The press and the intangible

All over the world, with few exceptions, newspapers are caught up in a storm of change, and we cannot guess how many will survive or what they will look like. This is the greatest blow to the power of newspapers since radio and television broke their monopoly on mass communications. But even as everything changes, what remains stable is the public’s need for thorough and balanced information and honest analysis, so that each reader can be armed with the knowledge necessary for coping with the problems of the time. It is this need which guarantees that however much newspapers change they will survive in some form as organizations that gather news, analyse it and distribute it. It is particularly noteworthy that the majority of nominees for excellence in online journalism in the United States this year were from the so-called «mainstream media,» including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC and CNN. A worldwide debate is focusing on the problems confronting the press (our term for traditional news-gathering and distributing organizations that publish newspapers). But though many new ideas are being employed, there is no guarantee that they will help newspapers ride the storm. The irony is that the pandemonium of new media has made the role of traditional journalism more important at precisely the moment that it is under the greatest pressure. The roots of the problem are many. Some are related to technological developments and the creation of new, cheap methods to distribute news, ideas and services (including advertising). Others stem from an intensification of the ongoing tension between the news media (and their owners) and political and business interests. But the biggest danger arises from the fact that newspapers are incredibly expensive to produce, due mainly to the necessary expertise of specialist journalists but also because of the cost of printing and distributing a real, tangible product. At the same time, new and cheaper media, such as websites and free newspapers, are drawing away greater numbers of readers and advertisers. There seems little hope of stemming this exodus, prompting newspapers to seek ways to exploit their strengths in precisely these new fields – all of which means that the form of newspapers will change, even if their content manages to remain recognizable. This last issue is related to the thorny problem of who owns the press – whether ownership belongs to individuals, to listed companies or even to political parties or governments. Whatever the form of ownership, each medium claims that it exists only to serve the interests of its audience. And whereas no news medium will have credibility if it has no readers (or listeners or viewers) and therefore no circulation and advertising income, it is clear also that it serves the interests of its owners, who will keep it alive indefinitely only if it remains profitable. In the United States, whose press remains a beacon for the rest of the world, we recently saw two instances that highlight how much pressure newspapers face. President George W. Bush’s furious reaction (and the attendant hyperbole of right-wing commentators and Republican legislators) to the revelation by The New York Times and Los Angeles Times that US law enforcement officials were able to track all bank account movements in Europe with the help of a European firm showed that gone are the days when newspapers were expected to publish and be damned. Even in the country where their rights are traditionally the strongest. In the face of such challenges, the only way for papers to remain independent and credible is to be assured of their economic viability. But another story from the United States shows how difficult things have become. The Knight Ridder newspaper group, which until a few months ago was the second largest in the US with 32 titles, was sold and dismembered. It ceased to exist simply because some shareholders wanted a greater return on their investment than the group’s profits allowed. For all these reasons, perhaps the «happiest» papers are those like the Guardian in Britain which belong to trusts and can be supported by infusions of cash. In the past, monasteries were endowed with large tracts of land so that they might have the incomes which would allow their monks and nuns to devote themselves to the incorporeal world and to serving the needs of their communities. Similarly, so that the serious press might continue with its own indispensable task of reporting, uncovering and illuminating our world, perhaps the only way for it to remain independent and effective is for it to slip the bonds of the market.