This is the third instalment of a Croakey series profiling recommended books (previous posts are here and here), and covers titles worth reading about the digital revolution and the changing media landscape.
Dr Mark Bahnisch, a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, reviews the latest book from journalist, academic and Crikey contributor Dr Margaret Simons, Journalism at the Crossroads: Crisis and opportunity for the Press.
The book examines some of the opportunities and threats to civic engagement and democracy arising from the decline of industrial journalism.
In reflecting upon the implications for the health sector, Bahnisch suggests that “conversation, curation and content production” are becoming part of the role of health professionals and organisations.
(And beneath his review are some of Croakey’s suggestions for reading on related topics).
Much food for thought to health professionals and communicators
Dr Mark Bahnisch writes:
In its annual media awards “The Crikeys” post, Crikey encapsulated the state of journalism:
“In 2012 we saw the press shrivel and we finally realised it will no doubt wither. Online media continued to assert itself and social media returned us to the days of mob rule. Establishment media often had no defence against waves of progressive media consumers. Apps collapsed, start-ups folded and paywalls rose and fell.”
It is against this background that former Age journalist, Crikey media commentator and now Director of Melbourne University’s Centre for Advanced Journalism, Dr Margaret Simons, wrote Journalism at the Crossroads: Crisis and opportunity for the Press, recently published by Scribe.
Eschewing the often febrile and apocalyptic tones of polemic which too often haunt conversations on the future of journalism and the media, Simons has produced a carefully argued assessment of the state of play. She is not content to analyse and critique, but also seeks to cultivate seeds of hope.
Taking a cue from the fact that the business model which has supported journalism is irretrievably ended, Simons ponders how curators and fact finders will in future apply their craft, democratically, to contributing to and fostering public spheres of information, debate and discourse.
She is to be commended for her practicality, and willingness to ground her deep love for her profession in discussion and evaluation of alternative paths for the press to take, and in reviewing promising trends and start-ups.
I do have the sense, though, as someone who published one of Australia’s leading public affairs blogs for seven years and who has participated actively in the discourse of the future of the media, that Simons can’t quite let go of the ‘journalist as gatekeeper’ model.
Although she avoids nostalgia, the fact remains that journalism has been one of the few professions which has – up until recently – been relatively immune to the relentless pressures for change and restructuring which are late modernity’s “new normal”. I would have liked to have seen, therefore, a more detailed and lengthy consideration of precisely how journalism educators are responding to a fast changing media sphere, and more crucially, how journalism and the dissemination and curation of conversation is embedded in quite radical shifts in social and cultural habits and behaviours.
In other words, I’d like Simons to have come to grips with two contentions which I think are empirically defensible – the first being that the appetite for policy debate is still a meagre one (as anyone who has compared blog stats on policy and horserace posts knows to their disappointment), and the second being the nature of the public sphere or spheres that she sketches.
Readership figures for some of the start-up experiments she points to, Our Say being a good example, are not strong. Its ethos seems too attached to a broadcast journalism frame and therefore to the elusive notion of a ‘mass public’, something I think Simons herself recognises is no longer a viable fiction.
So, while the idea of election coverage (and thus agendas) driven from below by citizens is an attractive one, it doesn’t really get to grips with the constructed nature of ‘citizen’ publics. To concretise what I am saying here, consider how many questions on the ABC’s Q&A are driven by partisanship, the news cycle, and quite banal patterns of ‘opinion’.
I’m involved at the moment in some work with colleagues at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Social Research in Energy and Resources on social licence to operate and communication around the unconventional gas industries. One thing we’ve been trying to communicate is the mantra “no issue, no public”. That is – it’s wrong to think of public opinion as a pre-existing sphere. It’s rather that particular actors and spheres of interaction call into being debates around particular issues, which are both connected to and iterations of pre-existing patterns of interest, argument and emotion.
To use an analogy from public health, think of the way in which the phrase “nanny state” has been deployed recently, and for that matter, of how public health messages are not passively received but actively or subtly retranslated into people’s lived experience, decision making and social habits. This is a collective process, and one that resists a one-way model of transmission from communicator to public (singular). It might be better, therefore to think of journalism, and journalists, as one link in a series of value chains that shape communication and conversation.
So what does all this imply for health professionals and health communicators? This is something that I’d like to treat at greater length, but there’s definitely great insight in two of Simons’ propositions (as well as much informed food for thought in the rest of her book).
The first is, to adapt a phrase, that we are all journalists now. The second is that almost all organisations are creators of ‘content’ and, to some degree, ‘news’.
The implication of these two propositions is that curation of debate is not an optional extra (and here, though I think it’s rather impractical, I’m impressed by Simons’ interesting idea about embedding journalists in research teams).
I think the scenarios of crisis and opportunity which Journalism at the Crossroads articulates could be further developed on the basis of another important insight: that journalism has succumbed to a process of de-industrialisation. If we think of health professions as also subject to this process – one in which boundaries and functions become more porous and open – we should begin to imagine a world where conversation, curation and content production are things people do as health professionals.
Further to my own argument, we might also start to think of ourselves as participants in and co-creators of many publics – local, national, organisational, professional, civic, networked, interest based, and much more. It’s the circulation of ideas and value through such chains of community that can, and is, providing an opportunity to maintain and deepen hope for informed and dialogic debate and interchange.
While I have some disagreement with some of Simons’ conclusions, I have none with the way in which she has skilfully described and analysed the state of the media, and the opportunities as well as threats to civic engagement and democracy that the decline of industrial journalism creates.
Journalism at the Crossroads is both a must read and an important prompt for further thought and action.
• Dr Mark Bahnisch is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre Medical Education Research and Scholarship, School of Medicine at The University of Queensland. A sociologist, he has for many years been active in social media, in citizen journalism, and in consulting and speaking on the future of journalism and public conversation.
On related topics, Croakey recommends the following:
What Would Google Do? By Jeff Jarvis
By “reverse engineering” the success of Google, Jarvis offers much valuable advice for organisations, businesses and others seeking to engage with the networked era.
I live in the future and here’s how it works: Why your world, work and brain are being creatively disrupted
By Nick Bilton
Bilton looks to the past as well as the future to provide many insights into the “digital metamorphosis” that we are living through.
Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain By Tom Watson & Martin Hickman
A gripping, horrifying read illustrating the maxim that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and the need to hold the fourth estate accountable. (It also gives some wider perspective to The Australian’s ongoing attacks on Margaret Simons, which were described recently by Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes as part of a pattern of bullying of perceived critics).
The Rise of the Fifth Estate By Greg Jericho
Some perspectives on the changing media and political landscape in Australia from a political blogger.
Australian Journalism Today, edited by Matthew Ricketson
This book, covering regulatory, ethical and other challenges for journalism practice during a period of “seismic change”, is largely aimed at journalism students but would also be useful for those with an interest in public health advocacy.
A history of the internet and the digital future, By Johnny Ryan.
In explaining how the internet is changing us in so many profound ways, Ryan says:
“The industrial revolution created a world of centralization and organized hierarchy. Its defining pattern was a single, central dot to which all strands led. But the emerging digital age is different.
“A great adjustment in human affairs is underway. The pattern of political, commercial and cultural life is changing. The defining pattern of the emerging digital age is the absence of the central dot. In its place a mesh of many points is evolving, each linked by webs and networks.”
As well as being about the death of the centre, he says the story of the internet is about the coming power of the networked individual as the new vital unit of effective participation and creativity….
Ryan says: “Three characteristics have asserted themselves throughout the Internet’s history, and will define the digital age to which we must all adjust: these are that the Internet is a centrifugal force, user-driven and open.”
What he means by ‘centrifugal’ force is that the net flattens established hierarchies and shifts out the power – and the responsibility – from the centre.
He says: Understanding what these characteristics mean and how they emerged is the key to making the great adjustment to the new global commons….
Previous related posts
• Recommended reading, part one
• Recommended reading, part two
Declaration: Melissa Sweet is a colleague of Margaret Simons and Matthew Ricketson