Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 21 March 2009

What will replace newspapers?

I have read some articles and blog posts in the last few days that have got me thinking about newspapers and their future.

When I was growing up, they were really the only written source of daily information available (apart from the very short entries on teletext). If you wanted to find out what was happening and weren't near a TV, you bought a paper.

The world today is very different. There are a plethora of online sources that I can go to in order to get my information about what is happening in the world. I have an RSS aggregator split into a number of different topics of interest to me (news, political blogs, TV & culture stuff etc.). Inevitably some of these are from newspapers but in actual fact, the majority of these feeds are from non-news sources. I have also recently got into twitter and so now I can see what people I follow are up to any time they feel like telling me along with links to things they have found interesting or amusing as well.

This article by Johann Hari in The Independent this week strikes me as whistling in the wind from someone who is clearly hoping that the former dominance of newspapers will return. He points out that without an active journalism, countries are at risk of slipping into authoritarianism and corruption. I agree with this. However where his argument falls down in my view is that as far as he is concerned, the old media companies and structures should be propped up by government. He has an idea for an 18 birthday present given to each person by the government of a year long subscription to a newspaper.

There is no attempt here to engage with the fundamental reality of the situation. The structures of the press are a solution to a problem that no longer exists. 30 years ago it was very difficult to disseminate information to the mass public. Now it is very easy. Lots of people do it every day from their homes, effectively for free. I am doing it now. OK, perhaps the small number of readers I currently have would not count as a mass readership but the potential is there and there are many bloggers (e.g. Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes, Mike Smithson and Ben Goldacre to name but a few) who have many thousands of readers every day, many of whom would never have been employed by the mainstream media.

So if the old structures are no longer relevant, what will happen? To be honest I do not know. There is an interesting article by Clay Shirky here which goes into much more detail about this problem and he also does not know what the solution is. He thinks that by increment, ideas will be tested and slowly through trial and error a brave new informational world will be reached. I suspect he is correct and we cannot currently know where we will end up. To assume however like Hari does that without the media being structured exactly as it is now will lead to authoritarian and corrupt governments is to assume that the media should be preserved in aspic and nothing different and/or better could ever emerge to take its place. This is nonsense. Hari is younger than me (I am 34) and surely people of his generation should be embracing the opportunities that the digital age brings.

Finally, the latest post on Bad Science today just illustrates the inherent problems with the press as it is currently constituted that Hari is so desperate to protect. It seems that yet again, journalists from many newspapers have twisted the findings of some research into the efficacy of prostate cancer screening. There has been no attempt to deal with the nuances that this area requires (screening can have a negative impact and is not a panacea) and a study that showed screening caused no improvement has been ignored. It appears that the journalists used the same source for their information and have all claimed it cuts deaths by 20%. You can read the full analysis of why this is wrong in via the link above but my point is that the press often gets these things terribly wrong (look at the MMR scandal for example). Why should this crumbling structure be protected from its probable fate?

Perhaps the future will be millions of ordinary people reporting news from their locales and their views on wider issues, with it all being aggregated and the biggest stories floating to the top through some sort of intelligent filtering system. Maybe newspapers can find a way to remain economic online through subscriptions or advertising. As I said, I don't what the future will look like but in all probability it will be so different from anything I or anyone else can think of right now that it is not really worth me speculating. I for one am embracing the changes and hope to be a part of whatever structure eventually takes the place that the press has held unchallenged for so long.

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