Last week was, Stephen Glover writes in The Independent, ‘as bad as could be’ for the newspaper industry. Falling circulations, plummeting advertising, and large scale redundancies. The Independent announced 90 jobs would go. The Daily Mail and General Trust said 400 would lose their jobs. Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press continued to drop ever further in value.
What effect will this economic crisis have on the provision of news? Right now the debate seems polarised between doom saying pessimists and idealistic optimists. The pessimists see spiralling structural decline of the news industry, and with it all the democratic benefits of good journalism we’ve taken for granted the last 60 plus years (read Andrew Keen for the arch-pessimist view). The optimists separate journalists from journalism and suggest the later is alive, well and flourishing – buoyed by the creative opportunities released by new media (Jeff Jarvis does a good line on the positive outlook for journalism and Rupert Murdoch has recently suggested that “newspapers will reach new heights in the 21st century”).
What this debate is missing is evidence. To date, very few people (in the UK at least) have taken the time to work out what is actually happening to news provision. In other words, what is not being reported that we think, as a democratic society, should be.
If we agree that it is the job of the press to report on local councils, for example, we should find out which local councils are being covered and which aren’t. If we think the press should tell people what is happening at local schools and hospitals, then we should measure what coverage there is right now, and where, so we can work out what’s missing. Same with transport, crime, prisons, etc.
Government and industry are already starting to talk about redistributing the BBC’s income, giving further funding to Channel 4 and considering various other interventions, without really knowing what the problem is. Lord Carter, the Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting, said over the weekend that the BBC’s License Fee may well be used to fund other media outlets. Alan Rusbridger has argued that local newspapers should be ‘in with a shout’ for any government money used for provision of news.
But how can the government intervene effectively if it doesn’t know what it is trying to achieve by its intervention? How beneficial is it to the public if the State is just intervening to prop up existing media institutions?
If, as a society, we think we need a ‘Fourth Estate’ (and I think we do), then we need to be a lot more conscious of its benefits before working out how to save it. We have to to examine whether the doom laden claims of the pessimists have substance, and work out if the excitement of the optimists is justified. And that means we have to start counting.