Future must be secured for serious news media

 

Accuracy and authority in journalism do not float in on the air. They are costly, labour- intensive commodities, writes CONOR BRADY

TO FIND a Minister in office expressing concerns for the welfare of the news media is unusual. When two of them do so within a week, we are into white blackbird territory.

Many politicians will quietly acknowledge the truth in Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn’s warning about traditional news media collapsing under the onslaught of the internet. And politicians and journalists alike will empathise with Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte’s concerns about the concentration of media ownership.

Both points are crucially important if we are to preserve a healthy, properly resourced and diverse news media. But the more immediate issue is arguably that raised by Quinn.

If traditional news media are driven to extinction by the internet, he told an audience last week at the University of Limerick, “I personally think it would matter very much. I say this in spite of the shortcomings in the traditional media.”

Alan Crosbie, chairman of the company that publishes the Irish Examinerand the Sunday Business Post, may have overheated somewhat in describing the “tsunami” of internet news media as a “threat to humanity”, when he spoke at a Dublin seminar on Monday. But he is not wrong to raise a warning flag.

The danger is not of an imminent inundation but, to extend the metaphor, of a gradual submersion; a process of incremental deterioration with ultimate failure of mission.

Quinn is of a generation of Irish politicians who understand how good journalism, for all its faults, interacts with public institutions to ensure a fuller and healthier democracy.

The news media, sometimes in collaboration with elected representatives or with the law, have done much good in exposing abuses in our society. They have sometimes failed, too. They fell down in their role as supposed “gate keepers” as the State stumbled into the abyss of de facto insolvency.

Nobody can see more clearly than the politicians that the traditional media – newspapers, television and radio – are in deepening difficulties; caught in a downward spiral of dwindling revenues with consequent contraction in their products and services.

Quinn spoke of the strengths of traditional media as “the high degree of reliability, accuracy, authority and a willingness to accommodate different points of view”. But reliability, accuracy and authority do not float in on the air. They are costly, labour-intensive commodities. And although there has been huge cost-cutting, media organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to fund them.

The proliferation of internet-based news providers, and particularly the emergence of the social networks, has immensely expanded and enriched the business of news delivery. But while much content is original or “citizen-generated”, too much of it is unashamedly pillaged from traditional news media sources. It is theft on a grand scale, ripping off the work of reporters and editors whose organisations have to pick up the bill. Worse, the information thus plagiarised is hardly ever sourced and is frequently misrepresented. As Quinn told his audience, the problem with the internet is that its “inhabitants are unaccountable and live in cyberspace . . . a playground for anonymous backstabbers.”

That is a generalisation. But like most generalisations, there is some accuracy in it.

There are, of course, some fine internet-based news media. For example, high standards, combining accuracy and urgency, are set by storyful.com, established by RTÉ’s former man in Washington, Mark Little. David Cochrane’s politics.ieis a valuable and intelligent forum for discussion of important public issues. thejournal.ieis an excellent public notice board.

A great deal of what is put out on the internet under the label of news is either stolen property or unverified gossip. Traditional news media values – verification, getting the “other side” of the story, checking against archive material – sometimes seem to get short shrift. What has been described as a “culture of assertion” appears too often to prevail.

Protestations such as Alan Crosbie’s, regrettably, do not have much purchase with the public and, in particular, with the younger internet-engaged generation. There is a perception of special pleading, of a dinosaur industry trying to hold back inevitable change, of a once-powerful elite desperately trying to reassert control.

The newspaper industry has some ground to make up in finding humility. And it is probably not learning as quickly as it should.

In the meantime, newsrooms are being starved of resources, working conditions for journalists are deteriorating, traditional systems of supervision and “quality control” are being wound down. One of the essentials of healthy public debate – a professional, decently resourced corps of full-time journalists – is in effect being phased out in some news organisations.

Contracted freelances and day workers are replacing staff journalists. Those lucky enough to find employment are required to work faster and across a wider range of tasks. There is less time for research, for verification, for authentication. Editors’ budgets will only stretch so far.

Little wonder there is a drift to celebrity news and ephemeral comment in place of researched, accurate news reporting.

Politicians like Quinn and Rabbitte are long enough on the road to recognise what is happening. They know that whatever flaws there may be in traditional news media, they discharge an essential function – and it is not yet clear that the new media can or will adequately replicate it.

The proposed new broadcast charge, replacing the traditional television licence, will enable the broadcasting media to regain some financial stability in a world increasingly dominated by the internet. It is to be hoped that an appropriate provision will be made for news and current affairs.

Regrettably, no such relief appears in sight for the print sector.

Quinn and Rabbitte have done a service in voicing their concerns. They and their colleagues in government now need to start identifying practical measures that can underpin serious news media, whether internet-based, broadcast or in print.

Other EU countries are examining ways of rerouting some of the internet’s earnings back to the organisations from which they draw content without making payment.

A government that says it is committed to creating jobs might find ways of helping news media organisations to keep expensively trained journalists and other media practitioners off the dole. A start might even be made, as Crosbie suggested, by revisiting VAT arrangements to enable newspapers to better fund their newsrooms.


Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Timesfrom 1986 to 2002

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