The Future of Newspapers

December 31, 2009

No British scholar has done more than Bob Franklin, of the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, to make the academic study of journalism relevant to journalists. This collection advances his project deep into the internet era. And it reveals how far the academy must travel before its endeavours can make a significant impact on the industry it toils to describe.

The gap between news producers and consumers is narrowing, but a gulf still separates academia from journalism practice. Its persistence, after decades of scepticism about the value of journalism studies, raises pressing questions about the processes through which academic study of the profession is produced and the culture in which they thrive.

Professional journalists have an alternative name for the process of peer review. They use a pejorative description, prior restraint, as shorthand for a reasoned case.

Peer review has, for valuable academic literature in this field, consequences similar to those the English definition of defamation has for reporting. It deters investigation, discourages boldness and dilutes controversy. By chilling the atmosphere in which debate occurs, it makes the academic study of journalism less relevant than it could be to an industry that needs it.

Had university schools of journalism existed in the 1850s they might have convened conferences to discuss the consequences for newspapers of the abolition of stamp duty. Papers on the potential impact of the electronic telegraph, the rotary press and uniform railway gauges might have contemplated the future of print as a medium for mass education. It is less likely that they would have foreseen the advent of the New Journalism or that Alfred Harmsworth's populist Daily Mail would rapidly make itself more politically powerful than titles created to influence politics. Such analysis emerges from instant assessment and risk-taking. It thrives on public debate promoted by publication in mainstream media.

There is much in this collection of 26 research-based essays by scholars and journalists that deserves such dissemination. Martin Conboy and John Steel's essay, "Historical Perspectives", is astute about the limited degree of genuine "newness" in 21st-century journalism. It deserves to be read by reporters as well as students.

In "The Future of Responsible Journalism", Andrew Kenyon and Tim Marjoribanks identify how prevailing interpretations of defamation law influence the professional methods by which journalists serve democracy. In "Mapping Professional Imagination", Risto Kunelius and Laura Ruusunoksa apply field theory to the challenge of redefining professional journalism in the multimedia era.

There is so much here that is good and useful that it feels invidious to critique individual essays in a short review. But John Hartley's "The Supremacy of Ignorance over Instruction" deserves mention. His definition of popular culture as the "ground on which new experiments in journalism are propagating" is eloquent and astute. It raises issues editors should consider.

Peter Preston's introductory essay, "The Curse of Introversion", is wise, witty and stylish. Almost equally valuable is "If You Can't Earn Enough - Teach", Hagar Lahav's investigation of the dominant role played by traditional newspaper journalists in educating Israelis for a future in converged media.

Piet Bakker's exploration of "The Simultaneous Rise and Fall of Free and Paid Newspapers in Europe" is meticulous, but slightly less useful than his blog, newspaperinnovation.com, where those who really need to know about the state of the free newspaper market receive detailed daily updates.

Since its inception, the academic study of journalism has been engaged in an existential struggle. To achieve relevance it must prove itself valuable to the profession it analyses. By collecting these essays, Bob Franklin has placed before us potent evidence that his children have matured into useful citizens. A further step is essential. To take that step, journalism academics must learn from the new generation of multimedia reporters.

The development of online news is in its infancy. We do not yet know whether it will empower journalism in its duty to representative democracy or destroy the profession. We do know that, in this digital era, the pace of change is fast and it can accelerate hard.

The pre-digital era spawned academic conventions that were accepted with little demur when the academic study of journalism was in its infancy. As it matures, new opportunities abound to ease the discipline's path to respectability and high esteem.

Relevance in journalism demands speed. Published online by their authors as soon as they were written, complete with links and summaries of no more than 800 words, several of these essays might have been discussed in newsrooms. Instead journalists read Media Guardian and academics are exiled from the debates that will define the future.

To achieve impact in the online era, the study of journalism must embrace new working practices, just as it counsels journalists to change the habits of their lifetimes.

The Future of Newspapers

Edited by Bob Franklin
Routledge
406pp, £80.00
ISBN 9780415473798
Published February 2009

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