Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pulp fiction reaches the papers

What should we do about newspapers? They are increasingly controlled by companies that are focused primarily on short-term profit. Their pages are dominated by infotainment and lifestyle features and in many papers the content has been forced to the edges by full-page and half-page advertising. Experienced journalists are being fired and ever more content is syndicated with a resulting drop in diversity of opinion. The attempt to maintain a semblance of political independence and objectivity in commentary seems to have gone out of fashion. The German public intellectual Jürgen Habermas has written an excellent article on this question (see 'Media, Markets and Consumers: the Quality Press as the Backbone of the Political Sphere' in Europe The Faltering Project (2009).

Newspaper publishers argue that the problem lies on the demand rather than the supply side. They believe that the public is losing interest in serious political, economic or social analysis and journalism. Circulation is all that counts, and they cannot make people read (and pay for) content that does not interest them. Some commentators argue that the blogosphere and other new-media sources are compensating for the decline in serious journalism in the traditional press. Others are skeptical about such claims.

Meanwhile an information divide is emerging in many western societies. A small elite is aware of how information and opinion is controlled and manipulated. Its members use the few remaining sources of quality journalism and information to further cement their power. They are well enough educated and experienced to cut through the infotainment flood. The great mass of the population seems happy to surrender any potential role in the intellectual and political structuring of the society in which they live. The entertainment of superficial and short-lived "scandals" - usually about "them up there" - suffices to satisfy the desire to feel "informed". The attention span is short and the next breaking celebrity divorce or restaurant review is only a flick of a page away.

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