We shouldn’t be grieving for the death of newspapers

My following article appears today in Online Opinion:

As a journalist who spends the vast majority of my life online, the seemingly never-ending debates about the future of the media and newspapers can be exhausting and predictable.

The same mantras are heard over and over again. Where will the news come from when newsprint dies? Our democracy is in jeopardy if more people don’t engage with the news of the day. Bloggers are parasites. Young people have less interest in investigative, time-consuming reporting. What kinds of jobs will be available for the journalism students of tomorrow? The old business model of almost solely relying on advertising is dying a painful death.

All of these questions are relevant and necessary but ultimately circular and indulgent. It’s hard to disagree with the recent conclusion of Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley: “If General Motors goes under, there will still be cars. And if the New York Times disappears, there will still be news.”

But what kinds of news?

For the vast majority of the world, relying on Western news service is rarely considered because of the narrow focus and parochialism of their global coverage. I remember hearing Middle East correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk, telling me that he would dine in the evening with senior reporters from the Washington Post, New York Times and other leading American publications and hear compelling stories and honest discussions about the realities of the Middle East. By the next morning, however, the same journalists had published articles that avoided tackling the key issues in the region. Bravery was saved for private conversations over glasses of expensive wine.

With notable exceptions, the American mainstream media shies away from examining the brutal reality of Palestine. The Israeli occupation is almost invisible. The influence of the Zionist lobby on the political and media elite deemed to be conspiratorial.

Witness the recent case of Charles Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, forced to resign after extreme pressure from the Israel lobby. But it was only online through blogs that the issue publicly existed. The majors, such as the New York Times, only registered the case after Freeman pulled out. Big media was deliberately asleep at the wheel.

The question in the Freeman wasn’t so much a lack of resources to report the facts – after all, the story didn’t require overseas travel, as all the players were in the US – but a lack of will. Much of the debate about the crisis in old media (and news about the closure of institutions like the Boston Globe is certainly concerning) overly focuses on a belief that simply keeping newspapers alive will continue to guarantee democracy and transparency. In my view, it will not. Debates over “public trust” journalism are therefore essential. New models are already emerging.

In fact, what we should be asking is whether the old models are adequate to sustain reporting in the modern age. As Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently wrote, far too many journalists play by the rules of anonymity, allowing the corporate, media and governmental elite the luxury of sanctioned links. Democracy isn’t served by far too many journalists seeing their role as integral to the establishment set.

For these reasons alone, we shouldn’t be grieving for the death of newspapers, as the vast majority of reporters working there have long viewed themselves as players, desperate to be liked and feted by colleagues, editors, politicians and media advisers.

Greenwald, speaking last week on the PBS program hosted by Bill Moyers, explained the problems with this arrangement in the US:

It’s actually the fact that reporters and media stars and corporate and establishment journalists are so embedded into the establishment as a cultural and sociological matter. That they’re so completely insular and out of touch from what public opinion actually is. And polls show that huge numbers of issues and positions that are held by large numbers of Americans are ones that are virtually never heard in our media discussions.

This situation is not something that we should worry about losing. If this is the bulk of the mainstream media in 2009, alternatives are surely needed.

Of course, bloggers can be co-opted as easily as corporate journalists and a growing number are. But independence in the modern age can stand for something other than exclusion from press conferences and parties. It can mean integrity, accountability and trust, all factors sorely lacking in the public’s attitude towards the mainstream press. It’s difficult to feel sorry for old media companies that failed to adapt quickly to the internet age, a time where asking what the readers want, rather than just the publisher and journalist, is central. Perhaps non-profit organisations are the way forward.

Israel/Palestine is one issue that demands a new media approach: likewise many other conflicts around the world. Indigenous voices remain hidden. When was the last time we read articles in our newspapers written by Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Palestinians or Tamils? Hardly ever. It’s as if Westerners, most often men, have to visit a country for a perspective to be heard. This is an issue I examine more deeply in my book, The Blogging Revolution.

One of the key reasons I wrote the work was to highlight the vast gaps in Western media knowledge when it comes to countries such as Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Syria and Egypt. Blogs were one of the ways to understand a culture largely hidden behind the iron curtains of “repression”, “dictatorship” or enemy of Washington.

For many years now, the best sources on the Middle East have largely not been the Western establishment press. A US blog such as Mondoweiss gives daily information about Israel/Palestine and Jewish identity lacking from most mainstream papers. Israeli paper Haaretz shows that honest reporting on the West Bank occupation and Gaza is possible (and the Zionist lobby therefore recognises the paper as a threat). Any number of other bloggers – such as this Israeli detailing the devastating effects of checkpoints on Palestinians – have almost replaced the old sources by necessity. If corporate reporters won’t report the truth – because of fear, bias, intimidation, gutlessness or owner’s rules – then blogs will fill the space.

The last ten years have seen an information revolution of unparalleled proportions. The coming decade is guaranteed to be as challenging. Rather than worrying about journalistic practice, less reporters doing more work and diminished democracy, we should be celebrating what’s possible.

And create our own media today.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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