Saturday, May 06, 2006

John Lloyd - Press in flux - Financial Times

Financial Times - Press in flux
By John Lloyd
>Published: May 6 2006 03:00 | Last updated: May 6 2006 03:00

It's fashionable to say that nobody knows what will happen to the media, and it's also mainly true. So many changes are coming so rapidly - and this is the year in which many of these changes are at their tipping point - that it's hard to know which will do what to whom when. So the following confident predictions are a work-in- progress.

One. Media have until recently been mostly one-way: they are now two-way. This is the Change of Changes. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found last year that 57 per cent of US adolescents uploaded content on to the net - as well as downloading it. Some of this stuff may have an audience of two, some more like 2,000. This means that one-way media - news, entertainment, political messages - have to be (a) attention grabbing to a much higher standard than before and (b) open to correction, heckling and reworking.

Two. Suppression of this new creative input will not work, unless it's totalitarian. It's the Mikhail Gorbachev moment for authorities in non-democratic states. Gorbachev introduced some liberalisations, then found he was being swept away by the powers he had unleashed. To stop them, he would have had to be a murderous dictator, which he wasn't. So it is with present-day regimes, Communist or just authoritarian. The internet looks like people glued to screens, pecking at keyboards. But it's also human freedom and can't be stopped except by a lot of force.

Three. Newspapers are not doomed, except as we know them. They are beginning to carve out existences as hybrids; like cars that run on electricity and petrol, newspapers will run on a mixture of paper and electrons. The problem is finding a way of paying for expensive-to-gather, reliable news, and that may increasingly be through the public purse or not-for-profit corporations. In the US, foundations such as Carnegie, Poynter, Ford and Pew are paying for documentaries, foreign affairs programmes and investigative journalism: in Europe, it's the public, via the public broadcasters (see four).

Four. Current affairs as experienced by those older than 30 is dying. Good Night, and Good Luck, a beautifully crafted but empty film about Edward R. Murrow's programmes that helped to deliver the coup de grace to Senator Joseph McCarthy, unwittingly highlighted the problem. George Clooney, the director, saw current affairs as a white knight, rescuing societies in distress. But current affairs is supposed to give an objective account of the world to citizens of all beliefs: and beliefs vary according to societies' distresses (see five).

Five. The grand television-state bargain is also dying. The bargain was this: the state gave corporations the right to use part of the electro-magnetic spectrum, a right which made many of them rich. In return, they had to broadcast a certain amount of news, current affairs, arts, religious and other programmes which took up slots that could have been used by much more profitable programmes. The news and current affairs programmes had a duty to be balanced, objective and politically neutral. Digital and satellite channels ruin that bargain, and so do channels such as Fox in the US and the Qatar-based al-Jazeera, both available almost everywhere, and often "illegal" because they are biased. Current affairs, and even news, will become openly opinionated: objective and balanced news will have to prove its market worth.

Six. Many media people will go - as middlemen are going everywhere. The news media have been conduits between public figures, institutions, events and conflicts, and the public or their audience. But increasingly, public figures will bypass the media. Legislators are setting up websites and blogs, and the venerable institution of "the lobby", where political journalists are briefed twice a day by the prime minister's spokesman, is now regarded by communications experts as a waste of time when the same messages can go out unmediated.

Seven. There will be more sleaze, gossip and intrusion into private lives. The market for scandal is huge, and no amount of disgust over its rank injustice, hypocrisy and psychic damage will stop it. Public figures, especially politicians, will be judged at least as much on what is revealed about their private lives as on their public behaviour; indeed, most people know more about scandalous politicians' sexual "romps" than they do about their policies. Policies are for wonks. Romps are for the masses.

Eight. Books will not die, though bookshops and bookshelves may. Why go to a shop when you can order online? Only one reason: because the bookshop is a nice place. And if technology allows you to download War and Peace or Bleak House on to a piece of electronic parchment, who needs these dusty shelves - except sad people who still think books furnish a room?

Nine. The web is clearly democratic, in that it allows tens of millions to get into new policy conversations, be creative and get in touch with others for anything from swapping stamps to swapping partners. But it also has less benign possibilities: authorities that don't want to submit to election (the Communist Party of China comes to mind) probably see in the internet a means of electronic populism. They constantly put out issues for response, votes and discussion, but in doing so keep control and keep regime-changing votes at bay.

Ten. This column started by saying it was a work-in-progress. That too is a Change of Changes. Modern media produce far more works-in- progress than before. Segolene Royal, the French politician who may emerge as the left's candidate for the presidency, is writing a book of political beliefs as a blog: she puts finished sections on the web, invites reaction, incorporates it into the next version, and so on. This kind of activity explicitly says: nothing is final.


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