We're witnessing either the end of journalism or the birth of a golden age - depending on your point of view, or more likely depending on whether or not you are a journalist. This is the key theme of this fascinating study by David Ryfe, who takes what appears to be his disadvantageous position of being a journalism academic who has never been a journalist and turns it to good advantage.
After several years teaching journalism courses, Ryfe decided it was time he "got his hands dirty", or at least watched others getting their hands dirty, by undertaking an ethnographic study of the newsrooms of three local daily newspapers. There he didn't just watch and note but also reported on press conferences, wrote up news releases and got bawled at by angry news editors.
What emerges from his work are three differing accounts of how US newspapers, all in economic decline, have sought to come to terms with the impact of the internet and social media on both the economics of the papers and the daily news routines of their journalists. It all makes for fascinating but depressing reading: nothing that the newspapers tried seemed able to arrest what appeared to be an inevitable, internet-hastened decline.
Unlike many media academics who have never worked in journalism, Ryfe displays neither the innate hostility of those who see journalists as the handmaidens of the Establishment, nor the open-mouthed admiration of those who see all hacks as Woodwards and Bernsteins.
As interesting as Ryfe's ethnographic observations of the daily routines are, the most important and arresting part of the book comes in the last few pages, where he turns to the future (or indeed the present) and asks: where do we now stand? Is this the end of an era? Is the very existence of journalism as we have known it now imperilled? Or is this the dawn of a golden age of internet-driven citizen engagement, "one in which citizens play a more active role in public problem-solving"?
Ryfe offers compelling evidence that the success of new forms of public interaction - social media, blogs, crowdsourcing, data mining, etc - can, and are, mobilising local communities in the interests of greater transparency and accountability. He identifies a key role for journalists in this process: "Crowds need people who can catalyze the community, organize its work in granular form and put the pieces together when finished." And although he accepts that there are some journalists, maybe the majority, who will find it difficult to accept this new gatekeeping role, he is adamant: this is the future, whether they like it or not.
He describes an environment in which armies of citizen journalists, armed with just their laptops and smartphones, create a form of networked journalism that enhances community participation and local democracy - alas, it ain't necessarily so.
First, in those communities where projects based on Ryfe's enthusiasms have already taken root, there has been no detectable increase in civic participation in terms of voting turnout and involvement with political parties, the bedrocks of local democracy. But there's another rather large fly in this particular ointment and it's one that Ryfe does not address - quite simply, who's going to pay the journalists' wages? For while it is undeniable that the online environment offers consumers a panoply of news in text, audio, video and other interactive forms, all drawn from a multiplicity of sources by a myriad of techniques, no one has yet found a model that makes it an economic proposition. Advertising, paywalls, public appeals and foundation support are all being tried, but none has yet proved to be the key that unlocks the door that can make online news turn a profit.
So in response to the question posed in the book's title, "Can journalism survive?", the answer has to be "probably" - but the question "Can professional journalism survive?" is quite another matter.
Can Journalism Survive? An Inside Look at American Newsrooms
By David M. Ryfe. Polity, 256pp, £55.00 and £17.99. ISBN 97807456540 and 54287. Published 3 August 2012