Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Decline of Journalism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay entitled “The Decline of the English Murder”, describing changes in English society after World War II. The article begins by describing a typical English Sunday evening at home, where the family gathers in the living room in front of the stove to eat a Sunday roast, followed by a dish of suet pudding and a cup of tea. The wife is asleep in an armchair, while the children have gone outside for a long walk. As for the father, he is quietly smoking his pipe whilst browsing through “The News of the World”, a newspaper full of investigative reports and news, alongside gossip and social scandals. The warm atmosphere and fragrant smoke prompt the father to look for “murder” stories, as they are the most interesting. Orwell goes on to point out that stories of murder in the English press before the war were full of emotion and human details; they were profound in terms of their emotional stock. Behind every murder there was a story of contrasting emotions, it was not merely the cold crime of murder as told by the press after the war. Some critics commented on Orwell’s article in later years, pointing out that Orwell was in fact mourning the press more than he was lamenting the demise of murder stories with an emotional element. For Orwell, the press had lost its morals and no longer conveyed feelings and emotions behind the news.

Last Sunday “The News of the World” closed after 168 years in circulation, as a result of a moral scandal that rocked British society and media circles in particular. The most read and widely distributed newspaper in the United Kingdom had been spying on dozens of celebrities, and even ordinary citizens, with the total number of cases reaching over 4,000. Faced with this momentous scandal, the newspaper’s publisher Rupert Murdoch – in an unprecedented step – decided to close it down. It was a move that surprised many, especially in the field of journalism, despite the resentment and condemnation the newspaper received in the British press. The closure created tension between the business world and journalists, the latter of which felt relief for their profession, commercially and ethically speaking. Ultimately the scandal was bigger than the capacity of the newspaper, so the decision to close it was the difficult last resort. Yet despite all this, the closure of the News of the World was not only due to the moral scandal, but because the newspaper “was no longer a cash cow”, according to the veteran English journalist Ann Leslie.

For more than a decade the printed press has suffered a decline in distribution and advertising. In the beginning the magazines were the worst affected, where satellite broadcasting and the internet became more favorable arenas to discuss the news. Then newspapers opted to provide investigative journalism pieces to compete with weekly and monthly magazines, and as time went by the major international journals declined, or closed down, with the exception of specialists such as “The Economist”. With the proliferation of mobile phones capable of taking photographs, thus creating a parallel media of citizen journalists, major press organizations felt compelled to offer their products free of charge to the public, who were now spending more time on social networking sites on the internet, and away from traditional media.

These are extremely tough days not only for the print media, but also for the online press, where we find articles and subjects being transferred to hundreds of other websites without regards for copyright, and at a high cost to the industry. Furthermore, some people – especially bloggers – now argue that the era of the traditional media is close to extinction, as the reader no longer accepts the control and restrictions imposed upon him by the directors of media institutions and their editors, rather they want the press not to be subject to the tastes and views of the publisher or editor.

The Economist magazine devoted its latest issue (9th July) to discussing the future of the publishing industry, which is witnessing a significant decline in size and revenues around the world, in the absence of an alternative business model to the triumvirate of subscriptions, distribution and advertising. Currently, the industry is divided between two directions: one of them calls to place journalistic material behind a pay wall and limit it only to subscribers, and the other is counting on increasing the number of readers through modern means of communication (websites, mobile phones and handheld devices), in the belief that digital advertising will gradually replace print advertising.

The sad conclusion reached by the Economist, through its review of publishing industry figures, is that the revenues from print media are dramatically in decline, causing a reluctance to invest in the industry, whilst revenues from digital media are still modest in terms of quantity and quality.

Larry Kilman of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) says that the crisis of newspapers around the world is “not a question of audience, but a question of income”. There are of course those who disagree with that, believing that the press is not only threatened commercially, but the news industry itself is being challenged by millions on the internet who can produce news items themselves. Take the Green Movement in Iran in 2009 for example, which journalists were unable to cover. Thousands of social activists dealt with the events on Facebook and Twitter, or through disclosing information to WikiLeaks, which the newspapers could only view after it had become available to readers, without the intervention of an editor or a censor. As for the Arab uprisings, they emerged and gained momentum in the virtual arena, leaving the traditional media behind, or on a par in the best of cases. The man who first exposed the story of the assassination of Osama bin Laden was an ordinary individual who broadcasted the news via Twitter, even before the media realized the truth of what had happened.

Here the challenge between traditional and new media has become clear. Even news channels on satellite television are losing millions of viewers for many reasons, most notably because of the quantitative explosion in the number of channels that arise every day, or through the internet which now attracts news channel viewers. The matter has reached the stage whereby the newsroom in the traditional media (print and television) has shrunk by 30 percent compared to what it was in 2000 (Pew Research Center statistics, 14th March). Years ago, Othman Al-Omair, the Saudi journalist and publisher, said that “the printed press is dying”. Yet it seems that the news industry on the whole is beginning to decline, whether on paper, online, or on screen. There is a simple example to explain this crisis; some Arab bloggers on Twitter and Facebook have twice as many followers as some prestigious newspapers and news channels. Indeed, some of the most important issues raised over the last year were done so through activists on the internet, and not through the traditional press.

On the other hand, practicing journalists argue that the media, in its traditional form, has professional rules and responsibilities which do not exist in alternative media, where many individuals operate under fake names, not bound by any legal or moral responsibility towards the public. They argue that most of what is posted on the internet and social networking websites is nothing but a repetition and re-hash of what was first published or broadcasted in the traditional media. It is suffice here to consider the story of the man who posed online as a Syrian lesbian, arrested during the recent oppression against the popular uprising in Syria.

In their important book “The Life and Death of American Journalism” (2010), Robert McChesney and John Nichols argue that the “death of journalism” is not a new story. When television first emerged it was said that it would replace reading, and many pointed to the decline in photographic magazines – such as Life magazine. But the fact is that the free, written word is still more valuable than speech, and the real problem lies in the changing patterns of readers and their tastes, in a way that has never been seen before. Even television and the internet have begun to suffer from the same problem. For example, expensive television series have been challenged by cheaper “reality” television, which does not require professional actors or writers. Furthermore, social networking sites such as “MySpace”, which was once sold for a half a billion dollars, is now worth only US$35 million after its users abandoned it. The same thing might happen to websites such as Facebook and Twitter, in the event of a new competitor with a new idea.

Orwell warned of a decline in public taste after the war, but what would he write these days, if he witnessed the rapid change towards modern means of communication? Journalism has in fact been killed twice over: firstly through the reluctance of readers to opt for sincere content, and secondly when journalism abandoned its composure and credibility, and drifted behind the volatile mood of the average reader, rather than targeting a serious readership.