Future of Journalism conference plenary speaker Robert W McChesney

The Future of Journalism conference (day 2) Plenary speaker was Robert W McChesney, Gutgsell Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
He had some l issues with the points made by the previous day’s Emily Bell. His talk was lively and authorative but, while he might have considered Emily as one-eyed over the futrue of journalism, I think he was too.
So, these are my notes of his session: 
1. The Guardian operation is not representative
The Guardian is a non profit organisation – take that and the other publicly funded media in this country out of the equation and there is not a whole lot left.
“If you don’t have funding then it is not journalism. I don’t know what it is. The world is filled with young peple who want to do journalism and there is no lack of talent or enthusiasm but there is a lack of support and funding. That is where I disagree with Emily Bell.”
He also warned there was nothing on the horizon to suggest the labour Market in the US was going to improve and the critical situation US media found itself in was not going to get better.

2. The future from the past?

Professional journalism in the US at its best had deep flaws and these have grown more pronounced with commercial pressure. There are great journalists and great work being done but you cannot romanticise the professional system; it is so flawed it made it easy for the system to collapse. 
Professional journalism was mandated in the constitution a hundred years ago to protect media owners’ monopoly powers in their local areas.
This crucial period defined journalism. It replaced sensationalism and lack of commitment to accuracy, but it had flaws.
Reliance on people in power set up the range of legitimate debate in a paper; so if a journalist raised an issue outside that they were seen as ideological. 
He have the example of investigative reporting into wars, saying the more certainty you hear about the reasons for US involvement in a conflict “the more it is likely to be bullshit pushed by people in power”.
James Madison, the fourth ppresident of US, was a believer in free press; his argument rested on the schools he received he had as a classical scholar – that Athens and Rome became military empires and it led to their downfall. “Government cannot survive militarism.”
Madison said the people of a country could only stop leaders from militaristic regimes is if they knew about it through a free press.

3. The economy, stupid, and other problems

There has been a huge increase in business news, he said, with newspapers employing multiple business writers and carrying sometimes two business sectinos. 
“Most of this journalism is utterly pathetic”  [and sucks up spin or extols CEOs] “and lets the top one per cent of society control debate on the economy.”
He said journalism had missed entirely the scandals and housing, economy and other bubbles of the economy in recent years, showing there is a crisis in the Journalism industry. 
He added the lack of coverage of the growth of inequality was shocking, given the scale of the problem.
Thomas Jefferson said unless people without property had access to information democracy would not work.
Voting in the US shows the very wealthiest vote in presidential elections – 75%. About 20% of the poorest sections vote.
“Journalism’s role is not to reinforce that but to reverse it and draw people into public life.
Professional journalism does not have to be this way. Reporting what is said accurately is not Journalism. Great journalists do not have different criteria for political parties. That is where we need to point towards.”

5. Funding

Referring to Emily Bell’s “dismissal of public money to support journalism” he described the concept as preposterous – “if all the philanthropists do eveything they can to make it work it will be a piss in the ocean”. It is not enough, he said, adding a young person working for free trying to coax an ad from a micro company would not replace the existing model. 
ournalism is a public good. If all funding was removed from education what would you have? Good education for the wealthy, altruistic projects run by philanthropists, but it would be insufficient.

When advertising came into newspapers 50 -80% of revenue came from advertising and gave the lie that journalism was a profitable business but it was never going to be a sustainable model.
Advertising has always been a mixed blessing and advertisers have much more leverage than ever if you want their money.
“The pressure to compromise is greater  than ever. If you get something for free online you are not the customer, you are the product. And that shapes journalism and it does not shape it favourably.”

6. Does state funding mean state-controlled press?
In the US, $1bn is spent in total on media in a nation of 310m people. If it spent per captia on public media as other nations it would be vastly more – eg. in the UK £25bn. Other countries spend much more on public media. These countries are not police states, the evidence is overwhelming for supporting media.
The five or six countries which have the largest public subsidies of journalism are the countries that are most democratic according to ratings by the Economist – that means the most free press exist in countries which have the most government support; increasing subsidies can lead to more aggressive press towards the government, not less.

Subsidies can work. America needs subsidies to increase money for public and community outlets and competing newsrooms in communities.
And, as part of the exercise, he said: “Let’s take kids out of college for a year and teach them journalism.”

Massive government subsidies were used to indiretly set up free press in the US in the 1700s. The government spend millions ensuring the establishing of a Post Office – the distribution outlet for a newspaper – and subsidising the cost, especially for local newspapers.

If the US today spent the same on subsidising papers today as it did in the 1840s it would cost $35bn plus.

7. The importance of journalism to a nation
You need institutions to protect journalists; people are beginning to accept this. They see there is no other option but subsidies – the debate should be how you make it work, not whether it is right.
The crisis in newspapers is part of the wider US crisis. We are looking at an ecological crisis too. Our political  system is off the rails – “dollarocracy”. Public opinion in the US has not changed much on core government issue since the 1970.  The two political parties, however, have shifted dramatically and there is a huge gap between what people believe and what people in power believe.
The corporate crowds is happy with a journalism free environment.
He warned public broadcasting was in a precarious position and the news media diet of Americans was appalling. “At a  local level it is mind boggling what has happened.”
Working conditions for paid journalists are much worse. The era of the “digital sweatshop” – working for Huffington Post or Yahoo.

The three biggest political scandals in Washington in recent years all came about through three reporters and all three are now unemployed.
“Volunteer dudes” do not expose corruption, he said, adding: “If I’m not getting paid I’m going to cover the basketball game not spent months investigating corruption.”

The future of journalism?

Pew Centre has been researching Baltimore news for the past 25 years to see how many completely original news stories were being done in Baltimore -including tweets – and it is down 70% since 1991. ” There still seems plenty of news and we will always have news but not much journalism.”
Pew looked at what made something news – 86 per cent came from PR or official sources. It is cheap to do, but it is wrong. Ratio of PR people to journalists in the US IN 1960 was 1-1 in 1980 2-1 and now 4-1
A crucial part of PR is to influence the news. “We will have a lot of news but it will be largely propaganda and spin – much of it extraordinary right wing propaganda.”

He finished by warning we don’t have the luxury to wait twenty years for journalism to be saved we need it now. “We always talk as scholars about how democracy needs journalism but you can’t have journalism without democracy. It thrives at it’s best in a democratic society.”
Pessimism is self fulfilling, he said.
In the US we are in a very different place to what we have previously experienced. Scholars are often said to be fighting ‘last year’s war’ and that doesn’t work any more. We are entering terra incognita.

It is an much better resources version of our NPR but the code of journalism it has adopted allows people in power far too much power in what is being discussed.
The solution in the US is that you have to have more than one form of publicly funded media outlet.
His suggestion to fund digital journalism: Give everyone a vouchers to give go any news medium of their choice, and those outlets must put everything in the public domain. Nothing is protected by copyright.
If everyone had a $200 voucher and banded together with others you could hire a reporter to work for you. “Of course a handful would dominate and it would crystallise over the years.”
Digital makes a mockery of the current model. We can’t set up barbed wire and charge people to get in. Let them pay in advance through a system that gives them choice.

And he finished by warning: “Investigative journalism in US now boils down to someone leaking something to a journalist. The people who own our media aren’t keen on pissing off people in power by investigating what they are doing.”

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One thought on “Future of Journalism conference plenary speaker Robert W McChesney

  1. It is interesting that he acknowledges the corrupting power of advertisers and the CEOs who dictate what should appear on the business pages; yet utterly fails to see the risk of the state having the same influence if it was the one spending all the money. Apparently, “evidence” shows that countries which have public funding for journalism are more democratic, but it isn't clear if that is the reason for more democracy. Other things, such as whistleblower protection laws may be far more important.
    The notion that the state will be the best steward of the public interest is one of the dividing lines of modern western political ideology. Frankly, the latest goings-on in America around the debt ceiling have done little to reinforce this position.


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