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April 13, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

David Levy and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen on the future of journalism beyond America’s borders

Much of the discussion in the United States about the future of journalism has tended to revolve around a cluster of key themes: What are the business models for digital news? Is there a market failure for journalism? How can news organizations incorporate amateur journalists into their production routines? Is online aggregation theft? But American conversations only occasionally allude to changes in news in the rest of the world, and those rarely go further than discussions about the European public media system — which, while important, does not exhaust the range of journalism in Europe or elsewhere.

As David Levy, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute and an assistant professor at Roskilde University in Denmark, note in their new book, The Changing Business of Journalism and Its Implications for Democracy, “There is not one [journalism] crisis, but different crises in different countries.” And, as Nielsen argues, “simply parroting points from the American debate is rarely a good way of understanding the situation elsewhere — and sometimes the emerging consensus in this debate isn’t even sufficient for understanding the US itself!”

Hoping to add some global complexity to the US-dominated “future of journalism” conversation, I recently conducted an interview with both Levy and Nielsen. We discussed some reasons it’s helpful to talk about journalism in an international context, the ways that American “digital discourse” impacts Europe, and some of the key findings contained in their book.

C.W. Anderson: I think it might be worthwhile to get the most provocative question out of the way first: What will Americans get out of a report that tells us about media policy in other countries? I heard a presentation about journalistic systems around the world the other day, and one person in the audience asked, “Who cares what they do in France? And what kind of political strategy is it to tell a bunch of Republican congressmen what they do with their media in France?” In his blurb, Nick Lemann from Columbia’s J-school calls your book a “necessary work.” But is it really?

David Levy: Well, first and foremost, it is up to the journalistic profession and the news industry itself to reinvent a sustainable and valuable journalism for the 21st century, not politicians — whether right-wing or left-wing, French, Finnish, or American. And whether one is a journalist, a media manager, or a policymaker, “to know only one country is to know no country at all.” Insularity, even in a continental nation, is rarely a good starting point for a serious debate. That is why this, as the first genuinely transnational look at the current situation, is something that should be read everywhere.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: Our book is not only about media policy in a range of countries around the world, where we realize there are varying levels of commitment to state intervention to support news provision. It is also about how the business of journalism is changing in different ways. Just as Europeans can learn much from the exciting range of new non-profit and small for-profit explicitly journalistic experiments launched in the US over the last decade, American journalists and media managers need to know how European media organizations have for decades run their newsrooms on a much smaller revenue base than that of, for example, the US press — because they will probably need to do the same in the future as the (comparatively speaking) extraordinarily high advertising revenues of American newspapers continue to fall.

DL: Many American commentators have — quite rightly — fastened on to the dramatic declines in revenues in the newspaper industry in the US over the last couple of years. The OECD has documented a decline of 30 percent in total revenues from 2007 to 2009 compared to one of 10 percent in Germany and 4 percent in France, to take two examples. Comparative analysis can show us not simply these vivid differences in how things have developed over the last couple of years in countries with similar levels of Internet access and use, but also remind us that the starting points circa 2000 have been widely different. The American press is going through a particularly painful transition these years as audiences and advertisers increasingly move to online and mobile — partially because it was so exceptionally profitable during the 1980s and 1990s, and acted for too long as if it would continue to be so.

RKN: But to return to the question of policy and cross-national comparisons, which is a point of importance well beyond US-European discussion: Looking at other countries is a necessary part of any serious attempt to identify best practices and potentially attractive and effective forms of state intervention. People have different takes on this, and you will notice that our contributor from Sciences Po in Paris, Alice Antheaume, is not exactly offering the French model as an ideal for others. It is true that several of the contributions to our book argue the case for forms of public support for media, both in the form of direct and indirect subsidies for private companies and in the form of license fee-funded public service media organizations like the BBC.

We know these are policies only a minority in the current US Congress will look kindly on, and they may not be appropriate in an American context. But at least those who are prepared to consider intervention can use our book as they think about the relative merits of subsidies for private industry versus support for public media, and as they consider how recipients may be held accountable for what public money they get, and what viewpoint-neutral and platform-neutral forms of intervention might look like.

DL: And whether one is in favor of intervention or not, it is worthwhile to critically assess existing forms of media policy, and to evaluate whether they effectively support the stated goals of promoting quality content, media pluralism, and so on, and to consider whether they need to be brought up to date to prevent them from degenerating into simple hand-outs popping up a fading set of legacy industry incumbents.

CWA: Backing up, could you tell me about the origins of the book? How did the decision to produce it come about?

DL: Let’s start with an observation to explain our motivation — a prominent notion in debates around the future of the Internet is that the Internet will kill the newspaper. Where does this idea come from? The US — and within that national frame of reference, it makes good sense. The current crisis in the American newspaper industry coincides more or less with the rise of the Internet and in particular the so-called web 2.0 and the move towards a mobile Internet. Internet goes up, newspaper goes down, and it is tempting to simply conclude that the one development causes the other.

Here is the problem: In Finland and Germany, for example, you have levels of Internet access and use that are as high as in the US, and yet the newspaper industries there are much stronger and in a more stable state than their American counterparts. So clearly, the simple narrative — Internet goes up, newspaper goes down — cannot be the whole story. From our perspective it’s just one illustration of how comparative research can throw new light on a subject where everyone thinks they already ‘know’ the answer. So we got together the contributors of the book, together with other distinguished media scholars such as Paul Starr, Paolo Mancini, and Nick Lemann for a day workshop comparing experiences in the area, and thinking through some of the common themes and areas of difference.

RKN: The American debate around the future of the profession and the business of journalism exercises a very strong gravitational pull over debates in many other countries, through outlets like the Columbia Journalism Review, through US-based commentators like Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, and Jeff Jarvis, and indeed through this very blog and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard more generally. This is a good thing because it forces journalists and media managers in other countries to think about their own experiences in a comparative light, even if comparisons tend to be of the “my-country-contra-the-US” type. But simply parroting points from the American debate is rarely a good way of understanding the situation elsewhere, and sometimes the emerging consensus in that this debate isn’t even sufficient to understand the US itself! Discussions based on one case — even when the case is most of a continent — are particularly liable to end up with spurious generalizations, and comparative research provides a valuable antidote to that tendency.

DL: When you start going around individual national debates around the future of journalism, you will find many such blind angles that transnational comparisons can help one remove. We are based in Britain, and in some circles here, there is a tendency to blame the BBC, with its rich and freely accessible online offerings, for the difficulties newspapers have had in making much money online. Clearly, they face tough competition, but if newspapers in the US, who do not face BBC-type competition on their national market, have similar problems, again, this cannot be the whole story.

RKN: Comparative analysis is, in short, a good way to explode national myths and misunderstandings, and hopefully base the conversation about the future of journalism around the world on a more solid empirical footing. That is needed in the US as much as it is everywhere else.

CWA: Could you talk a little about some of your most important findings?

DL: There is much talk of journalism being in a crisis today. Our book demonstrates very clearly that there is not one crisis, but different crises in different countries—some primarily rooted in the global recession, some in technological developments, some in policy developments or lack thereof. In some countries, it seems exaggerated to speak of a crisis at all.

RKN: With some notable exceptions, including the United Kingdom, the Western European countries have seen newspaper revenue declines by 5 to 10 percent from 2007 to 2009, during the worst global recession since the 1930s. That is not much worse than what we’ve seen in previous recessions, like the one in 2001-2003. These newspapers have not pursued nearly the same drastic cuts in newsroom staffs as seen across the US. Many European news media companies face more what Frank Esser and Michael Brüggemann in their chapter on Germany call a “strategic crisis” than the more urgent crisis faced by a US press with very high legacy costs and often burdened by considerable debt.

The strategic challenge is how one can build on existing brand value, customer loyalty, and human capital of existing news media — to speak MBA-speak — and navigate the transition to a communications environment in which professional journalism will still be important, but probably relatively less so, and where the news media will almost certainly be less profitable and less widely used regularly than what they have been in some countries. For some — such as Hannu Nieminen who writes in the book on Finland — there are reasons for fearing a different kind of crisis, one that does not have to do with media market indicators or levels of use and the like (which are mostly in Finland), but one that has to do with issues of quality and the unraveling of an inherited and broad but broadly speaking social and democratic media policy consensus that have underpinned media for a half-century.

DL: Rasmus and I have provided an introductory chapter providing an overview, and sum up the book with a concluding discussion reviewing some policy proposals from around the world, but the real value of the book lies, I think, in the juxtaposition of detailed and insightful analysis of the present state of the news media in a range of different countries, each written by a country expert, and then collected to provide a mosaic view of the diverse range of threats and opportunities we face and where we may be heading.

RKN: This is not simply an academic question of understanding how media systems develop over time and in response to what, but a question of material importance for journalists, media managers, and media policymakers making decisions today on the basis of a view of what scenario we are likely to face tomorrow.

CWA: One of the key trends in Europe over the past two decades has been a gradual defunding of public media and the replacement of the so-called “public option” with more market-based media systems, particularly in the world of TV. Any thoughts in the report about this trend?

DL: It is true that public media are under some pressure in several European countries, including Italy and to some extent the UK, and that the development of the online aspects of public service have been subject to increased regulatory restraint in Germany and elsewhere, with an eye to giving private companies opportunities to build their own business without too much competition from publicly funded players. It is important to maintain a sense of perspective, however. Most Western European media systems remain much more “mixed” than the market-dominated American one, and perhaps this is one reason they generally seem to have been more resilient in the face of the global recession—even if this expose them to other, more political, forces, as we’ve seen in Italy and in many of the new European Union member states. While license fees have not always kept pace with inflation and certainly not with revenue growth in some sectors of the private media industries, current developments have not changed the relative role of public media in Western Europe to nearly the same extent as widespread deregulation and the opening up of television broadcasting markets to commercial operators did in the 1980s. In most of the European countries studied here public media are still attracting 30 percent or more of the TV audience—more than 10 times the levels of the US.

CWA: I know you’re aware of Hallin and Mancini’s book on comparative media systems. I’ve always wondered whether their framework could be extended to online journalism and media, which they don’t really discuss. Have or your co-authors found any evidence that different media “systems” affect the manner in which digital technologies impact journalism?

RKN: In short, yes and no. “Yes,” new ventures in online journalism are heavily affected by inherited forms of journalistic professionalism and industry structures — both where they have developed what Clayton Christensen calls “sustaining innovations,” within the framework of market leaders, and where they are developed as more “disruptive innovations” by outsiders like Google and Craigslist and newer entrants like the Huffington Post and The Drudge Report. It is very striking to see how the — to generalize impossibly broadly — more diverse European media systems have not given rise to an extra-journalistic, politically polarized blogosphere the way an American media system, historically dominated by what some today call the “mainstream media,” has. But the answer is also “no.” Several key online developments have originated in the US and grown into global phenomena — think Google, Facebook, and Youtube in particular — and while they have different knock-on effects for different media systems, these developments are not primarily shaped by path-dependence within, say, a French or Finnish context.

DL: This is an area where we at the Reuters Institute, and I think it is fair to say the academic community more broadly, have only just scratched the surface. We are in the process of pursuing several additional projects in this area, working with people like Stephen Coleman, Nic Newman, some of our journalist fellows like Nicola Bruno and Jussi Ahlroth, and others.

CWA: To what degree have you found American rhetoric about the revolutionary impact of “the digital” has been picked up in Europe? How have the similarities and differences in understandings of digital culture affected the range of options available for discussing journalism?

DL: The rhetoric has been picked up, and sometimes completely internalized. This is a good thing and a bad thing. It is a bad thing for some of the reasons we’ve already touched upon — because there is a tendency to not simply listen to and learn from American debates, but to mindlessly mimic them, irrespective of whether the points adopted make sense in a given national context. It is a good thing because we are clearly in the process of transitioning to a new communications environment, and even when the rhetoric is sometimes overblown and even misleading, at least it keeps the certainty that tomorrow will be different from yesterday and today center-stage, where it needs to be.

However, while journalism is undoubtedly changing dramatically everywhere, there are two key reasons why the US model of digital journalism may not transfer easily to Europe. The first is the simple one of scale; what is possible in a country of over 300 million people may be far harder to realize in a country of 60 million, let alone one of 5 million, as with Finland. Secondly, there is a difference in funding. Much US experimentation — and this is true of the Nieman Lab itself, along with many other places — has been underwritten by foundation funding. The scale of that funding is a peculiarity of the US context and one which is not easily replicated elsewhere. Indeed, some might argue a lot of the digital innovation in the UK has been underwritten by the publicly funded BBC, rather than any foundation. So there’s a difference, but also a challenge on both sides of the Atlantic, as to how we can find sustainable digital business models that depend neither on the state or foundations for their long term future.

CWA: Any final thoughts? What do you hope this book will do?

RKN: Well, we hope the book, and the work of the wide range of people from different countries who have contributed to it, will help do two things for the debates around the future of journalism around the world — first, help break the national boundaries that all too often constrain our understanding of what is going on. Secondly, help wrench our attention away from romanticized views of the past we are leaving behind and idle speculation about the future we may arrive at one day, and focus it on the concrete and actual different developments in the business of journalism today — on the basis of which people can shape the profession and the industry of tomorrow.

POSTED     April 13, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
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