Sunday, August 15, 2010

John Nichols on the way forward for journalism

Queensland had its little slice of this year’s Sydney Walkley Media Conference when US journalist John Nichols came to Brisbane on Thursday to talk to local industry workers. Nichols is a political writer for esteemed American periodical The Nation and is also an editor of the Internet-based The Capital Times in his home state of Wisconsin. He has also published several books on journalism most recently co-authoring The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again with Robert McChesney. The thesis of the book is that journalism should be seen as a public good and that the US government should subsidise newspapers and other media outlets to save American journalism.

Nichols spoke to this theme in his talk at the Regatta Hotel on Thursday night which was billed as a “casual conversation”. Nichols was in good form, boisterous and humorous but his tone was far from casual; he had serious matters to discuss about journalism with his Australian audience. He began with his own start in the industry. Aged just 11, he went to the editor of the local paper in Union Grove, CT and told him he had read the Constitution and Tom Paine and asked he be given a job. The editor took him on a whim and and poorly-paid prayer. His big moment came a year later when Democrat heavy and then Vice President Hubert Humphrey came to town during a presidential primary and he submitted to an in-depth interview from the 12-year-old Nichols.

Looking back he said it was a highlight of his career which corresponded with a lowlight in Humphrey’s just before his unsuccessful run against Nixon in the 1968 election. But the grilling the young Nichols gave him was important. Journalists were not stenographers to the Royal Court or there to put a smile on the faces of their interviewees. They were there with a “profound responsibility” to be upsetting and ask difficult questions. Anything else was simply PR not journalism, he said. “Journalism can be obnoxious, challenging and unsettling, as long as it conveys information.”

Nichols quoted from the famous Thomas Jefferson letter to Edward Carrington where he said “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” While this quote is enshrined by newspaper owners such as Murdoch, Nichols reminded us of Jefferson’s other opinion on newspapers as “evil and lying but we’ve got to have them.” Nichols said the way of the world was that the wealthy always triumph over the poor and it is journalism’s job to break that inequality.

Nichols went on to talk about the difficulties of doing that in an era when large scale industrial journalism is on the decline. He said 100 newspapers a year have closed in the US since 2007 including big ones such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Denver Rocky Mountain News as well as the dailies in Albuquerque Tucson and Kansas City as well as the print edition of the Christian Science Monitor, one of just three US national dailies.

Nichols said 30,000 newspaper jobs have been lost in the States in the last two years and the situation is almost as bad in broadcasting with 19,000 jobs lost in 10 years. Yet he said there was no evidence people are consuming less hard news - he said the websites for The Guardian and The Independent had higher numbers of visitors from the US than from Britain. Nor did he blame the Internet, saying the decline of US newspaper circulations date back to the 1950s. Instead, Nichols pointed the finger at the changing nature of newspaper ownership.

In the last 30 years the newspaper companies which made large amounts of money from their exclusive access to classified ads were taken over by larger non-media companies. When they started losing their monopoly to the Internet (more of a nod wink than finger pointing to Nichols), the new owners reacted to the sudden loss of profits by closing papers or bureaus or laying off journalists. This was despite the papers not yet being unprofitable but they just weren’t making their new owners super-rich. The result was, he said, more journalists covered Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign in 1940 than covered Barack Obama in 2008.

Nichols said there was a knock-on dumbing down effect on political life and democracy in the US. He has testified in FTC inquiries into the status of the press, inquiries he said were a “very big deal” for which “transformations may occur”. To underscore why thought this was important, Nichols pointed to the Baltimore study done by the Pew Centre which confirmed old media, and especially newspapers, still produced the largest amount of news.

But the city’s largest paper The Baltimore Sun has lost 73 percent of its journalists in 20 years. The news gap, he said, was being filled by PR, a finding in common with recent Australian research. “Journalism is no longer speaking truth to power,” Nichols said. “Power is speaking its truth to us.” With four workers in PR for every journalist in 2010, excessive corporate and government propaganda was wrecking the Jeffersonian ideal of the press.

Nichols said new ownership models were needed. He suggested new owners needed to emerge from the government, local communities or not-for-profit organisations. “Just because they are not making the large profits of years ago means they have to close down,” he said. He said this was a problem for democracy not just for journalism or the media. “Don’t think anyone else is going to do the job,” he warned.

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