Paper strategies

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
25 September, 2017
Editorial: 135
Fecha de publicación original: 29 septiembre, 1998

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

The European Union is worried about the fate of the printed press (incorrectly called the written press by some) as it faces “the new environment created by information technology and, particularly, the so-called Information Society”. This concern was expressed in person by some members of the European Parliament and the EU’s DG-X at a meeting held in the charming Dutch city of Maastricht last week. Those attending included publishers, national and regional newspaper editors from a number of European countries, the heads of training centres on journalism at various institutes and universities, as well as their colleagues of similar rank from the US. I stood out amongst the list of participants simply because of the unique way I was categorised. Amongst the many names of those responsible for the destinies of such historical mastheads as Le Monde, The Irish Times, El Pais, Rheinische Post or USA Today – I was defined as an “Internet Journalist”. A curiosity. I only mention this because they could have called me the “editor of, electronic publication or new media on the Internet”. But, as I said at the beginning, the aim of the meeting was very clear: to find out what the hell is going to happen to the printed press as it confronts so many new media made of bits.

The European Union does not have a mere anthropological concern for the traditional press, as journalist and European parliamentarian Katerina Daskalaki pointed out. In September 1997, the European Parliament received the “Report on the Impact of New Technology on the Press in Europe” presented by Daskalaki as “rapporteur” of the Committee for Culture, Youth, Education and Media, which focused on the changes rocking the media world and how these could affect European newspapers and, consequently, democracy itself. In the wake of this study, the European Journalism Centre (EJC, based in Maastricht and organiser of the meeting we are talking about) asked specialist Monique van Dusseldorp to draw up a report on “The Future of the Printed Press”, which was debated for several months on the Net. Daskalaki presented both works and assured us that she was in complete agreement with the Commission’s programmes for the financial support of traditional press investment in their electronic versions, a policy which she justified as being in defence of democratic information. At no point did she mention any similar investment for the new media born as electronic publications, which it seems to me clearly indicates that the EU still has a long way to go.

Anyway, the get-together afforded an opportunity to find out about the different strategies deployed by the big European newspapers – national and regional- to deal with things like the Net which continues to baffle them. What best reflected their state of mind was the constant reference to the “problem” of excess information generated by the Net, when one would think that journalists, and especially the media, would see this as an “opportunity” to develop criteria for ordering, organising and redirecting the information flow, a task for which the journalistic profession is particularly well-trained. However, what particularly drew one’s attention was the difficulty of seeing the Internet as a space created by the social relationships developed between individuals, organisations, businesses, institutions, associations, human groupings of all kinds (rural, urban, local, regional, global) and public and private administration, etc., which together unfold a new territory supported by the communication process. As such, it is there that the best opportunities for inventing, promoting and consolidating it arise.

This “faulty vision” gives rise to some strange results:

(1) When speaking of the press in relation to the new technology, the analysis is reduced to its impact on the traditional media which considerably distorts our vision of things and makes it difficult to see just how much the relationship between democracy and information is undergoing substantial changes. The problems of the new media and electronic publications — the importance of which became apparent at, amongst other events, the I International Congress of Electronic Publication held in Barcelona, just four months ago — are viewed as just an increase in information noise and not as a new and revolutionary aspect of the above-mentioned relationship between democracy and information.

(2) While, on the other hand, it is accepted that certain ways of practising journalism today are in crisis and that there is a need to make the move to a more analytical or, at least, more interpretative way of reporting events (a veiled recognition of the information redundancy generated by the traditional media both in the real world and on the Net), on the other, this conclusion does not coincide with what is happening in the Internet where there are media capable of satisfying the need for local, segmented information, tailored to readers’ needs.

(3) Faced with the difficulty of finding journalistic subject matter amongst events occurring in the Net or the innovative communications proposals that the Net gives rise to, they go for an escapist strategy. In Maastricht, almost all the media represented were in favour of this, although some publicly admitted their discomfort when confronted with the new scenario. Indeed, it can’t be easy to reconcile your claims to being a bastion of democratic information, on the one hand, with including the sale of oil and cars as an added value to your presence on the Internet, as a couple of newspapers, from Italy and Germany respectively, admitted.

(4) Discussions about the Internet always take the traditional media presence as its point of departure and not the existence of a recognisable community in which these media can operate. Consequently, the relationship between the traditional media and what we could call its “natural base” — the towns and cities which give rise to them– hardly exists. In other words, there is no strategy to encourage the existence of readers organised around the activities of these media. Not even the EU has suggested a policy of this nature. It is hard to understand, therefore, how one can defend the democratic role of the information supplied by certain media if there are no people participating in this process. Universal access, e-mail for all, flat rates, access to the Internet from any country, etc., are questions that are not addressed in these discussions which should be based on just these very issues.

(5) From the above we can deduce just how difficult it is to explain specific events (which are fundamental to the image of the traditional press) such as the case of Starr who, at one fell swoop did away with the usually central role played by the press – and its journalists. The “Clinton case” has constantly been centred on the Net and The Washington Post and company have hardly had a chance to add juicy details to make a good sequel to “All the President’s Men”. Now is the time to study what to do within this new context where the Internet serves as the channel for thousands of new publications which, either on their own or in combination, represent democracy’s new information potential. It makes no sense, therefore, to examine what is happening on the basis of credentials conceded a priori to one type of media (the printed press) just when quality journalism is emerging as an activity associated to a much more complex environment determined, amongst other things, by interactivity between media and readers (new media and new readers) and their ability to establish networks which facilitate their coming together.

Translation: Bridget King.