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The Collapse of Journalism/The Journalism of Collapse

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The Collapse of Journalism/The Journalism of Collapse
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New Storytelling and a New Story

There is considerable attention paid in the United States to the collapse of journalism -- both in terms of the demise of the business model for corporate commercial news media, and the evermore superficial, shallow, and senseless content that is inadequate for citizens concerned with self-governance. This collapse is part of larger crises in the political and economic spheres, crises rooted in the incompatibility of democracy and capitalism. New journalistic vehicles for storytelling are desperately needed.

There has been far less discussion of the need for a journalism of collapse -- the challenge to tell the story of a world facing multiple crises in the realms of social justice and sustainability. This collapse of the basic political and economic systems of the modern world, with dramatic consequences on the human and ecological fronts, demands not only new storytelling vehicles but a new story.
 
In this essay I want to review the failure of existing systems and suggest ideas for how to think about something radically different, through the lens of journalists’ work. The phrase “how to think about” should not be interpreted to mean “provide a well-developed plan for”; I don’t have magical answers to these difficult questions, and neither does anyone else. The first task is to face the fact that every problem we encounter does not necessarily have a solution that we can identify, or even imagine, in the moment; that identifying how existing systems have failed does not guarantee we have the capacity to devise new systems that will succeed.
 
This is a realistic attitude, not a defeatist one. The lack of a guarantee of success does not mean the inevitability of failure, and it does not absolve us of our responsibility to struggle to understand what is happening and to act as moral agents in a difficult world. In fact, I think such realism is required for serious attempts at fashioning a response to the crises. The eventual solutions, if there are to be solutions, may come in frameworks so different from our current understanding that we can’t yet see even their outlines, let alone the details. This is a time when we should be focused on “questions that go beyond the available answers,” to borrow a phrase from sustainable agriculture researcher Wes Jackson.
 
The old story
 
Before taking up that challenge, I want to identify the story that dominates our era, what we might call the story of perpetual progress and endless expansion. This is the larger cultural narrative in which specific stories that appear in journalistic outlets are set. Charting the whole history of this story is beyond the scope of this essay, so I will confine myself to the post-WWII era in which I have lived, when this progress/expansion story has dominated not only in the United States and other developed countries but most of the world.
 
This story goes like this: In the modern world, human beings have dramatically expanded our understanding of how the natural world works, allowing us not only to control and exploit the resources of the non-human world but also to find ways to distribute those resources in a more just and democratic fashion. The progress/expansion story assumes we have knowledge -- or the capacity to acquire knowledge -- that is adequate to run the world competently, and that the application of that knowledge will produce a constantly expanding bounty that, in theory, can provide for all.
 
The two great systems of the post-WWII era that were in direct conflict -- the capitalist West led by the United States and the communist East led by the Soviet Union -- shared an allegiance to this story, that humans had the ability to understand and control, to shape the future, to become God-like in some sense. Even in places that carved out some independence in the Cold War, such as India, the same philosophy dominated, evidenced most clearly in big dam projects and the Green Revolution’s model of water-intensive, chemical farming.
 
The failure of the communist challenge was said to be “the end of history,” a point where the only work remaining was the application of our technical knowledge to lingering problems within a system of global capitalism and liberal democracy. Even with the widening of inequality and the clear threats to the ecosystem from human intervention, the progress/expansion story continues to dominate, bolstered by a widely held technological fundamentalism (more on that later).
 
The bumper-sticker version of this philosophy: More and bigger is better, forever and ever.
 
There’s one slight problem: If we continue to believe this story, and to base individual decisions and collective policies on it, we will dramatically accelerate the drawdown of the ecological capital of the planet, hastening the point at which the ecosystem will no longer be able to sustain human life as we know it at this level. In the process, we can expect not only more inequality, but in times of intense competition for resources, a dramatic increase in social conflict.
 
This critique cannot be dismissed as hysteric apocalypticism; it is a reasonable judgment, given all the evidence. The progress/expansion story has left us with enduring levels of human inequality that violate our moral principles and threaten to undermine any social stability, and an endangered ecosystem that threatens our very survival. Whatever systems and institutions we devise to replace those at the root of these problems, the underlying progress/expansion narrative has to change.

The collapse of journalism
 
In the United States, it is clear that at least in the short term, there will be fewer professional journalists working in fewer outlets with fewer resources for reporting. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism sums it up in its 2010 State of the News Media report:  “[W]e estimate that the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or roughly 30 percent. That leaves an estimated $4.4 billion remaining. Even if the economy improves we predict more cuts in 2010.” Newspapers are hurting the worst, but there is no good news from any news media.
 
That loss of capacity comes from plunging ad revenues: In 2009, ad revenue fell 26 percent for U.S. newspapers, including online, bringing the total loss over the past three years to 43 percent. Local television ad revenue fell 22 percent, triple the decline the year before. Other media also saw a decline in ad revenue: radio, 22 percent; magazine, 17 percent; network TV, 8 percent (for network news alone, probably more). Online ad revenue overall fell 5 percent, and revenue to news sites most likely also fared much worse. Cable news was the only commercial news sector keeping its head above water, barely, according to the report.
 
Revenue is down, and so are audiences. The PEJ study reports audience growth only in digital and cable news, with declines in local TV and network news. Print newspaper circulation fell 10.6 percent in 2009, and since 2000, daily circulation has fallen 25.6 percent.
 
This decline is also reflected in employment. According to a report by UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc., there was a 22 percent increase in the journalism jobs lost from September 2008 through August 2009, compared with a general job loss rate of 8 percent. The news industry shed 35,885 jobs in a one-year period straddling 2008 and 2009.
 
Despite experiments with new ways to organize and support journalists -- including grant-funded news operations such as Pro Publica, university/newsroom partnerships, citizen journalism collaborations with professional newsrooms, and various web projects -- it is clear that, at least in the short term, there simply will be less journalism created by professional journalists.
 
It also seems clear that of the journalism remaining, a growing percentage is of less value to the project of enhancing democracy. I don’t want to pretend there was a golden age when professional journalism provided the critical and independent inquiry that citizens need to function as citizens. For reasons articulated by critics such as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, contemporary professional journalism is hamstrung by institutional and ideological constraints that have been built into professional practices. As a result, corporate news owners rarely have to discipline mainstream journalists, who are socialized to accept the ideological prison in which they work and police other inmates.
 
But even with that rather large caveat, the slide of much of contemporary journalism into banality is frightening. Of public affairs journalism, we might paraphrase an old joke about hard-to-please restaurant patrons: “The food is awful here,” one says, and the friend replies, “Yes, and they’ve reduced the portions.”
 
The markers of this slide in quality are clear enough: An obsession with entertainment and sports, especially large-scale spectacles; routine exploitation of sexuality and violence in ways corrosive to human dignity; an endless fascination with celebrity, with the standards of what constitutes celebrity continually dropping; and a growing imposition of those spectacle and celebrity values on public affairs. This is not a screed against entertainment, pleasure, fun, or the people’s desire to gain pleasure from fun entertainment. It is not an attempt to glorify the rational and devalue the emotional. It is not a self-indulgent lament that the kind of journalism I prefer is losing out. It’s an accurate description of our increasing numbed-out and intellectually vapid culture.
 
How much of this collapse of journalism is driven by the explosion of news outlets in a 24-hour news cycle, as an ever-larger media beast demands to be fed? How much is a product of bottom-line-focused news managers’ longstanding obsession with producing the extraordinary profits demanded by top-floor-dwelling executives? How much is panic caused by these dramatic drops in audience and revenue by so-called legacy media, leading to desperation in programming?
 
Whatever the relative weight of these causes, the effect is clear: In the mainstream outlets through which most people in the United States get their news, there is less journalism relevant to citizens’ role in a democracy and more journalism-like material that dulls our collective capacity for independent critical thinking. If journalists had only to struggle to return to some previous state in which they did a better job, that would be hard enough. But journalists can’t be satisfied with striving toward standards from the past. A new journalism is needed.
 
The journalism of collapse
 
The immediate crises that journalism and journalists face -- some rooted in the pathology of professionalism and its illusory claims to neutrality, and some rooted in the predatory nature of capitalism and its illusory commitment to democracy -- are serious, but in some sense trivial compared to the long-term crises in a profoundly unjust and fundamentally unsustainable world. We have to deal with the collapse of journalism, but we also must begin to fashion a journalism of collapse.
 
To reiterate my basic premise: Whatever the specific story being told in modern journalism, those stories typically are set in that larger narrative of perpetual progress and endless expansion. What kind of story is needed for a world that desperately needs to rethink its idea of progress in a world that is no longer expanding?
 
Here’s the story: On March 17, 2051, the world will pump its last easily accessible barrel of usable oil. By that time, cancer directly attributable to human-created toxicity will kill 125 million people per year, while major disruptions in the hydrological cycle will so dramatically reduce the amount of fresh water that 18.9 percent of the human population will die each year as a direct result. On June 14, 2047, exactly half of the area of the world’s oceans will be dead zones, incapable of supporting significant marine life. Three and a half years later, topsoil losses will have reached the point where even with petrochemical based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, yields will drop by 50 percent on the most fertile soil and fall to zero on soil that has effectively gone sterile due to contamination and compaction. But there won’t be any petrochemicals anyway, because there won’t be any oil. And there won’t be enough water. And so there won’t be enough food. And getting reliable broadband internet service will be difficult.
 
OK, that was all meant to be funny. That, of course, is not the story. The story we need to tell won’t be focused on predictions about specific aspects of collapse. I have no doubt that if the human community continues on its present trajectory, such statistics will be all too real. I have no doubt that if the human community does not change that trajectory in substantial ways fairly soon, the future will be grim. But rather than scurrying to make specific predictions, journalism should struggle to help people understand the processes that make that preceding paragraph plausible, and hence not funny at all. There’s little humor in the recognition that continued commitment to an ideology of perpetual progress and endless expansion -- operationally defined as ever greater human consumption of the ecological capital of the planet -- is a dead end. More and bigger not only is not better, it is not possible.



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