Reinventing the Media

Veteran news experts congregate at Vienna’s Burgtheater to engage in a discussion on the role of journalism in democracy

News | Brian Dugan | December 2010 / January 2011

A crowd swarmed the entrance of Vienna’s Burgtheater on Sunday morning Nov. 21, the stairways and halls rumbling with a mix of languages. The event at hand, part of the Institute for Human Sciences European Debates series (IWM Europäische Debatte) had drawn a crowd early on a Sunday morning when most would have preferred to stay in bed. But the all-star cast set to appear apparently had encouraged a number of people to set their alarms. Moderated by Nicholas Lemann, Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, the panel would include Paul Starr, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Professor of Sociology at Princeton University; Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times Bill Keller; Bodo Hombach, Managing Director of WAZ Media Group; and Ezio Mauro, Editor-in-Chief of Italy’s La Repubblica.

"The digital revolution is a mixed blessing for democracy," said Paul Starr in his opening statement as the last of the patrons filled the balconies above the stage. "It has both weakened and revitalised the press." He had taken a familiar route to approach the topic that morning, "Democracy and the Media," listing the dangers of a world deviating from traditional sources of news.

The focus of the discussion was not new to Vienna’s media professionals. The recent International Press Institute Global Conference, held September 13-16 in Vienna, had explored the issue at length (see The Vienna Review, Vol. 8 Issue 8). Over the last half decade, the rising popularity of the Internet, specialized news and social networking sites – simultaneously with declining readership and revenues for newspapers – has provoked an ongoing discussion about the effect these trends will have on modern democracies. One side of the argument saw participants like Starr, discouraged about the state democracy as more and more voters seem to be becoming less and less informed.

Quoting a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Starr made the case that the number of journalists employed in Western countries is shrinking, which represents an underproduction of public goods.

"Democracy needs enlightened citizens," agreed La Repubblica’s Mauro. But from his perspective, the future of print media is not so dire. "Newspapers will survive the Internet," he proclaimed, "as it has survived the telephone, radio, and TV. This is because newspapers screen and select pieces of news that are important to the public."

Hombach’s brought the second strong European voice to the otherwise American-dominated discussion – WAZ publishes over 500 newspapers and magazines in Central Europe and is a partial owner of Austria’s Kurier and Kronen Zeitung. His contributions took on a perhaps more realist tone among a panel of print media apologists, and provided essential insights from the business side of the scenario.

"I have to do what will bring in revenue for the publications," he asserted, though leaving no room for doubt that his company would provide print publications should his readers continue to prefer that method. Above all, he claimed, the news media’s Anpassungsfähigkeit, adaptability, would define who prospers.

The New York Times’ Bill Keller, all too familiar with journalists’ recent despair, chose to play devil’s advocate, challenging some of Starr’s dire predictions with a more optimistic view. He provided statistics that supported his feeling of confidence in high-quality news media. "The New York Times reaches 30 million readers a month online, while NPR [National Public Radio] reaches another 30 million listeners," he said, speaking without notes. "The shouting heads [the often argumentative political pundits] on cable news channels like Fox News reach, at best, 1 million people." In short, despite the fear harbored by intellectual circles, a far larger number of citizens are a still choosing to inform themselves rather than allowing populists to decide for them.

A good portion of the discussion focused on finding sustainable business models to support news organisations in a time of change. To date, media companies have struggled to implement models to utilize the Internet as a channel for revenue and distribution. Part of this struggle can be attributed to the overwhelming number of free news sources on the Internet; a point that some of the participants believed troublesome because younger generations appear unwilling to pay for subscription services when they can get the same information online for free.

"Most of the blogs and independent [online] sources are traceable back to an original source of reporting in the mainstream print media," reasoned Starr, pointing out the fact that someone has to conduct investigations for the news to exist. He argued that there had been a steady decline in the number of investigative journalists, and if the journalists disappeared, those commenting on the news might well not be able to pick up the slack.

"There must be more philanthropic and non-profit support of the press," he asserted, in order to sustain the investigative journalism and high-quality media industries.

In reaction to the concerns about the demise of print media, Keller announced The New York  Times’s plans to reveal the details of their online pay scheme in December, a model that could be a milestone the industry’s revival. Lemann joked, in what wouldn’t be the first humorous moment of the morning, that such a scheme would make him feel like "less of a sucker" for paying $700 a year for his Times print subscription, echoing the problems posed earlier by Starr.

Eventually the moderator steered the panel towards the core theme – media’s role in democracy – proposing the question, what is the outcome of the prevalence of specialized media, like the rapidly-growing financial news service Bloomberg Business News on the public’s ability to participate in a democratic system?

Keller’s concern, mostly for the U.S., was that specialised news sources were reducing the opportunity for general newspapers to inform readers, however inadvertently, through the accidental discovery in a broadsheet news environment. If a reader flips through a paper to get to the sports pages, he or she would unintentionally encounter headlines concerning pressing issues. Readers of specialized publications, of those using the linear searches on the Internet, bypass this possibility entirely.

Another of moderator Lemann’s question on the role of journalism in undemocratic societies provoked Mauro to grandstand against the administration of Silvio Berlusconi.

"The same person who makes the laws, uses the laws to his benefit!" Mauro  said,  angrily reading through prepared remarks that listed the endless scandals and abuses of power surrounding the Italian Prime Minister. Eventually, after numerous failed attempts to steer the discussion back on track, Lemann succeeded in bringing the outburst to a halt, but not before the crowd erupted in applause.

In a show of solidarity, Starr suggested that competition laws need to be in place to prevent a Berlusconi-esque monopoly of power. By using his "journalist sixth sense," to another round of laughter, he guessed Mauro was hoping to see Berlusconi removed by the upcoming no confidence vote in the Italian Parliament.

Bodo Hombach was also quick to warn of dangers of Berlusconi’s monopoly, comparing it to the influence of oligarchs over print and TV media.

"There is no chance for a free democracy without free media," he warned, suggesting that the Council of Europe keep a close eye on both troubling instances.

The debate ended with final, leaving a clear divide between academic cynicism professional optimism. Keller closed once again on a positive note, claiming that we must have faith in citizens and readers in processing information and sustaining democracy; ultimately, he said, it comes down to supply and demand.

"If something is demanded enough by citizens, it will be supplied by the market."

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