Whose voices will carry farthest and resonate most in a digital environment? Whom will they be addressing, and what will be the social and political effect? We struggle to answer such questions in the present let alone the future, of course, and James Fallows of The Atlantic once wrote that the only iron law of media bias was that “each side is absolutely convinced that the other has an unfair advantage in getting its views out”. But some observations are worth making.

Traditional news media’s institutional power is waning. Barriers to entry are lower. Competitors are more numerous, consumers more discriminating. Margaret Simons at University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advanced Journalism argues the definitions both of “media organisation” and “journalism” are shifting. “Every organisation in this new world is a ‘media organization’,” she observes. “They all have websites. They all have social media presences. That will continue. The skills involved in running these are journalistic skills.

“We do need to have a discussion about what is journalism and what is strategic marketing. I think the test has to be the integrity of the work. Is the writer free to hunt out the evidence and publish what he finds? If the answer is yes, that’s journalism; if it’s no, it’s something else.”

By this measure, some already do “journalism” better than many journalists. Simons cites the works of Human Rights Watch, whose annual report is stupendously rich in fact and story — the work of writers embedded alongside lawyers with the NGO’s research teams. By contrast, Simons observes, even once-august broadsheets now run what reads as barely reconstructed public relations: “In Saturday’s edition of The Age there was a huge story about the new RMIT building. The only people quoted in it were the architect, who surprisingly thought it was a very good building, and RMIT, which amazingly thought they’d done a very good job. Not a single critical voice. Incredibly lazy.

“That’s what irritates me about the ‘end of days’ argument, the idea that we’re in some perfect state now, that our papers aren’t full of the public relations driven crap every day … The people inside these big industrial media organisations have gotten into the habit of thinking that journalism is ‘what we do here’. They class a piece like that one about the RMIT building as journalism because it appeared in The Age, whereas if it appeared on the City of Melbourne blog or the RMIT website it would just be PR.”

This being so, the greater choice of a digital environment is frankly all the more welcome. Was the public really better informed when the events of all the world had to be squeezed into about 10 pages of broadsheet newsprint/20 pages of tabloid newsprint a day and 13 minutes of television a night? Who could truly wish for a return to when opinion was the prerogative of a small bloviating elite of op-ed columnists and shock jocks? “Whatever the new normal is,” agrees The Australian‘s George Megalogenis, “it is much richer than what we had. Once you globalise your information sources, your individual reader is much better served than he or she was.”

Around the longer-term impacts on democracy, there is greater scope for disagreement. David Marr, late of The Sydney Morning Herald, sees the collapse of a whole culture of contestation and contemplation. “Those big newsrooms performed functions other than the generation of news,” he says. “They were machines for books, forums for big ideas, people where very bright, idiosyncratic people went to think. Now these eccentric and eclectic hothouses are being replaced by what will be factories of journalism.”

John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, sees the collapse of institutions that tended over time to restrict public debate. “At an ideological level and a personal level, I’m very positive about technology,” he says. “For a free market think tank, there is much more scope for getting our ideas into popular debate. Marginal cost is zero. We can reach 23,000 people at the press of a button … The media once mediated the public space. But I am relaxed about the end of that mediation, because I would say that by and large that mediation was in one philosophical direction. And whether we need the public space mediation I am not sure.”

“We’re louder, more shouty, because it’s not a closed shop any more and it makes politicians the noisier too.”

Needless to say, there is a lot of guessing going on. It’s been argued, for instance, that a digital environment, by allowing us to curate our own news streams and thereby to exclude contrary views, will conduce over time to the shoring up of prejudices and enmities. In a widely-quoted essay in Boston Review, which grew into the book Republic.com (2001), legal scholar Cass Sunstein drew attention to the “growing power of consumers” to “filter” news they received and opinions they entertained:

“From the standpoint of democracy, filtering is a mixed blessing. An understanding of the mix will permit us to obtain a better sense of what makes for a well-functioning system of free expression. In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.”

Technological developments have added some force to this argument. Twitter, Facebook and Google, Eli Pariser argues in his new book The Filter Bubble (2012), are ensuring tribes speak only amongst themselves by their “invisible algorithmic editing of the web.” Formerly chief of the ginger group MoveOn, Pariser reveals the hidden biases of such technologies, arguing that:

“… personalisation filters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”

Since December 2009, for example, Google has customised PageRank according to a range of signals, including current location and previous searches: what you get when you type in a word or phrase will be different to what someone else gets. The result, Pariser forecasts darkly, will be “a kind of global lobotomy”.

To a certain extent, of course, something similar has always transpired. Mass media have been better at talking about plurality of views than genuinely offering it. Signing off recently as The New York Times‘ public editor, Arthur Brisbane offered a trenchant critique of its default liberalism:

“Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.  As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”

There is some evidence that newspapers, however small, do correlate positively with civic participation. In a 2009 National Bureau of Economics working paper — Do Newspapers Matter? Short-run and Long-run Evidence from the Closure of The Cincinnati Post — Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido studied the city’s political behaviours after The Cincinnati Enquirer became a monopoly paper five years ago. They reported:

“The next year, fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the Kentucky suburbs most reliant on the Post, incumbents became more likely to win re-election, and voter turnout and campaign spending fell. These changes happened even though the Enquirer at least temporarily increased its coverage of the Post’s former strongholds.”

There’s also support for a countervailing view that those informed by the internet range more widely and read more omnivorously than those reliant simply on print, because they now can. In a 2010 NBER working paper — Ideological Segregation Online and Offline — Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro concluded that “ideological segregation of online news consumption” was “low in absolute terms”, and that internet users tended to allocate the bulk of their online time to large sites with politically integrated audiences. Here may be the outline of a future audience: busier seeking out information, idler responding to it. As yet it is impossible to be sure.

Certainly, in an ever-expanding online agora of journalism, public relations, advertising and axe-grinding, it is growing harder to make oneself heard. “We’re louder, more shouty, because it’s not a closed shop any more and it makes politicians the noisier too,” says the ABC’s Annabel Crabb. “It used to be that they could say something once a week in their inside voices and it would make an impact. It used to be quite significant for a minister to give an interview, to PM or to Insiders, and people would listen, because the minister would usually have something to say. But because there’s been a great proliferation of opportunities and space to fill, vast expanses of hours needing to be stuffed with content, and plenty of backbenchers wanting to get ‘good at media’, you’ve got politicians on air all day every day.

“Which has a two-fold effect: firstly, it decreases the expectation they’ll say anything of interest; secondly, it occupies their time with saying nothing at all. Which is kind of hilarious and tragic, and would be an outrage if it wasn’t us doing the asking.”

Again, effects are mixed.  In theory, more voices now have a chance to be heard. “There has never been a better time to be an underresourced person with cogent ideas to win an audience,” says Crabb. In practice, certain existing voices have advanced their reverberation by accessing multiple platforms. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy complains, for instance, of a stealth Sydneyfication of Australian media. “What creates the national discourse at the moment is really just a handful of people,” he says. “[2GB’s Alan] Jones will kick it off by reading out The Daily Telegraph or Australian front pages. [2GB’s Ray] Hadley and [3AW’s Neil] Mitchell will keep it going. Hadley will go on the Today show. Mitchell will cross into Sunrise. There’s an ever smaller circle of opinion formers and, Mitchell aside, they’re all living in Sydney, all cross-promoting, and all shouting louder. So we’re getting a more Sydney-centric discourse taking place. And that’s not good for the rest of the country.”


Conroy’s Labor colleague Andrew Leigh, member for Fraser, argues the digital environment is accentuating another division — the division between information wealth and information poverty. The naturally included, those who revel in the cut and thrust of politics and policy, are spoiled for choice; the alienated and disaffected are growing more so. “What’s happening is that there is a positive effect on an engaged public and a negative effect on a disengaged public,” he says. “It’s much the same as when the motor car replaced the horse, in the sense that those who were worse off were those at the bottom end of the economic scale, those who tended, rode horses, and cleaned up after horses, and those who were better off were those who could afford a car and were therefore able to commute faster and more easily.”

Leigh points to the 6.8% of voters who failed to cast a ballot, and the 5.5% who voted informal: “That’s over 12% of the electorate who didn’t participate in the democratic process. I believe that changes in the media are one of the factors making this group of Australians more disconnected from politics.”

If Leigh is here using the word “politics” as a synonym for Australian party politics when they are scarcely the same, he certainly hints at a problem for progressive parties in general: that the digital environment is one to which anti-government messages have always seemed especially well attuned. Traditional media has often scorned and ridiculed politicians, but ultimately been restrained by the need to maintain access; new media knows no such inhibitions, while the internet’s greatest absolutists thrive on a fierce belief in individual agency, plus a tireless hostility to regulation and taxation.

Locally this is obscured somewhat by the observable reality that Australia’s blogosphere tends left. Identifiably conservative or libertarian blogs accounted for only 27% of those included in Greg Jericho’s survey for The Rise of the Fifth Estate (2012). Jericho observes, however, that British blogs appear to tend right, leading him to conclude that blogging is a reactive and oppositional activity, a response to 11 years of Coalition rule in Australia and 16 years of New Labour in the UK. In  reform-fatigued and financially-straitened electorates, the proposition that politicians are merely self-interested actors clambering over one another to get elected has enviable cut-through. And for believers in an all-powerful, all-encompassing, infallible, incontrovertible market, the collapse of the traditional news media already represents a kind of triumph over perceived pinko gatekeepers.

In The Death and Life of American Journalism (2010), Robert McChesney and John Nichols observe that Americans are curiously sanguine about accepting as a market outcome something against which they would rebel were it a state diktat:

“Imagine, for one moment, what would happened if the federal government issued an edict demanding that there be a sharp reduction in international journalism, that leading newspapers be shuttered, that statehouse bureaus be closed and that local newsrooms have their staffs and budgets slashed. Imagine, too, that the President issued an order that Washington bureaus be closed, and that news media concentrate upon celebrities and trivia, rather than investigate the economic crisis or rigorously pursue corruption in federal agencies. Had all that occurred, these official actions would have sparked an outcry that made Watergate look like a day at the beach. Yet, when quasi-monopolistic commercial interests effectively do pretty much the same thing, and leave our society as impoverished culturally as if it had been the result of a government fiat, it is met mostly with resignation.”

“The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we’ve actually reached some sort of equilibrium.”

Votaries of the free market, however, should probably be a little circumspect in what they wish for. For all its aptitude for cosying up to power, the fourth estate has been a potential bulwark against government’s tendency to arrogate power to itself; it is not clear that the fifth estate, for all the optimism about its inclusivity and accessibility, can do the same. In testimony to a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation just over three years ago, David Simon, now best known as creator of The Wire but formerly a reporter with The Baltimore Sun, prophesied a dark ages in political accountability:

“The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we’ve actually reached some sort of equilibrium. You know, the next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician, all right?”

It is already a fine time to be a mediocre and incompetent politician in Australia, thanks to the depopulation of state rounds bureaux round the country and the prodigious growth of government media units. The market participants most advantaged by the faltering of established for-profit media, meanwhile, are also those that are state-owned: national broadcasters, government-owned news agencies, official publications. It is strange that the political right should be so anxious to preserve an entitlement to free speech yet so indifferent to a potential dwindling in the availability of free fact. After all, as Hannah Arendt observed: “Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed.”

It’s likely that in ensuing years all the foregoing effects will be felt, probably without any one of them being sufficient to amount to a secular shift. But in the meantime, there will be a lot to learn, and much to be done for the first time. ninemsn‘s Hal Crawford was uplifted by a recent visit to The New York Times — not because the people there were so scary-smart, but because they seemed as lost as everyone: “It was fascinating because they work in this amazing building, and because they really have no idea — to me that was inspiring. Sometimes it’s nice to see other people screw up. The much-vaunted New York Times … The stuff I take for granted about how news has to operate in a digital environment had not penetrated; in fact, it’s better understood here than there. We were talking to their digital guys and asking about their metrics and they didn’t know what we were talking about. I asked one guy how he knew whether he’d done a good job, and he said: ‘Because my editor doesn’t kick my arse’.”

Dedicated followers of fashion, journalists might even have to lead for a change, decide now they can no longer undertake everything that they really need to stand for something, choose now that is difficult to make money from their craft that it might need to be done for other reasons. “What we really need is the journalist as good citizen,” says ex-ABC investigative journalist Chris Masters. “Rather than thinking purely of the public interest, what should motivate us is the public good; occasionally that might mean making the public angry.” Back in 1961, a bold young entrepreneur espoused sentiments that seem apt for these times also:

“Unless we can return to principles of public service, we will lose our claim to be the fourth estate. What right have we to speak in the public interest when, too often, we are motivated by personal gain.”

A wise man, that Rupert Murdoch.

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Peter Fray

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