People keep saying journalism is disappearing. As a result, I find myself frequently explaining that journalism isn’t disappearing, and that though the business model that supported it for the last 150 or so years is in trouble, that is not the same thing.
Journalism – what we used to call journalism – is happening all over the place, in non-governmental organisations, advocacy groups, think tanks, academia, even corporate research labs. I put this recently to a just-retired journalist from a local newspaper in the American Midwest, and he got unhappy: where was neutral, objective reporting in all this?
I’m always baffled when people say this because the neutral, objective reporter doesn’t exist. We are all human and we all have points of view. Not least, we have points of view about what is important enough to report. One of the great things about Wikipedia is that it gives house room to many things that its venerable, of necessity more selective, predecessors didn’t; comparatively niche interests like folk music and tennis are extensively documented.
The bigger issue with commercial journalism is that editors are selected in part for their alignment with the publisher’s own predilections: Rupert Murdoch doesn’t appoint a raging environmentalist or a famed BBC apologist as editor of The Sun. This reality was captured nicely in the 1986-1988 TV series Hot Metal, which had the newspaper’s publisher and its owner played by the same actor (Robert Hardy). Even if you can be a nice, neutral, objective reporter – that is, a robot – you are subject to the editor’s bugaboos, which are in turn ultimately approved by the publisher, directly or indirectly. This situation is not so different from that of any of those new places journalism is popping up, provided that these organisations are honest and transparent about the evidence they present.
Some examples. Five or six years ago, the advocacy and research group Privacy International produced a tranche of material it called Big Brother Incorporated, which showed that Western companies were selling surveillance equipment to countries with repressive governments. The media widely reported the results. Eric King, who did the work to assemble this material, did it the old-fashioned journalistic way: he went to trade shows, read annual reports, and noted what these companies told their shareholders and customers. Just like any investigative journalist would do. In academia, University of Pennsylvania professor Lisa Servon spent four months working in several US financial service companies aimed at the struggling poor: payday lenders and check cashing operations. Based on that work, Servon concluded that poor people don’t use these services because they’re too dumb to use banks, but make rational decisions in a bad situation that is partly caused by banks failing to serve them. This work is a direct descendant of that of author Barbara Ehrenreich, who has frequently adopted similar techniques.
The big difference is one of funding, and there sources matter. A newspaper stays in business by pleasing its readers and advertisers, and in many places these have been diverse enough groups to keep the paper at least somewhat honest (though this is certainly not a universal truth: stories of newspapers caving to significant advertisers or local political heavyweights are legion). These days, as people sort themselves to consume the media whose views they share, it’s less safe to rely on this: see for example Fox News, President Donald J. Trump’s favoured means of informing himself about the world. NGOs, think tanks, et. al have fewer funding sources, and those sources therefore have much greater say about what gets done. Academics can exercise a certain amount of disinterested freedom, especially once they have tenure. NGOs form around a commitment to a specified range of topics and viewpoints; the best-balanced are those with paying members and substantial public donations that can blunt any one funder’s disapproval. Think tanks are at the mercy of their funders.
Recently, Google was widely accused of pressuring the New America think tank into dumping its Open Markets research project after group leader Barry Lynn posted mild approval of the EU’s decision to fine Google $2.7 billion. The New York Times got the story: Google and its chair, Eric Schmidt, had individually and severally dispensed $21 million to fund New America. Widespread outrage: *Bad* Google for pressuring these people! Weirdly, somehow New America’s director, Anne-Marie Slaughter, has escaped without criticism for allowing her think tank to become so dependent on a single source of funding that she and other staff could view Lynn’s statement as an existential threat. I’ve been a freelance writer for nearly 30 years, and I know: you spread your risk. This particular think tank, therefore, is now tainted for the foreseeable future. But not all think tanks at all times on all subjects, and even tainted think tanks will have sound researchers (who may well end up going elsewhere).
What journalists lose when they work in these situations is not the opportunity to be impartial. It’s the opportunity to be published in a mass medium that everyone reads. This, I think, is why so many journalists think the old model was better. We want the attention.