Has the excessive commercialism, the focus on ‘tittle-tattle’ and celebrities, and slashing of newsroom staffing for profit put paid (pardon the pun) to the corporate model?
Does the ongoing focus on ‘monetizing’ the new media technologies for the bottom-line benefits of corporations and executives and boards undermine the actual function of journalism in a democracy?
The overarching theme at the conference on ‘media co-operatives’ held today, May 21st, 2011, at Goldsmiths College, University of London, was the need to re-connect journalism and democracy.
While there is much to lament about the state of journalism, alternatives to corporate models of ownership of the media were being discussed as a possible solution to the commercial, for-profit corporate model that has been eroding journalism’s integrity and its historic contribution to speak ‘truth to power’.
The promise of co-operatives or mutuals is that they offer the possibility of re-connecting media and journalists with communities and locales. It is not that they don’t seek profit, but that the profits are either invested back into the (media) co-op itself and/or shared so that less is required of the members themselves.
In the cases of media co-ops and journalism generally is the question of how to pay for ‘investigative journalism’ (which has suffered at the hands of corporate media – the most obvious flaw of the ‘bottom-line media’) and how can journalists and others get paid to do an important professional job.
In addition to this key theme of co-ops or mutualisation, for which there was a practical presentation on the ins-and-outs of setting up and running co-ops, charities or community-interest companies. This presentation by Rosamund McCarthy and Stephen Lloyd gave the audience a lot to think about as the way forward for creating a model for community media that can ensure a vibrant, honest, ethical journalism for an open, transparent democracy.
They were joined by Ash Poddar of ‘Fresh Ties’ ()(based in Wales) which operates ‘The Fresh Outlook’ online newspaper which employs 10 paid journalists and 5 internships (if I heard that correctly?!). It has a clean look and draws upon the contributions (including unpaid ones) from high school and undergraduate journalists.
In addition, there were members of the ‘Port Talbot Magnet’ ()(also in Wales), who were talking about how they had filled a need particularly when the local weekly finally stopped publishing in 2009 (although it was being prepared miles away in another community for a few years prior to that), which left Port Talbot with only paid for free sheets from local business or the council and a couple of pages once a week in a paper out of Swansea.
It is about returning the local news media to the community.
Another example of local media, was eastlondonlines (), a local website that draws upon the energies and enthusiasms of student journalists to help redress the declining coverage from ‘local’ news, which Angela Phillips of Dept of Media and Communications, has been involved in setting up and running.
Natalie Fenton, also of the Department, spoke of a study of four locales and their needs for local news coverage, offering what appears to be a very high degree of desire of local communities for local coverage (interestingly, when the commercial corporate media are always telling us that they merely provide what people want, why do studies tell us that people are generally dissatisfied with local news coverage?).
People with experience and expertise in the Co-operative movement, such as Dave Boyle, Chief Executive of Supporters Direct (looking to ‘bring mutual and co-operative structures to football clubs’), Sion Whellens of Calverts workers’ co-op (since 1977) and Co-operatives UK, gave a fascinating and engaging talk about co-ops, including from the perspective of the worker (Sion Whellens). Too often, that perspective is lost in favour of consumers.
(I always thought of discussions of co-ops and mutuals as a wee bit dry, but good for you!! Like cod liver oil!! Dave and Sion were certainly engaging and funny – wonderful for giving up a Saturday for a conference!!)
Granville Williams of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) spoke about some of the recent developments that highlight the dire situation of journalism. But, it was clear that it is not just the commercial entities that are a problem, but that, at least according to a number of participants, public service itself needs to be re-defined.
‘Democracy relies upon reliable and pertinent information’, argued Dan Hind, author of ‘The Return of the Public’ (‘winner of this year’s Bristol Festival of Ideas prize’). He also reminded us that there isn’t a ‘golden age’ to return to because the post-war US governments studied the BBC (and the British Empire) as a model for global domination.
Dan also reminded us that when we’re thinking about what we might be doing with as professional and/or citizen journalists in this new media environment, the old models of newspaper, book and broadcasting, were all reliant on ‘scarcity’ (of paper – rationing at the end of WWII; of information and sources; of airwaves). In this age, there is not only an abundance of information (an ‘excess’ as one person reminded us), even if it is not a plurality of outlets, but also an abundance of sources, especially as formerly ‘anonymous sources’ are now blogging.
Finally, Dan reminded us that experts are still essential to news production.
Indeed, it was Aidan White’s contribution that was forceful and persuasive. Aidan was the General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists for 24 years until April 2011. He argued that we need to re-define public service and invest in building new infrastructures because clearly the old models were not working. Just as the corporate media cannot claim to be giving us the journalism we need for an open democracy, neither can we say that funding models have benefitted the people with public service broadcasters as they are presently set-up. Subsidies have always been a part of both models: Aidan pointed out that even in the USA, private, for-profit media will get about $1 billion (e.g. special postal rates, tax breaks). Statutory and voluntary modes of governing media have not been working. We need a new architecture, he argues.
What we are really faced with is a political struggle. That is, we have to struggle to re-define the terms of the debate and with the Con-Dem Coalition working on a new communications bill when the government is clearly interested in just giving the corporate sector what they want.
(Ps. I’m still a wee bit of a techno-peasant, and I am learning this the hard way. So, I have tried to put in the links but this wordpress programme or something is denying my efforts. Please search for any of the outlets mentioned here. My apologies!!)