Murdoch, the Internet and the Future of Journalism: Grounds for Optimism Detected

Slow-moving traffic ahead: near Pahrump, NV, September 2007

It's been an interesting few days in the Future of Journalism debate. Fortunately, the present for this particular journalist has been uncommonly busy, so I'm only just getting caught up. And the catch-up starts, as so often of late, with Rupert Murdoch.

The News Corp chief was in China this week, reminding delegates to a media conference of his soon-come Sunday Times paywall, and presenting the case for paid content in terms of an apocalyptic battle. Kevin Anderson had great fun flagging up the contradictions between what Murdoch is saying now with what he said four years ago - at a time when the Australian was apparently undergoing a Damascene conversion, admitting mistakes in the way News Corp had allowed itself to misunderstand new media and leaving itself lagging way behind even some of the least forward-thinking of its competitors. I like Kevin's writing and I like the precision with which he places his skewer; but his aim is to flag up the voltes-face, not to tell us what might be going on in KRM's head. For that, we have to go elsewhere.

In a piece that must have been written some weeks ago for the print edition of Vanity Fair, Michael Wolff dissects the immediate anomalies as Murdoch builds his paywall. There is no-one better placed to speculate on the News Corp boss's thought processes: granted extensive interviews for his fascinating, must-read book, Wolff has probably spent more time talking with Murdoch in the past two years than some members of the mogul's own family, and almost certainly all but a handful of News Corp's most senior staff. It's difficult, then, to argue with the conclusions - that, for Murdoch, this is absolutely a fight-to-the-death scenario; and that the 79-year-old is determined to rage to the last, not fade away quietly into the sunset of superannuated retirement.

Key to Wolff's commentary is the notion of Murdoch's devotion to the very concept of a newspaper - something that came screaming from the pages of the book - and the Digger's capacity for sustaining blow after blow to his businesses if he feels that he'll be the last newspaperman standing at the end of the fight. Murdoch must take a wry delight in his new-found position as journalism's white knight - and there's also something heroic in Wolff's depiction of a cornered boxer trying the Ali rope-a-dope, soaking up the pain until his adversaries tire and he can move in for the kill. But the real heroes of the emerging story aren't going to be newspaper overlords and media barons - they're going to be individual journalists, or people who don't choose to label themselves as such but who perform the role all the same.

The most cogent and sane piece of opinion I've read in ages about where we are, where we're going and how we might get there as an industry came this week from Adam Tinworth. It's also the most uplifting, optimistic and empowering piece on these topics I think I've ever read, and that's what I like about it so much. I'm sick and tired of reading the two dominant versions of this narrative - either "let's turn the clock back and pretend the internet never happened," or "there's no need for journalism because we'll all tweet or photoblog the news and the world will be a better place when nobody involved in the process can make a living from it" - or pieces filled with point-scoring and problem-finding that are short on practicalities or solutions. Adam injects some common sense into this overheated debate, and points to the vast middle ground between those well-staked-out but equally indefensible positions. This isn't the end of times, unless we all conspire to make it so: it's a time filled with uncertainties, for sure, but if we can only make sure we see it in the right light, we might realise we're standing on the threhold of an age brimming with new possibilities.

The other person who's inspired me to try to be a better journalist this week is Michael Yon. If you're not reading Michael's work, you really should be. A former US special forces soldier, Michael realised that the news he was getting from the front lines wasn't ringing true, wasn't connected to the reailties his former comrades were telling him about, so he decided to go back to war in a new guise: as a truly independent journalist. He finances himself, partially through donations to his ad-free blog, writing books and selling stories to established media outlets as and when the opportunity arises. He's in Afghanistan now, still fighting for the right to tell the real story of the war, still free to write about what he sees going on without worrying whose agenda he should be following.

I freely admit I don't have anywhere near Michael's courage - neither to throw myself into the thick of battle, nor to give over my future to a business model that relies almost totally on the understanding and generosity of my readers. But his approach undeniably presents one of the many possible futures journalism is only now beginning to discover. If we can find a few hundred more Yons, each forging new ways of financing the telling of the stories they know have to be put out there, willing to hold themselves accountable to both reader and subject, treating this both as a job worth doing and one worth doing well, then our industry will have a future at least the equal of its past.


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