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Who Needs Journalism?

Andrew Calcutt, October 2009

Magazines, perhaps more than newspapers, have always offset their reporting of the outside world with the creation of an interior world jointly inhabited by readers, writers, editor and publisher. But recently there has been a re-balancing, with the result that magazines are even less like lenses trained on the outside world and furthermore like mirrors in which users (the people formerly known as readers) can see themselves reflected; along with the publisher (and his brand), and the handful of professional writers still left in the office.
But where does that leave journalism? Is it still the lifeblood of magazines? Or has journalism ebbed away from too many of today’s pages, leaving most magazines largely bloodless?

Consider the following statements:

(1) Police arrested 20 demonstrators who tried to stop sales delegates entering an international arms trade fair at Excel Exhibition Centre, East London.

(2) Harmony Publications are launching an online magazine for arms dealers, which will ‘focus on their personal lives as much as their business deals.’ New launch Bellephon follows the successful debut of Protestors Re-United, a social media site for anti-war activists, also from Harmony.

These statements are made up, but they need not be. At least, I like to think that they exemplify two simultaneous trends in magazines today: the continuation of journalism in and through magazines; and at the same time the movement of magazines away from the established tradition of journalism, even to the point where some titles can seriously consider dispensing with professional reporters.

The first statement observes the classic formula for the news lead in an action story. It answers some of the five Ws, but doesn’t even try to get all the answers in, for fear of overloading the sentence. The author prefers the active mode (not passive), selects verbs which suggest plenty of action (‘arrest’, ‘stop’), and will have monitored the sentence to prevent it becoming too long (at 22 words, s/he’s only just managed it).

In form and content, therefore, this sentence exemplifies the tradition of news writing among journalists who have been trained to continue this tradition and who expect to be paid for maintaining the standards associated with it. In addition to its form and content, however, there is something else which marks out this sentence as the work of a professional working within a tradition of journalistic professionalism. That ‘something else’ is the orientation of the writer towards what s/he is describing.

First, note that the writer is oriented towards a discreet event; ‘discreet’ in that it is separated from other events, and closed off from other conditions and developments which might not even qualify as events for journalistic purposes. The point is that there was a definite event, and the point of reporting it is to define it; to define what happened, or, at least, that much of what happened which defines it as an event. Hence the ambition of the reporter is to write the definitive account of this event, of all manner of events. Reporters have always aimed to be definitive.

Not that this ambition is original to reporters; their ambition to define events is the translation of a results-oriented approach pursued by all the various people involved. The police got results (picketing stopped), the demonstrators didn’t. Having availed themselves of police protection, individual arms dealers may have got a result (increased sales), or they may not. Though they might have been on different sides of a police cordon, the common ground shared by all parties is that they came to produce a particular, singular outcome, up to and including the journalist sent to get the story.

Regardless of the specific event as defined in a particular journalist’s report of it, when filing their copy most reporters are generally saying something else along the following lines: they did this; I didn’t, but I saw them do it; and you, dear reader, can now see what I saw, or as much of it as I have seen fit to include in my reconstruction, provided that you have paid the cover price for the publication in which it appears.

Thus there are taken to be three sets of people arranged around the journalist’s report: the actors in the reported event; reporters and their colleagues involved in composing and disseminating the report; and readers, actors in their own lives whose actions may or may not be affected by the reports they pay to read of what happened earlier, elsewhere.

Form, content, orientation, expectation: the above is a paltry account of these, but it serves to identify some of their salient features as developed and maintained in and around the modern tradition of professional journalism. But the accoutrements of this tradition do not necessarily match the key characteristics of many of today’s magazines – not if the second of our two statements is anything to go by.

Any publication which announces its interest in ‘personal lives as much as business deals’ is also announcing that it will not observe the traditional distinction between public and private life; moreover, that it will not discriminate between the continuous processes of everyday existence, e.g. getting out of bed in order to go to the business meeting, and the identifiable events which have been taken to typify public life, e.g. completing a big deal and smiling for the camera to show the contract has been signed.

This represents a marked shift in orientation; perhaps even more than that, it represents a shift which casts doubt on the very idea of orientation. For the latter implies the existence of events or objects and other people far enough away from these to be oriented towards them; hence, to be oriented towards something means not being encompassed by it already. But if from the outset people are taken to be inside continuous processes, they can hardly be outside them, oriented to them, at the same time.

More to the point, which people are we talking about here?‌ In the model of modern journalism, there were three distinct groups: actors (doing what was to be written about), writers (writing up what had been done and by whom), readers (reading all about the actors’ actions, thanks to the secondary activity of the writers in writing them up).

In today’s magazine making, however, there is a tendency for these distinctions to dissolve. The closer it comes to being a social media site, the more likely it is that the people reading a magazine and the persons featured in it, will be one and the same. Similarly, those who are depicted may also have written themselves into the picture, especially now that new media technology has facilitated the development of ‘user generated content.’ Leaving aside the suggestion of narcissism, it is remarkable, to say the least, that in this instance actor, writer and reader may turn out to be the same person.

Publishers have been trying to address such developments by devising a new model for magazines. The model adds up to three Cs and a B. First, the three Cs: (1) Content – material that is interesting to the people formerly known as readers, often generated by some of them for others among them to be interested in; (2) Community – formed from the people formerly known as readers by their shared interest in the material offered to them, and their participation in this offer; (3) Cash – the means to monetise the grouping together of the people formerly known as readers, translating their shared interest into a cash cow by means of advertising, sponsorship, or other commercial mechanisms.

In the new model, these three Cs are meant to be held together by a single B-word: Brand, a fixed icon which is called upon to identify the distinctive performance of various, continuous, intimately connected processes by a specified company.

What’s being attempted seems clear enough; it is not clear, however, whether the model will work and for whom.

Will it work for publishers?‌ It is not clear that arms dealers will choose to group around a social media site set up by Harmony Publications, rather than establish their own set-up on Facebook, or whatever happens to be the online destination of choice for a particular demographic cohort at a specific point in time. And who will sponsor Harmony’s new site if the community it sought to bring into existence is already communing with itself somewhere else‌? Indeed, if this were largely what commercial magazine publishing is set to become, who needs either magazines or commercial publishers?‌

Will it work for journalists‌? If this model were to become ubiquitous, it is not clear that there need be any work for journalists, except to process content originally generated by the people formerly known as readers, i.e. users.

Perhaps even more importantly, will it work for journalism‌? It is not clear that magazines operating in this new mode are under the same obligation to capture new occurrences by offering original accounts of what has occurred. The more media are taken up with the interpersonal activity of telling the story of who we are already, the less call there is for the relatively impersonal practice of news production, as described above in the classic formula for modern journalism.

Magazines may have been one of the earliest forms of journalism, but this does not mean that much of their current content necessarily qualifies as journalism. For all kinds of reasons, some of which are signalled above, both magazines and journalism may be losing their (previously reciprocal) identity.

In this short piece, I have been obliged to simplify complex conditions, and in my simplified account some developments have become grossly exaggerated. For example, I have been too cut and dried in my separation of instrumental journalism (an instrument used to produce knowledge) and other forms of media content which play an existential role, i.e. they tell us we exist. Rather than being totally separate, in the real history of media these aspects have always been interactive. But for argument’s sake, such simplification is largely justified. My point is that in this social reality, here and now, there have been significant changes in the make-up of magazines, largely to the detriment of their role in reporting the outside world. Magazines, I suggest, are becoming less like lenses looking outwards, and more like mirror images of the particualar users whose existence they serve to confirm.

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