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February 9, 2007

Reports of the death of journalism are exaggerated, says Adrian Monck, who sees a new generation employing new tools to speak truth to power

Does journalism have a future? It's a question I hear more frequently from fellow academics than from students and journalism tutors.

At a time when established names in the newspaper business and broadcasting are cutting staff, and when the industry is questioning what - if anything - will pay for its future, you would imagine that students might be a little nervous.

The same colleagues who question journalism are also apparently consuming less of it. I have my own confession to make: I don't read the papers. I'm part of the non-newspaper-buying problem. I get my news from television, radio and filtered via RSS feeds. The RSS feeds feature a lot of "newspaper" content, but they come electronically and the smarter ones feature ads. So maybe, just maybe, I'm part of the solution.

Put aside the prejudices, however, and journalism is just a marketplace for information. Football managers, celebrity PRs and politicians can all use it for ends frivolous or serious: to dispute penalties, promote pop stars or push policies. Except for the occasional investigation, it's a market fed by third parties, and mostly it is paid for by advertising, subscription or both. Journalism weighs up these third parties' value in the wider, secondary market, and if they make the cut, it gives them an airing, to be acted on or ignored.

Wherever journalism is debated with a capital "J", the real discussion is politics. Gore Vidal wasn't altogether joking when he observed: "Half of the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President. One hopes it is the same half."

Why don't people care about the res publica ? And without an informed public, won't democracy atrophy or collapse? Do we make the news compulsory and have a quiz at election time to rule out witless voters who don't bother to keep up? Perhaps exams are too tough? How about some coursework? Forty hours of the Today programme a year with time off for rolling news and radio? Nice ideas, but plenty of people don't bother to vote anyway, and in representative politics a majority is a majority.

Here's a little test: when was the last time you read a debate from your local council chamber? Never? When did your rubbish last get collected? Sometime in the past fortnight? Representative government, local or national, doesn't need you to read the papers to carry on functioning. Your or my absence from the polls has no effect on the determination of politicians to just keep going. In fact, political parties are keen to give up the commercial pressures of fundraising. They want public money to keep them afloat.

We vote with our attention, and some of that attention has been swamped by alternatives. The iPod, the laptop and the mobile phone eat up time that might have been spent reading a paper. The new-technology wave will not send everything to the ocean floor.

Radio remains popular decades after the invention of television. Newspapers still sold in millions when News at Ten ruled the airwaves. The internet has hit traditional TV news programmes, as has the digital fragmentation of television. But as new broadband connections level out and the last Sky dish is nailed to the chimney pot, so too these technologies stop their exponential adolescent growth and enter middle age.

Concerns over journalism and democracy carry a whole host of assumptions. Do people use the news simply to bolster their opinions? Can they construct a meaningful worldview from watching TV? Do they pick up a paper only for the sport?

Even Rupert Murdoch, probably the greatest impresario on earth when it comes to turning politics into entertainment, can hardly hold back the tide. His Fox News Channel, America's most popular cable news broadcaster, wins only a tiny part of the US television audience. There are more homeless Americans than Fox News viewers - the channel gets half a million viewers at best in primetime, in a nation of 300 million.

In journalism jeremiads, the main candidate for blame is the audience itself. As a defeated candidate for Congress once put it, the people have spoken - the bastards. It's ironic because there has probably never been a time in history when it was possible to share more media, wider - to chat with friends in Melbourne, Manchester or Moscow about Prison Break , the execution of a dictator or the impact of climate change. But governments drag sullenly behind these communication freedoms, and so too does the "serious" media that feeds off politics.

Accountability journalism has been held forth as an important public role for the news media, embedding the fourth estate into some kind of quasi-constitutional role. At the launch of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, Leonard Downie Jr of The Washington Post made an impassioned plea on its behalf. But accountability journalism requires not just journalism but an infrastructure to support and defend it. Embarrassingly, it also requires something deeply unfashionable - an ideology. After all, whom exactly do you call to account? And what happens when, as is so often the case with serious investigative journalism, you fail?

If you change the rules to make things easier for the "good" people, do you also make things easier for the "bad"? Some of the individuals one would want to see held to account have been formidable media owners themselves - Conrad Black, Silvio Berlusconi and the late Robert Maxwell.

In Britain, we probably have the largest public investment in accountability journalism anywhere in the world. It's called the BBC. Admittedly, that subsidy comes packaged up with celebrity dancing shows and The One Show . But if you're concerned about attention migrating to the internet, nearly 60 per cent of the traffic on its website goes to news.

Does the BBC's journalism hold the powerful to account? Certainly its leading public figures think that is its job. Today 's John Humphrys says: "If we were not prepared to take on a very, very powerful government, there would be no point in the BBC existing - that is ultimately what the BBC is for." But, as the Hutton report demonstrated, its charter obligations and funding make it more fitted to propping up civil society than shaking it by the pillars.

So is journalism going to be like music hall or opera? Will it disappear to be replaced by something fundamentally different, or will it be sponsored, supported and paid for by the state for the enjoyment of "people who care"?

If there is an answer, it's more likely to be found not in over-analysing "journalism" but in practising it. The same accelerated technological change that "threatens" the future has also broken down old editorial hierarchies.

A student who graduated at the start of the 1990s is now editing and transforming The Daily Telegraph . Technology makes it possible for ambitious students to compete on an equal footing with the best professionals. Last summer, a group of postgraduates produced a television film that formed the basis of an investigation aired on Newsnight . Another student returned to Baghdad to research and report a documentary on Iraqi death squads - it aired on Channel 4. To remind me to watch, he e-mailed me a link to the YouTube promo. That's the future.

Adrian Monck is head of journalism and publishing at City University.

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