Change of Scenery

Again it has been a while - this time because I moved from The Netherlands to the United States last week. One of the many things Im doing these days, is writing a regular column about media culture for a relatively new free alternative paper in Bloomington (Indiana) called Cultureweek. As they do not have a website, I will post the columns for archival and feedback purposes here too. I'll start with the July 2004 issue.

The Problem of Journalism

Journalism is a problem. First, it is a problem for people using the products of journalism: newspapers, magazines, broadcast news, news websites. Increasingly we find information in these products that does not seem to have anything to do with our everyday life or with the priorities of interest we have set for ourselves. Second, it is a problem for the industry that both feeds and is dependent on journalism: media. Journalism is not identical with the media, which are the carriers of mass communication. The media need content to be matched to advertisers and audiences. This means media need masses. If anything, the current trend of fragmenting audiences and a corresponding proliferation of markets and products does not bode well for the media. Journalism used to function as social glue for media: its content kept people together, offered them stories that enabled people to talk with eachother in class, at work or in the supermarket. As journalism has become less relevant to people, they have turned away from news and now use other sources of information as raw materials fueling everyday talk: soap operas, gossip magazines, alternative media, popular music. Third, journalism is a problem for people doing journalism, making the news.

Journalists today face many different and interconnected challenges regarding technology, culture, and the political economy of their work. Technological, because media cross-ownership forces journalists from different (competing) media in local markets to work together and jointly produce multimedia journalism. It is safe to say most journalists really do not think this is a good idea. Cultural, because the rich multicultural diversity of contemporary society forces journalists to critically examine their own white, middle-class and masculine biases. The so-called Newsroom Diversity Index of 2004 of the Hoosier Times is zero (meaning there are no non-white reporters), as it is in many local newsmarkets in the United States and in Western Europe. Researchers at Indiana University (in 2002) claim more than two-thirds of US journalists are men, and their median age is 41 years. The political context of journalism is also rapidly changing, with governments (including the US) deregulating media markets all over the world, yet at the same time openly questioning press freedom. Corporate colonization of the newsroom is a continuing economic challenge to journalism, as is the ongoing concentration and globalization of media industries, making journalists smaller and smaller pawns in an expanding global news market.

Journalism as a problem is, fortunately, but one side of the newscoin. Journalism is also one of the most exciting, fun, popular, creative and free activities you can think of. Maybe we do not read the Herald-Times everyday and we do not watch FOX or ABC news all the time, but surveys still show people, young and old, more aware of issues facing the nation than their parents or grandparents were twenty or thirty years ago. Maybe we do not vote for political parties anymore, but we increasingly engage in political discussions (online and offline), and participate in all kinds of voluntary (if only temporary) groups, councils, clubs, and other public activities. People's everyday priorities are increasingly reflected by what scholars call non-traditional media: alternative weeklies (Cultureweek), satirical television shows (The Daily Show), websites (Indymedia), and private media or We Media online like group weblogs (Slashdot, Kuro5hin or 'corrosion'), and offline like community newsletters. This is also journalism - and it is not a problem.

Journalism operates as a highly autonomous, though not completely independent system. It has professional, corporate and mainstream properties as well as voluntarist, independent and alternative elements. Indeed, research shows that corporate reporters and editors share the same news values (objectivity, ethics and a quest for truth) as oppositional local radio volunteers or online independent media activists. It is naïve to assume corporate journalists to be sensationalism-hungry narcissists, or to think alternative reporters are all idealistic free spirits, as most journalists are a bit of both all the time. The crux of the matter is to find ways to criticize journalism that helps journalists to become more aware of the opportunities offered by convergence, diversity and understanding people’s everyday lives, while at the same time acknowledging the complex global, political and economical context within which all of this takes place.

As a Dutch journalist and media scholar, my main concern about US media is their blind fixation on the United States as a country without cultural, political and economical links with the rest of the world other than to far away places where American troops are sent to kill people. American culture is a reflection of global culture as much as it is an influence on cultures all over the world. Even in Bloomington, Indiana we feel this everyday, as people from all over the world study here, products from all over the world are sold here, and the problems we face every day are exactly the same as the problems experienced by people in other small towns in many different countries. What makes the US such an amazing country for people (like me) interested in media, is the fact that American journalism is both the best and the worst in the world. It is never mediocre. The US has an amazing tradition of free, independent and alternative or even oppositional media. Yet it has also the most commercial, hierarchical, superficial and sensational journalism one can think of. The weirdest thing is, that sometimes the same group of journalists produces news that fits both categories: one day they publish or broadcast horrific narrow-minded jingoist crap, the next day they offer moving and insightful in-depth reporting. In my home country, The Netherlands, journalism is okay. In the United States, my new country, journalism is brilliant and awful - but never just okay. And this makes it the most amazing place to be - especially if you are interested in the problem of journalism.