Has new media reinvigorated democracy or throttled good journalism, asks Dr Natalie Fenton in her forthcoming book ‘New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in a Digital Age’.
And her answer? Well, the clue is in the title.
The book is not quite a pessimist’s charter, but nor does it side with the ‘utopian vision [of] everyone connected to everyone else, a non-hierarchical network of voices with equal, open and global access.’
Fenton and her team of researchers at Goldsmiths make two key observations. Firstly, that the mechanics of the journalist’s trade is suffering because of the desk-bound demands of new media – ‘iron cages’, they call them.
Secondly, new media rarely means new voices on the national stage because the ‘economics of news remains stacked against the newcomer’.
Fenton was on Radio 4’s The Media Show on Wednesday last week to expand on her thinking. Of the new media newsrooms her team studied in detail (BBC, The Guardian and the Manchester Evening News), she said:
“What you get is a vastly speeded up news environment, a huge expansion in space to fill but actually with less journalists with less time to do proper investigative journalism.
“There was a big concentration in ‘cut and paste’, administrative, desk-bound journalism largely because these journalists have to fill a vast amount of space, have no time to do it in. So what they do, is they either take PR copy or they take copy from other newsprint or other news broadcasts. So it’s a sort of creative cannibalisation.”
Clear echoes of Nick Davies and Flat Earth News here.
She was asked about the power of social networks to influence the news agenda. On the Jan Moir saga she said:
“[You] have to take account of who is saying what to whom. The who is actually a very small amount of people. Ten per cent of people who Twitter account for 90 per cent of the content.
“That 10 per cent is an elite. They are the likes of Stephen Fry with a celebrity status who can generate these millions of followers and therefore bring attention to a particular issue. Most people who are tweeting do not have that power.”
On the Twitter campaign against the Trafigura super-injunction, meanwhile, Fenton conceded that this was a good example of institutions being held to account:
“But on the whole what they are still doing is responding to agendas that are set by the mainstream news.
“You still have to remember that most people, most of the time get most of their news and information from mainstream news sources whether that’s online or not. So what’s going on in the mainstream is vitally important.”
A well-worked argument, forcefully put. But on elites and news agendas it rather depends where you look.
If you study established players like the BBC, the Guardian, and, yes, a venerable regional like the Manchester Evening News, you are likely to find established forms of interaction.
It’s true that many social media campaigns either take up a mainstream media cause – think Trafigura – or need the mainstream to mediate – think the secret filming of Alan Duncan.
Nevertheless, there are many other campaigns and activities below the radar that provide effective examples of reinvigorating democracy.
In this respect, think hyperlocal. Indeed one of the leading practitioners of the form, Will Perrin, took me to task for applying big media assumptions to ultra-local coverage. He wrote:
“Hyperlocal content is best looked at bottom up, generated not by an abstract, detached journalist, but by people on the ground who it affects. Seen from that angle the trad top down issues fall away – grassroots hyperlocal content is defined by its own creation.”
Again, it depends where you look. As with Davies’ widely acclaimed book, the research methodology might just point to a structural weaknesses.
(You can listen to the interview on the iPlayer. starts around 23 mins.)
Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News and was recently appointed as deputy editor of New Statesman. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at this link.