|Content providers in the information factory: Foretaste of the new journalism|
|Written by Marie Bénilde|
|Wednesday, 03 September 2008 19:00|
Traditional media are shedding staff and those that remain, or are recruited, are expected to be multimedia performers, online 24/7 to titillate and amuse websurfers. What happened to journalism?
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Frédéric Lefebvre, MP for Hauts-de-Seine (the wealthy Paris suburbs formerly presided over by Nicolas Sarkozy) and spokesman of the governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is the party's voice on media policy. He recently accused Agence France Presse (AFP) of failing to cover the conviction of Ségolène Royal, the Socialist presidential candidate in 2007, in an employment-law related case.
This said a lot about the way that French circles of power understand the influence of new media. Lefebvre was suggesting that there was a problem with AFP because it didn't relay his party's spin, and the problem was less about the agency's command of the agenda of the established media than about its provision of news content for the websites of the major internet service providers. Lefebvre complained that "AFP determines the editorial lines of Orange or Yahoo, and French internet users get their news from these sites" (1).
The websites of Yahoo, Orange and Google are among the most popular news sites in France, along with those of the major dailies (lemonde.fr and lefigaro.fr). These new digital media players, which exist only on the internet or as outgrowths of telecommunications companies, merely consolidate content from other sites and wire service reports, whereas the traditional media use dedicated staff for their online production.
The new outlets don't really have an editorial line. Since the beginning of June, Orange's website (orange.fr), accessed by 15.6 million a day, has used journalists from Le Figaro, owned by the UMP senator and industrialist Serge Dassault, to do a daily political interview. It uses journalists from Radio Classique, owned by another businessman, Bernard Arnault, for interviews with company directors and players in the financial world. Orange's homepage, which boasts information on services, sports and leisure, delegates its news section to AFP, and web users are invited to react to the news.
Backed by the $80m turnover of its powerful parent company France Télécom, Orange is positioning itself as a media provider in its own right. The company has bought part of the screening rights for the French football championship, as well as exclusive rights to broadcast films produced by Gaumont and Warner, and series from the US Home Box Office (HBO) television network. These contracts will enable it to fill its package of six film and television series channels starting this autumn. Since 2 July Orange also distributes a package of 60 satellite channels, a rival to Canalsat, run by the Canal+ company.
Orange expects to fund itself through advertising while drawing on the subscriber base of its "triple play" package - combined internet, telephone and television access. Its emergence symbolises the revolution in the way information is delivered digitally. The traditional media hopes to find salvation in the same business model, channelling diverse content towards multiple outlets.
Under its director of news, Jean-Claude Dassier, the TF1 group, owner of France's most-watched terrestrial channel, has been bringing together the newsrooms of TF1, its partner news channel La Chaine Info (LCI), and LCI's website (lci.fr), to provide pictures and products for a single outlet serving all the channels. The Lagardère group has set up Lagardère News, which it describes as an "information factory" for all its newsrooms and websites. The journalists' trade unions of Lagardère subsidiaries - the broadcaster Europe 1, the magazine Paris Match, the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche and the magazine Elle - point out the risk that each outlet's identity will be diluted to provide more content, with less quality.
Websites which consolidate content (especially video) get the most hits, but at what cost? The exponents of the style justify the process by the need to save on costs - the revenue from the internet advertising boom doesn't yet make up for that lost by traditional outlets. The culture minister, Christine Albane, has announced a new assembly for the press for this autumn and it seems that a new kind of journalist is under construction. The information professional will be a multi-outlet and multitask worker. On paper or screen, with a microphone or a camera, a journalist must now provide content: a range of products, many of them available free. The journalist is also required to stimulate, fill out and, occasionally, fact-check user contributions to the website.
In the near future, mastery of a digital camera and video editing, or the ability to anchor a television debate, will be more valued than in-depth knowledge of a subject or reporting ability. Many newsrooms already expect their journalists to contribute sound, video or exclusive information to their website for a modest fee ($71-100 a month at the national daily Le Parisien-Aujourd'hui), or for free (as at the leading regional daily Ouest-France).
Those in favour say this will reinvigorate the media's relationship with users - formerly readers - whose viewpoint has been disregarded for too long; the authoritative voice delivering its wisdom based on near-exclusive access to wire services or institutions will be replaced by "conversational journalism". The phrase was coined by Pascal Riché, the editor of the news site Rue89, who enjoys "horizontal, open, interactive and iterative" exchange with the reader (2). That might seem viable for new players on the web. For traditional media it means new constraints, and a potential rift between journalists proficient at exploiting new technologies and a few professionals who know more about research and fact-checking than online presentation.
This digital turn is probably inevitable if the historic media are to survive. But as is true in traditional journalism, the quest for ever-greater audience numbers has perverse side effects. As the established media become picture aggregators and rumour-distributors, they give in to what Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, head of Lagardère News, called the "dictatorship of emotion" and the "immediacy of appearance". (Elkabbach, then director of Europe 1, recently announced the death of the TV presenter Pascal Sevran on the website two weeks before he actually died.)
Most news sites fear losing their marketable target audience who click on for the "buzz" (3). The press is the chief mover of the vulgarisation of politics and its descent into showbi zeven as it complains about it.
Audience-hungry online journalism totally deregulates the profession. The journalist hired to provide instant online reaction drowns in the flow of news, reveals only what is already known, shows only what is already being watched and reacts only to whatever generates reaction. Informational hierarchy no longer exists in a cyberworld in which the most valuable currency is the latest unpublished titbit. A prime example is the mostly audience-generated website Lepost.fr, edited by Le Monde, with its anecdotal news and videos. "What in this automated flux matters?" is the last question the digital-era journalist is supposed to ask. Managerial discourse praises a profession regenerated by its ability to load an information train and route it on its way - more like a stationmaster than an engine driver. The train won't stop and no one knows where it's going.
But online journalism also includes independent websites that played a major part in the successful campaign to reject the European constitutional treaty in 2005. There are new channels of communication and alternatives to dominant discourse, challenging the system of collusion with, and enslavement to, capitalist, political and economic powers. The crisis of market-based journalism and its fall from public grace can be traced to the emergence of free and critical discourse on the internet. Will this spread to the websites of the established media, and encourage its journalists to be more daring? Given how narrowly the shareholder defines the scope for expression, it's doubtful.
Media bosses bet on audience accumulation from sites stuffed with video. In practice, they satisfy an insatiable appetite for multimedia content by computers connected to broadband networks governed by the logic of telecommunications. Websites like this, often thought up by IT departments, move ever further away from a traditional understanding of journalism, especially since the business model of the press encourages cost-cutting. This is the price to be paid as long as advertising revenue on the internet fails to counterbalance advertising losses in print.
Digital compression means journalistic compression. In May 2007 the Hearst group announced that it would shed 100 journalists from the San Francisco Chronicle, only to launch an advertising-funded video service on its website six months later. "Those told to leave are highly competent journalists who devote themselves to... covering the truth, in a spirit of total independence and without fear or favour," says Neil Henry, a journalism student at Berkeley. Staff cuts in the newsrooms of US dailies are contagious: 200 have been laid off at the San José Mercury News, 100 at the New York Times and another 100 at the San Diego Union Tribune. Since the year 2000 the staff of the Los Angeles Times has shrunk from 1,200 to 700. Instead of journalists, media bosses prefer those who can deliver responsive audiences. The talkback industry is just beginning.
(1) "Questions d'info", La Chaîne parlementaire - Assemblée nationale (LCP-AN), with Frédéric Lefebvre, 18 May 2008.
[Source: Le Monde Diplomatique. http://mondediplo.com/2008/09/13media. Marie Bénilde is a journalist and author of On achète bien les cerveaux. La publicité et les medias (Raisons d'agir, Paris, 2007).]