For years, media leaders, editors and not a few reporters tried to ignore the coming digital storm, fiddling while technology transformed their world. Now, as that world evolves, the question is whether something greater is at risk from the new digital landscape: the future of journalism itself. What if the public won’t buy into paywalled news? What if there really is no digital economy for the kind of reporting generally thought vital to the functioning of a democracy?
In a recent speech to the Federal Trade Commission, reprinted in the Columbia Journalism Review, Robert McChesney, a communications theorist, argued that this scenario should be seen as an eventuality rather than a probability; and that the consequences for democracy should force us all to reconceptualize journalism as “a public good, not a private good. It is,” he continued, “like military defense, physical infrastructure, education, public health, and basic research…. it is something society requires, and people want, but the market cannot generate in sufficient quantity or quality. It requires government leadership to exist.”
There are two obvious objections to this argument. The first is that journalism managed not only to adapt to the new-fangled technologies of photography, radio and television, but to be adapted by them. Eyewitness reporting developed through a symbiotic relationship with the telegraph, and not because it just seemed clever to show up to record events as they were happening. Mathew Brady didn’t photograph the Civil War because the government thought it a good idea and issued a directive, but because he had made his fortune from photography and thought recording the war was a vital thing to do (it cost him his fortune and then the government short-changed him for the negatives in the resulting fire sale). Technology even changed the form of stories and the style of writing, because words were expensive to transmit and the telegraph was unreliable: Enter the inverted pyramid; exit adverbs and adjectives.
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Read More: By Trevor Butterworth, Forbes