For the last week, I’ve been travelling in the United States. As I usually do, I’ve been making a point of looking at the local and national newspapers. It keeps me in touch and enables me to keep an eye on the declining state of the publishing industry, an industry I worked in for a number of years.
Among the stories that have caught my eye is that of Roger McNamee, a former adviser to Mark Zuckerberg and a substantial shareholder in Facebook. Although still a shareholder, by his own admission he has become an activist against the company. Simply put, he’s lamenting the role the company plays in the spread of information that is treated as news by consumers but is not accurate enough to be regarded as such.
In creating platforms for people to connect with each other and share information, Facebook, Google and other tech companies have inadvertently also created a means by which “news” travels, irrespective of its accuracy. That, in turn, has led to social media being exploited by those deliberately wanting to spread information that is not accurate.
These massive tech companies have come along at a time when traditional media is under growing pressure. The organisations we have historically relied on for our daily intake of news and current affairs are shadows of their former selves.
Television, newspapers and radio have all seen their audiences diminish as their viewers and readers get their news via another device and eventually another channel. Facebook is no substitute for real journalists working to uncover real news.
As a result, their business models no longer work; revenues have decreased and ultimately costs have been cut. This means that experienced people leave, and – here’s the thing – many of those people are the very journalists we need to deliver the timely and accurate news we so badly need.
Good journalism is about getting a lead on something that’s happening and chasing that lead as far as you can. It means finding out all that you can about what is going on. And it involves making calls, knocking on doors, interviewing people, and encouraging those who are reluctant to talk to do so. Good journalism is also expensive.
I fear that today’s news organisations no longer have a viable business model to enable them to fund the cost of high-quality journalists, and the time it takes to enable those journalists to work on stories that inform society and challenge the status quo. Unfortunately, most of today’s young journalists, who are cheap to employ, will take years to develop their skills to the point that they are contributing at a high-quality level. And of course, the repeated downsizing of recent years has meant that there are fewer experienced journalists to offer newcomers all-important mentorship.
In a democracy, good journalism is critical to the ability of the population at large to monitor the performance of government at every level. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson, (who later became the third president of the US) in reference to the importance of the freedom of speech, wrote about the role of a free press in keeping government power in check with the following:
Bruce Cotterill: “We aren’t seeing enough depth or debate that a community needs to become fully informed. Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
The quote is as relevant today as it was 230 years ago. However, maintaining those ideals means that we need good writers, strong stable media that makes good writing accessible via today’s many tools, and an educated public to digest the information. So where to start? Today, as always, there will be people wrongly imprisoned, government servants acting inappropriately, local government mistakes being covered up, corporations acting badly and the little guy being “beaten up” by business.
There will be government personnel acting outside their brief, medical misadventure and financial fraud and there will be unqualified people making bad decisions. There will also be good stuff. Unsung heroes doing positive things for their communities. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Disabled people breaking barriers and unwell folk making miraculous recoveries. And we, the people, need to understand what it all means, how it happened and how we can continue to create a society with more of the good stuff and less of the bad.
Today we see too much stuff that doesn’t matter. We see poor grammar and improper spelling. We see people interviewed who can hardly string a sentence together. We aren’t seeing enough depth or debate that a community needs to become fully informed. Sadly, it seems society is looking more and more at social media, despite its inaccuracies and agendas.
We need more bright people who want to be great journalists. We need universities that are prepared to develop proper journalists. And we need news organisations, with business models that work, that are prepared to invest in those people and the stories that need to be told. And we, the public, have to be prepared to pay it. Then and only then, will we have the strong democracy and informed society that we all should want to be a part of.