Here, surely, is a landmark in journalism.The major international paper Le Monde Diplomatique, which operates under the umbrella of the famous French daily Le Monde, has issued a direct appeal for help from its readers – while admitting the faults of the media, and the legitimate reasons for cynicism about  journalists and media proprietors who see technological innovation only as a threat to their privileged positions.

This article is a landmark for a number of reasons. First, it is a cogent admission of the faults of big media. I am not sure I have ever seen a prestigious publication make such a frank admission of weakness.

In Australia our mainstream newspapers are still in the business of trumpeting their circulation and readership figures even when that takes some mental gymnastics. Here is someting different – an admission that the paper is in trouble, an admission of fault, yet a strong assertion that  journalists have a claim on readers’ support. Thanks to Peter Smith for bringing this piece to my attention.

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Reading this has played in to some thinking I have been doing over the last few weeks about journalists’ attitudes to new media innovation. I think there is a schism emerging in our profession. It is between those who recognise that innovation is necessary, but see it as being primarily about finding ways to keep on doing what we have always done. This group tends to sneer a lot about bloggers and Citizen Journalists.

And on the other side, there are those who would assert that journalism itself needs to change – that we will never go back to doing what we used to do, that we will never again have privileged access to the means of publication, and that this is a good thing, or at least not entirely a bad thing.

The Le Monde Diplomatique piece asserts a middle position that I think is close to my own. Journalism has had many, many faults, including arrogance, sloppiness and contempt for the readers. Witness the horrors when readers talk back! Yet there are some things about journalism that are vitally important, and must survive. (Read the article for the list). Our approach to new media innovation should be about working out the things we need to keep, preserve and migrate to the new media world, and what things we should allow to die, with or without mourning.

I would add that the depth of experimentation necessary to work these things out is very, very difficult for stock market based companies driven by quarterly results. That is one reason why I am involved in other platforms for experimentation.

I like the mix of humility and pride in the Le Monde Diplomatique piece. I think it an appropriate stance for the profession.

Some things I would add are that journalists need to develop some new skills. I think high on the list is the ability to both build and maintain communities of interest around the journalism. That means real audience interaction, and real respect for the audience, who are of course no longer only an audience, but also participants. Humility and willingness to change are essential pre-requisites.

Anyway, the Le Monde piece is a cogent critique of the media, as well as a justification for high quality journalism, and its importance. It is worth reading the whole thing, but  here are some choice snippets:

The internet has not destroyed journalism. It has been stumbling for some time under the weight of restructurings, marketing-driven content, contempt for working class readership, and under the influence of billionaires and advertisers. It wasn’t the internet that propagated the allies’ untruths during the first Gulf war (1991) or Nato’s during the Kosovo conflict or the Pentagon’s during the Iraq war. Nor can we blame the internet for the media’s inability to publicise the collapse of savings banks in the US in 1989 and the collapse of emerging nations eight years later, or to warn of the housing bubble for which we are all still paying the price. So if the press really needs to be saved, public money would be better spent on those who purvey information reliably and independently rather than those 
who just hawk malicious gossip. Those who want to make money from investments or 
from being pens for hire can find resources elsewhere.

Accusations against the internet often reveal more than legitimate concern about the ways in which knowledge is disseminated: the fear that the reign of a few powerful editorial figures is ending. Dispensing favours in a feudal style, they have created their own domains, arranged sinecures and had the power to make and break ministers and reputations. Unanimous approval greeted their projects and opinion columns. Here and there a few irreverent papers held out. But then one day hordes of the unwashed appeared with their laptops.

If the public remains unmoved, it’s in part because they have realised that the talk of freedom of expression is often just a smokescreen for media owners’ interests.“Imagine”, says US academic Robert McChesney, “the federal government had issued an edict demanding that there be a sharp reduction in international journalism, or that local newsrooms be closed or their staffs and budgets slashed. Imagine if the president had issued an order that news media concentrate upon celebrities and trivia, rather than rigorously investigate and pursue scandals and lawbreaking in the White House… Professors of journalism and communication would have gone on hunger strikes… entire universities would have shut down in protest. Yet, when quasi-monopolistic commercial interests effectively do pretty much the same thing, and leave our society as impoverished culturally… it passes with only minor protest in most journalism and communication programmes”.

McChesney asks: “When, exactly, did Americans approve of the idea that a handful of corporations selling advertising were the proper stewards of the media or that it was inappropriate to ever question their power?

But who, besides us, will go on funding general-interest journalism open to the world that can devote a spread to Zambian miners, the Chinese navy or Latvian society? This paper has its faults, but it encourages its writers to travel, to ask questions, to listen and to observe.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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