporting, the freedom of the press in western democracies is at stake, warns American sociologist Paul Starr.

The digital revolution, as great as its wonders are, is a mixed blessing for democracy. It has unquestionably been good for freedom of expression – for the free expression, that is, of opinion. It has also been good for freedom of information – that is, for making previously secret or inaccessible information more widely available. But it has not been uniformly good for freedom of the press, if we understand that freedom as referring not merely to the formal legal rights but to the real independence of the press as an institution.

The digital revolution has been good for freedom of expression because it has increased the diversity of voices in the public sphere. It has been good for freedom of information because it has fostered a culture that demands transparency. But the digital revolution has both revitalized and weakened freedom of the press. It has revitalized journalism by allowing new entrants into the media and generated promising innovations, and in countries where the press has been stifled, that effect is the most important.

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But in the established democracies, the digital revolution has weakened the ability of the press to act as an effective agent of public accountability by undermining the economic basis of professional reporting and fragmenting the public. If we take seriously the idea that an independent press serves an essential democratic function, its institutional distress may weaken democracy itself.

That is the danger that confronts us in the advanced societies: throughout the post-industrial world, the news media face a long-term crisis that social theory did not anticipate.

Beginning in the 1970s, theories of post-industrial society projected a flourishing and happy future for the fields associated with the production of knowledge and information. The most influential theories of contemporary political development also did not anticipate a crisis in the news media that would pose a problem for democracy. As the 20th century came to a close, the collapse of communism gave rise to increased confidence – even triumphalism – about the future of liberal democracy and its institutions. The new media initially seemed to reinforce that confidence. As the digital revolution developed, its theorists argued that it inevitably creates a more open, networked public sphere, thereby strengthening democratic values and practices.

In short, all of these perspectives have suggested that in the post-industrial world, a free press and democracy would thrive together.

Social theorists were not alone in their optimism. The professionals and executives in the news media were also confident about the prospects for growth in their industry.

Through the last decades of the 20th century, the economic trends supported these expectations. Like the other knowledge-producing professions, journalism expanded, and the news media prospered. With personal computers and the Internet, the costs of producing and distributing media of all kinds diminished, and previously marginalized groups and individuals could bypass the old mass-media gatekeepers in reaching a wider public.

But in recent years, the contemporary transformation has taken a darker turn for journalism and for democratic government more generally. Several long-term trends have combined to weaken the finances of the news media and to reduce professional employment in journalism. A recent OECD study reports that over the decade ending in 2007, the number of newspaper journalists declined 53 percent in Norway, 41 in the Netherlands, 25 in Germany, and 11 percent in Sweden, while holding steady in France and Britain. In the US, the number of journalists has fallen from 56 000 to 40 000, according to recent estimates.

Everywhere, the media are under severe financial stress. The data on revenue for newspapers, magazines, and other news media in the rich democracies typically show a pattern of growth through the last three decades of the 20th century, a peak around the year 2000, and then a decline in the past decade.

The expectation that the news media would flourish in post-industrial society failed to take into account certain economic realities, social trends already in progress, and emerging technologies. The prevailing optimism ignored the reality that information, including news, is a public good and that public goods tend to be systematically under-produced in the market. The prevailing optimism failed to consider that the news media had been able to overcome the public-goods problem, with varying degrees of success, only because existing communication technologies had limited the ways for the public to find information and entertainment and for advertisers to reach consumers. And even though it should have been clear that new technologies would expand the choices for both advertisers and the public, hardly anyone anticipated that in this new environment, the public would fragment, the audience for public-affairs news would shrink, advertisers would be able to reach their markets without sponsoring news, and the traditional commercial basis for financing journalism would be shattered.

The changes in the public and the demand for news are showing up in generational differences. Older generations that formed their habits decades ago continue to read print newspapers and watch television news at an appointed hour, but young people are not forming those habits in the first place. As a result, the traditional media find themselves living off aging audiences, even as they continue to supply most of the original reporting.

These developments are not playing out exactly the same way everywhere. With its primarily commercial media and very high level of generational change, the US may be more exposed to a crisis in the news media than are European countries with strong public-service broadcasting institutions and slower rates of generational change in media use. After a period when the media in Europe were moving closer to an American model, the media in America may be moving in a more European direction – not with government subsidies, but with more philanthropic support. American journalism is also becoming more partisan, more polarized, and more distrusted.

It is all very humbling for the American news media, which have not exactly been modest about their achievements. Their current troubles may cause a certain Schadenfreude here in Europe, where at least in Austria and some other countries things may appear more stable. But to use a phrase from a famous Austrian-American economist, Joseph Schumpeter, the gales of creative destruction are blowing, they are likely to sweep everywhere, and how much creation and how much destruction there will be remains to be seen. What may be good for the news media as businesses may not always be good for democracy; in fact, what may be good for the business of news may not always be good for journalism. Democracy may need to find new ways both to support journalism and to guarantee its independence.


Published 2011-08-16

Original in English
Translation by Andreas Simon dos Santos
First published in IWM Post 106 (2011) English version; Transit 41 (2011) (German version)

Contributed by Transit
© Paul Starr / Transit
© Eurozine

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