On Wednesday evening, an enormous throng of students filled the Red Roaster Coffee Shop in Brighton for a discussion about the future of the media, arranged by The Badger, the University of the Sussex Student Union’s magazine. The official title of the event — which featured myself, investigative journalist Nick Davies, Dr. An Nguyen, Senior Lecturer in New Media/Journalism Studies at the University of Sussex, and Paula O’Shea, director of Brighton Journalist Works — was, “Is print media dying a slow death? If so, what is the future of respectable journalism?”
This turned out to be something of a two-pronged question, in which the first part, asking a question about the future of print media, was not necessarily connected to the second, which, as we interpreted the phrase “respectable journalism,” dealt with the future of serious, investigative journalism. Despite the fact that the outcome was somewhat scattershot, it was an exhilarating evening, demonstrating that there is a real appetite for discussions about the future of the media — and its place in contemporary life — and raising profound questions about the current state of the media, the sustainability of traditional media, the role of the new media, the role of the BBC, the baleful presence of Rupert Murdoch, the interests and attention spans of young readers, and the wider political context, in which hard news struggles to compete with the twin perils of celebrity culture and rolling, 24-hour news, both of which conspire to erode people’s ability to focus on issues that matter.
While Paula O’Shea mounted a defence of traditional media from a working journalist’s point of view (providing the not entirely encouraging news that jobs are still out there, even if it is the consumer magazine sector that is thriving the most), and Dr. Nguyen brought an academic perspective to the proceedings, I was pleased to have the opportunity to tell the audience that, although I am full of respect for the type of well-funded investigative work undertaken by journalists like Nick, and his employers at the Guardian, any aspiring journalist would be foolish not to establish a blog and to begin making their presence felt on the web.
As I have most recently explained here and here, the success of my work as a new media journalist over the last three and a half years mirrors the steady drift of readers interested in hard news from the traditional media to the Internet, where independent journalists are often covering topics in more detail than the mainstream, and are also covering and breaking stories that are completely ignored by the mainstream. I was also able to explain that, although far too many of the online opportunities for writing are unpaid, a smart operator can use links and cross-posting to their advantage, to build up an online profile that may lead to paid work. In addition, there are, as time goes on, a growing number of subscriber- and supporter-funded models — as well as foundations — that pay for original work, some of whom support me in my endeavours.
For his part, Nick, fresh from playing a pivotal role in the release and analysis of 400,000 classified US military field documents relating to the war in Iraq, which were provided to the whistleblowers’ organization Wikileaks, was able to issue a resounding defence of investigative journalism at the Guardian, even though, as he admitted, there is no easy solution to the current problem faced by the Guardian — that, although it has a formidable global web presence, far larger than the paper’s circulation ever was, the physical newspaper is required to operate at a loss to support the entire publishing operation.
Nick hinted that the solution touted by Rupert Murdoch — raising a paywall and encouraging readers to subscribe to the Times and the Sunday Times online — was failing abysmally, which demonstrates that the lure of free news is so entrenched that online subscriptions are doomed to fail, and he also entertained the audience with stories of Murdoch’s disproportionately powerful influence in the field of the British media — and its penetration into the world of politics — as was partly uncovered through the Guardian’s investigation into the News of the World’s phone-hacking scandal, which he led earlier this year.
It would be fair to say, I think, that the main questions raised by the evening were rather inconclusive. For example, the Guardian’s future may depend either on its continued funding through the profits from other businesses owned by the Guardian Media Group, or it may have to somehow scale down its physical operation if circulation continues to fall, but no immediate answers are forthcoming just yet. On this topic, the audience — mostly under 25 — did not have reassuring news: when the moderator, Sam Waterman, asked who bought a paper once a month, almost everyone put their hands up, but when he asked who bought a paper every day, no one did.
Nevertheless, solutions were not as obviously important as raising questions, and the entire event was a sign to me that there is a hunger to explore not only the key topics under discussion, but also the array of allied topics that were raised. These included the role of the BBC, which, of course, has a unique, “protected” status through the licence fee, but is facing a similar falling off of revenue as young people source it only through iPlayer, and the problem of readers’ short attention spans, which led on to wider discussions about rolling news, the types of technology used, and the bigger problem of a black hole in public life where politics ought to be, as engagement and community have been replaced by atomization and consumerism.
I can’t speak for any of the other panellists, but I’d certainly be up for taking part in similar events in future, as the question of the media, its role and its future is obviously a trigger for important conversations about how we relate to the world and engage with it, or, as both traditional and new media journalists are all too aware, about how far too many people fail to engage with investigative journalism, even though investigative journalists, whether working in the traditional media or online, continue to ask probing questions that should concern us all.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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